Dylan took Cat’s bag out of the trunk, handing it off to the player with a grin. "Thanks for a wonderful weekend."
Cat smiled, completely charmed by her lover. "Do you want to come in?"
"Nothing I’d like better, but I have to go home to get ready for a meeting."
"Horace and a few other of his cronies. They’re going to give me better ideas on how to handle the team." She smirked, knowing she would hear only half of what they said, remember a quarter of that and care about even less. "No big deal. It’s my bimonthly dog and pony show."
"They don’t pay you enough for putting up with that bullshit."
"Tell me. If I didn’t love what I do, I swear I’d go teach high school ball somewhere."
"Well," Cat sighed, feeling truly sorry for her partner. "Try not to let him get to you."
"Oh don’t worry, Sweetheart. The last person in the world that’s going to get to me is Horace. Why don’t we have dinner tonight?"
"Sounds great. Let me cook for you. Come back around seven and we’ll have a quiet night in."
"Perfect." Dylan leaned over, giving the blonde a kiss on the cheek. "See you tonight."
Dylan didn’t even bother to drop her bag at her house before heading over to Horace’s office. She hated these meetings, but they were part of her contract and nothing short of death was acceptable for missing them.
Locking her car and setting the alarm, Dylan noticed that the parking lot was empty of cars belonging to the other Horace idiots who regularly attended these meetings. "Oh this can’t be good," she mumbled under hear breath, heading into the building.
Exiting the elevator, Dylan took a deep breath before heading into the office. She hated this shit. She hated Horace and she hated the hoops he made her and the team jump through.
She knew in her heart that the only reason she didn’t tell him to take his job and shove it where a basketball won’t bounce is because of Cat and the other players who worked so damn hard to bring the Badgers out of near last place and put them in the playoffs. She knew that without her as a buffer a lot of women on the team would be having huge problems with the owner.
Horace knew that not all women who played professional basketball were lesbians, but that didn’t stop him from assuming that deep down they really wanted to be. The only one he had confirmation on was Cat and he already wanted to make her life miserable. The more she thought about him the madder she got and by the time she actually made it to the reception area it was all she could do to keep from shaking.
She did manage to smirk just a bit about the middle-aged secretary sitting behind the desk. It seemed that Horace’s wife wasn’t the wilting flower she pretended to be. The bimbo from the plane crash was fired about a week after they had returned and she had been replaced by this lovely woman who was married, and well aware of what a prick her new boss was, but she was damn good at her job and Dylan liked her a lot.
"Afternoon, Mrs. Garrison."
"Good afternoon Ms. Lambert. Mr. Johnson is expecting you."
"Oh goody for me." Dylan offered sarcastically. The secretary chuckled and nodded her understanding. "Could you take that pen and jab it in my eye?"
"Sorry," she apologized with a smile. "You have lovely eyes and it would be a shame to mar them because of him."
Dylan sighed, nodding as she walked toward the office door. "Things I’d rather do than go into his office. Root canal. Bamboo shoots under my fingernails. Frontal lobotomy."
With a deep drawn breath she turned the knob and opened the good.
She smiled to herself when a quiet ‘Good luck’ floated in behind her.
Horace was sitting behind his massive desk flipping through a file folder. There was cigar smoldering in the ashtray and a glass about half full of what Dylan figure was some cheap whiskey.
He looked up at her, grunted what she assumed was supposed to be acknowledgment of her presence and he gestured to one of the chairs facing his desk.
Taking a seat, she waited until he was ready to talk. This was one of his tactics that he used to control someone he felt was uncontrollable. Finally he looked up and sneered, "I should fire your ass."
"You heard me the first time. So you thought you could fuck the blonde and I wouldn’t find out."
If Horace’s words in any way shocked Dylan she didn’t let it show. She just continued to watch him, hoping in a perverse sort of way he’d just have a heart attack right there in that chair.
"Not even gonna deny it, huh?"
"Why should I? You obviously seem to think you know what’s going on."
"Yeah," he nodded, glaring at her. "I know what’s going on. I know you’re banging the little bitch."
His smirk was truly insufferable. "Oh yeah." With a flick of his fingers, he sent a sheet of paper sliding across the desk to stop in front of her. As she scanned the page, anger burned in the pit of her belly, causing her jaw to set and her eyes to blaze.
It was a mock-up of the front page of the Weekly World Ledger, a national gossip rag that hung out with the others of its smutty genre in the checkout aisles of most grocery chains, drugstores, and airport lounges. In lurid block letters, its headline screamed out "TEMPTATION IN THE TROPICS! BIKINI-CLAD BASKETBALL BEAUTIES IN LESBIAN LIP LOCK!!!"
Beneath the headline was a grainy, fuzzy picture of two figures—unfortunately all too recognizable despite the poor quality of the photography. The shorter of the two had her hands familiarly on the hips of the taller, and was standing on her toes in the sand, head tilted up for a kiss.
"So," she remarked as casually as she could manage, "is this what I have to look forward to when I go to pick up my groceries tomorrow?"
Johnson’s smirk broadened. "Well, I’d say that was entirely up to you."
Chuckling, Horace clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, lifting his legs and placing his feet on his expansive desk. "Either way, the dyke is fired. You, however…."
"Fire her, and I walk, Horace."
"Do that, and I can assure you that you and the little skank you’re screwing won’t even be able to get a job coaching preschoolers, much less--."
The rest of his words were cut off as Dylan came over the desk at him. Pushing his legs off the desk, she grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and yanked forward so that they were nose to nose. "She’s not ‘bitch’, she’s not ‘whore’, she’s not ‘skank’. Her name is Catherine. Use it!"
"That’s it. I hope you like bulldagger givin’ it to you up the ass, Lambert, because that’s all you’re gonna be getting once I have that ass thrown in jail."
"Go ahead, you bigoted little bastard. Try it. And maybe while the cops are here, we can chat about how you set Cat up to be beaten bloody in the parking lot of your arena, hmm?"
It was only a suspicion, never spoken aloud, but the guess was more than confirmed by the sudden paleness of Johnson’s jowly face. "I don’t know what you’re talking about," he replied in a voice that suggested exactly the opposite.
The realization caused her hands to tighten on his jacket but she resisted, by the very slimmest of margins, lifting him bodily out of the chair and slamming him through the expensive paneling of his office wall. "I think you know exactly what I’m talking about, you maggot! Exactly!"
With great effort, she forced herself to relax her hold on him. Once she was sure her legs would hold her, she moved back across the desk, stood, straightened her clothing, and walked to the door. "I don’t have to," she replied, pinning him with a gaze that made him swallow hard. "You just proved it for me."
She had gotten the door open and was just starting to step through it when his voice floated over her shoulder. "You will pay for this. You realize that, don’t you?"
"You do what you have to do, Horace," she replied, not bothering to look at him. "You just do what you have to."
And then she left.
The shakes hit her when she was halfway home, and she had to pull off to the side of the busy road before her jumped-up reflexes got her into an accident. The little voice that had taken up residence inside her head was screaming for her to turn the car around, go back to Johnson’s office, rip his spine out through his throat, and beat him to death with it. The more sensible, more rational part of her mind diffidently reminded her that she wouldn’t be much good to either herself or Cat from Death Row. The team’s need for her wasn’t even mentioned.
That part was hard to hear for the blood of anger driving through her veins and pounding at her eardrums, giving her a headache that would drop Shaquille O’Neal at a hundred paces. Clenching her fists and jaw only increased the adrenaline-fueled tremors, so, with great strength of will, she forced herself to completely relax, allowing her head to drop back against the padded headrest and closing her eyes.
Digging into her pocket, she brought out her small cellphone. One button pressed, and she held it up to her ear, waiting for the annoying ringing to be replaced by a human voice. "Mac, it’s Dylan."
"Yo, D! Long time, no talk!" His voice was staticy and crackly on the line. "Where are—wait, aren’t you supposed to be at the big bull meeting?"
"What, did it end early or something?"
"In a manner of speaking." She drew the pads of her thumb and index finger over the tight band of muscle between and above her eyes, seeking to work out the headache before it consumed her.
"Define that, please." Mac’s voice went deep and somber. "Did something happen?"
"I need you to do me a favor, Mac."
"Wait. Hold up, here, big D. What the hell happened?"
"I suspect you’ll be hearing all about it soon enough, Mac. Let’s just say I almost popped the little prick’s head off and leave it at that, hmm?"
Absolute silence at the other end. Not even the static pulses dared to intrude.
Then, "Jesus Christ," blown out on a breath of air. "Please tell me you’re speaking metaphorically, Dylan."
"Look, I really don’t have time for this, Mac."
"Make time, Dylan. Tell me what’s going on! Please!"
"Not now, Mac. I can’t. Like I said, you’ll probably hear about it soon anyway."
"I need your help. Please."
Another silence on the line, this one so long that Dylan came within a hairsbreadth of simply hanging up and dealing with things on her own.
"What do you need." Mac’s voice was resigned, but steady.
Taking in a deep breath, she began to tell him.
The scent of home struck her as she walked through the door that Cat held open for her. Stopping in the entryway, she closed her eyes and breathed deep, letting the cherished smells calm her from the inside where she needed it most.
A hand on her arm caused her to open her eyes, and, reaching out, she gathered Cat in and held her closely, tightly, against her, resting her cheek atop the fair hair. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you too, sweetheart," Cat murmured, listening to her lover’s racing heart beneath the thin cotton shirt she wore. She slowly pulled back enough to stare into the pale face and haunted eyes of her lover. "What’s wrong, Dylan?"
"Hon, you’re as pale as a ghost and your heart is racing a mile a minute." Her expression sobered as a scowl drew down her brows. "It’s Johnson, isn’t it."
With a sigh, Dylan released Cat and nodded. "Yeah."
"That bastard. What the hell is it this time?! Is he blackmailing you again??"
"He tried to," Dylan admitted, walked over to the couch and slumped gracelessly down into it, hands splayed out limply between her thighs. "I refused." I almost tore his fucking head off too, she thought wryly, deciding not to mention that little tidbit to her bristling partner. That, and a few other things, I think. For now, at least. Until I’m sure, one way or the other.
Cat stared at her, hands on hips, green eyes angry and blazing, and one eyebrow cocked in silent query.
Dylan sighed again. "Some jackass photographer from one of those weekly gossip rags caught us on the beach sometime last week. They sent him a mock-up of the front page. He showed it to me."
"Jesus Christ!" Cat exploded, dropping her arms and beginning to pace. "Why can’t that fucking asshole just leave us alone?? Are we bothering anyone? No! Are we bothering him?! No!! What the…."
"Cat, calm down."
"I won’t calm down, Dylan! This shit has got to stop!! How in the hell are we supposed to live our lives with that bastard sticking his nose into every nook and cranny? He’s a fucking voyeur!"
"I know. I know. He pissed me off too, believe me. But…I think I called his bluff."
"I threatened to walk."
The shock on Cat’s face was almost comical. "You…what?"
"Just what I said," Dylan replied, rising from the couch and slipping her hands into her pockets. "Cat, he threatened to fire you for breaking the morals clause in your contract. I told him that if he fired you, I’d walk."
"Dylan, you can’t…."
"I can, and I will, Cat. I’m tired of Johnson trying to run my life. I’m more tired of him trying to ruin yours. I’m not playing his whore anymore. If he wants to publish that photo of us, and the piece of crap article that goes with it, he can go right ahead. I don’t care anymore."
Walking over to Cat, she reached out and took her lover’s hands. "What I do care about, Cat, is you. Us. It’s more important than whatever image he wants the public to buy. It’s more important than my sponsors, my contract, and my damn career. So let him do what he wants to. He can’t hurt me anymore."
Cat looked up at her in wonder, her eyes shining. "You…." She swallowed. "You really mean that, don’t you."
"Yes. I do." Leaning slowly down, she brushed her lips against Cat’s, then returned, deepening the kiss until Johnson, careers, and even dinner, was forgotten.
Cat watched Dylan in her office as the team prepared for the game. Only Cat knew about the turmoil going on in her lover’s mind over the newest developments with Horace, the rest of the team was blissfully ignorant of the problems brewing not only for their coach and Catherine, but for the team as a whole. Cat smiled to herself as she straightened her new brace, knowing that Dylan wouldn’t have it any other way. Dylan was first and foremost a professional and a damn good coach. She would find a way to deal with Horace and put an end to his manipulations and she would do her best to keep the rest of the team sheltered from it.
As far as Dylan Lambert was concerned, it was bad enough that Cat was being threatened; there was no need for the entire team to feel the stress caused by the bastard that signed the checks. Sitting at her desk, Dylan flipped through the playbook, pretending to be concentrating on the game they were about to play, but fighting her desire to march up to Horace’s skybox and toss him out the window onto the court below.
She knew that all the team needed to do was take the championship and they would have some ammunition to use against the owner should he decide to go public with his threats. People might have problems with gays and lesbians in general, but they loved a winner and they especially loved sports heroes. A win would mean that both she and Catherine would have options past the Badgers.
As Dylan stated down at the playbook, she hoped that she was right. Her career had actually been over since the injury. She tried to tell herself that coaching was the next best thing, but the truth was, in her heart it wasn’t. She loved the game and loved coaching these women, but for a player of Dylan’s caliber, anything other than playing was settling. And she hated to settle. It grated on her nerves, made her antsy and out of sorts, and no one, especially Cat, deserved to see that side of her.
With a determined breath she gathered up the playbook, and her clipboard and went into the locker room where everyone was waiting for the pre-game pep talk. Dylan couldn’t help but smile as she looked at the expectant faces staring at her and waiting for her traditional words of wisdom.
She could only think of three. "Give ‘em hell."
The tip off sent the ball to their opponent and Cat knew that a win was going to be tough to come by. Teams didn’t get this far without being fierce competitors. Cat watched as Angela managed to take the ball and head it back down the court. Even as Cat charged to her own position she could tell by the way Tippens moved that the center was going for the three point shot, and the roar of the crowd drowned out everything else as Cat guarded against someone from the Spartan team trying something silly like taking that ball from Angela. Even as she turned to move back into offensive mode, she took the time to wiggle her eyebrows at the Spartan guard who cursed when the scoreboard registered the Badgers three.
Dylan’s eyes tracked up to the skybox where Horace sat, drinking and watching the game with far too much interest in her opinion. He had never before kept his eyes locked firmly on the court like he was today and the hair raised on Dylan’s neck when she realized her was watching every move Cat made.
"Bastard," she mumbled as she turned to watch Cat with an assist to Chaney that brought the Badgers another two points.
Somewhere, from deep inside, the Spartans decided that this was not the game they came to play and even though every member of the Badgers played the best game they ever had, when the half time buzzer sounded they were down 33 to 22.
Even as the medical staff checked over strains and minor sprains, Dylan took the floor in the center of the locker room.
"It’s okay, they just changed their strategy midway through. So we’re going to change ours and go back out there and kick their butts."
Everyone one agreed and paid close attention as Dylan took her place by the dry board. "They’ve got weaknesses in their defense. All we have to do is exploit those weaknesses and turn them into holes. The first thing we need to do is concentrate our efforts on making that Amazon forward of theirs work harder. She has a tendency to lose her concentration if we force her to do two or three things at once, so I want you to be giving her five or six things to do."
Her hands flew across the board, diagramming plays and defenses that would play on the big forward’s weakness while shoring up their own weaknesses and, hopefully, turning them into points. Her manner was quick, concise and crisp, and her hair, worn down and free for the occasion, fluttered over her shoulders like a pennant banner. Cat decided she liked the look, and paid more attention to the coach than to what she was saying. That was alright, though. She had the words memorized anyway.
When the second half began, Dylan had all the players so charged up, their energy could have lit up Manhattan.
Their coach watched with a great deal of pride as they broke the Spartan defense and ripped their offense into tiny little pieces. Coming back from an eleven-point deficit was going to be a trick but the coach had faith and as she stood there shouting orders and words of encouragement, not once did she bother to look up to the skybox. Right now Horace Johnson wasn’t even a blip on her radar.
The Spartans were becoming increasingly aggressive as the second half ticked away, earning shouts of protest not only from Dylan and the other members of the coaching staff, but from the fans as well. Caulley, in particular, was coming dangerously close to earning the Badgers a technical with her catcalls and her striding right up to the sidelines, almost daring the ref to throw a T at her. Dylan managed to pull the red-faced coach back by one arm, and the look she delivered her assistant had Caulley briefly considering another line of work. Stoking the fires of Hell while Satan’s minions whipped her bloody, perhaps.
When one of the Spartan forwards shoved Cat, Dylan’s hands went up for a time out and she called everyone to the bench before a fight could get started. While the tired players sipped water, and toweled sweaty heads and shoulders, Dylan knelt down and got all their attentions focused on her. "Don’t let them bait you. Let them play rough if they want, but don’t fall for it. We’ve dealt with this before and we’ll deal with it again. You’re all making them nervous and they have to work for this now. Let them work."
"We’re working pretty hard out there too Coach." Chaney offered before slugging down more water.
"Yeah I know, and you’re doing a hell of a job. When we win this one it’s going to be by the skins of our teeth, but you’re going to feel great when you take them down. Just don’t let them take you down with them."
The whistle blew sending them back to the court. The Spartans continued to vary and change their methods of play, causing the Badgers to struggle to keep up even after their tough comeback in the beginning of the half.
With the score tied 40/40 Cat could feel the strain of trying to keep up the blistering pace that was set, but she better than anyone knew exactly what was on the line and she decided that she was going to help her team win this game, or die trying.
Stealing the ball, she sent it down court to Angela who passed it off to Mackey who in a pinch sent it back to Cat. Cat looked for someone, anyone who could take the ball; instead she found an opening and charged through it making a mad dash for a lay-up of any kind and hoping like hell to hit the net.
Even as she let go of the ball she lost her balance and sight of the ball, coming down hard to the floor, she listened to her teammates and the crowd to see if she had made the basket. When she saw Tippens smiling face leaning over her, she had the answer.
"You okay short stuff?"
"I think so," Cat groaned, taking Angela’s extended hand. Once she was on her feet she walked off the pain in her back, and, glancing up at Dylan’s concerned face, she shook her head to indicate that she wasn’t injured and just had the wind knocked out of her.
She coughed and blew out a cleansing breath before she took a moment to determine what play was being run and finding her position. Over the course of the season the team had become adept at giving a member time to catch up, even when the ball was in play. It was just understood that even in the heat of the moment there were moments when you needed to take an extra breath.
The 40/42 score didn’t last long and suddenly Cat found herself looking at a 43/42 score and cursing a blue streak, even if it was in her head. Looking at the game clock she knew that the next eight minutes would make or break the Badgers, Dylan and even her own career. They needed this win to get to the championships and they all wanted it.
It had to happen.
She called a second time out and led the team back to the bench, where Dylan looked at her with some concern.
"No, I’m mad."
When the rest of the team gathered round, Cat took the playbook and dropped it to the floor. "Forget the book. Sometimes you just can’t play by the book. So here’s what we’re going to do…"
Dylan stepped back and just watched Cat work.
Cat looked at the clock.
Ten seconds to go.
Badgers in control of the ball with Angela leading the charge to the net.
Cat knew the most important thing right now was protecting Angela, making sure she got to make that three point shot. Every member of the team seemed to be working on telepathy as they formed a protective circle around their forward. Even as the Spartans tried to find a hole to get through the Badgers managed to close them up before anyone could even get close to Tippens.
At the three point line, with three seconds left on the clock, Cat turned to find a forearm coming directly at her throat, which she couldn’t get away from. Seeing stars as she fell back, she could barely make out the form of a Spartan player knocking Angela off her feet.
There seemed to be only a slight buzzing in Cat’s ears and she wondered briefly if she hit her head when she hit the floor, then she realized the buzzing was the roar of the crowd and through the tears in her eyes she can make out 63/65 score.
We did it. Cat smiled as she closed her eyes.
She knew she hadn’t been there long when she opened her eyes and found Dylan leaning over her.
"How bad are you?"
"Hey," Cat smiled, "We won didn’t we."
"I mean hurt."
"I don’t think I am. Help me up."
Dylan pulled Cat to her feet, sheltering her, since was a bit unsteady on her feet. "Are you sure you’re not hurt?"
"No, I’m okay, just banged up." Cat smiled at the coach, but then noticed the medical staff hovering over Angela. "Shit. What did they do?"
"We’re not sure yet." Dylan released Cat, who went to her teammate and knelt down by her head.
"Hey Tipper," Cat used Angela’s rarely used nickname. "How ya doing?"
"I’m good, but my leg seems to have opinions of its own."
"Well, no matter what happens, you won the game, hero." Nudging her friend with an elbow earned the grin she’d been hoping for, and she tousled Angela’s hair as the med techs rushed in and deposited the downed woman on a stretcher.
Dylan sat in the hospital waiting room watching as every member of the Badgers paced back and forth waiting for the final word on their injured player.
"Well hell," Chaney sat down in a chair across from Dylan. "If her ACL is torn, we may as well kiss the championship good bye."
"No way," Cat straightened up from her spot against a wall. "If her ACL is torn that bites and it sucks for Angela and we’ll have to go after the championship. It won’t be easy and it won’t be fun but we can win it. We have to, for her. For us."
Dylan stood and stretched, it had been a long night and her plans of buying her team dinner and then a quiet night with Cat had gone down the tubes the second the team doctor had made a preliminary diagnosis of a torn ACL. After that the entire team demanded to go to the hospital and wait. "Cat’s right. We have to win it and we will. For us."
Stripping off her scrub gown and gloves, Kelly Norton opened the door to the treatment room and beckoned Dylan inside. Once the coach’s broad shoulders had cleared the swinging doors, Norton grabbed hold of her elbow and led her to a quieter corner of the room, away from the exam table and the techs who were fitting Tippens with a heavy brace.
"Good news or bad news?" Norton asked, keeping an eye on the action in the center of the room.
"C’mon, Kelly, I don’t have time to play word games. Just tell me how she is."
"Alright. It’s her ACL, but it’s not torn, just badly sprained. She’ll need a brace and crutches, and a shitload of physical therapy, but I don’t have to cut on her, and if she follows my orders, she’ll play again."
"Thank God," Dylan breathed, genuinely relieved.
"But not this season."
"That’s fine. I don’t care about this season, Kelly. I care about her career."
Norton met the intense blue eyes and nodded, her own gaze softening perceptibly. "I know, D. I know. She’s gonna be plenty sore for awhile, but she’ll be okay."
"Good. Can I see her?"
"She’s kinda doped up and probably won’t make any sense, but sure."
The techs backed away as Dylan moved forward to the table and looked down at her fallen player. Angela was a little pale, and her leg looked as if it had been through the meat grinder, but otherwise, she looked better than Dylan could have hoped.
When she saw her coach peering down at her, a big, morphine-enhanced grin curled her lips. "Heya, Coach!" she sang, trying to lift an arm, then giving up when it didn’t want to work, and letting it flop down to the bed. "Howzzz thangs?"
"Things are pretty good," Dylan replied, trying to keep her expression serious.
"Thass good." Her eyes widened. "Gosh, you sure are pretty, Coach! Did anyone ever tell you that? That you’re reallll pretty?? Did they?"
Dylan could feel the heat of the blush crawling up from her neck, and glared at the others in the room who were snickering at her. They quickly found other things to do. When she looked back down at her player, Angela looked as if she was getting ready to cry. "Hey. What’s wrong?"
"I ain’t gonna be able to play no more," she mumbled, sounding very much like a three-year old.
"Sure you will," Dylan countered, taking the young woman’s hand. "You’ve only got a sprain, not a tear. Didn’t the Doc tell you that?"
Dylan looked over at Norton, who nodded.
"You’re gonna be fine, Angela," the coach said. "A brace, crutches, some PT, and before you know it, you’ll be sinking threes again just like you did tonight."
Big, round, innocent eyes met hers, hope shining in them. "You really think so?"
"I know so."
"Gosh, Coach Goddess, you’re real swell. And pretty too." Tippens giggled and tried to lift her arms again. It was a lost cause, and after a final squeeze of her hand, Dylan backed away, gesturing for Norton to follow her back to the corner.
"What’s up?" the doc asked.
"Dobbins. She’s the only one we have who can play her position, and she’s been suffering back spasms since the Pistol’s game. Do whatever you need to do for her, but make sure she can play tomorrow night."
"I don’t know, D. She’s been in a lot of pain…."
"Just do it."
Norton blinked, then nodded. "I’ll see what I can do," she said tightly.
"You can let the others in to see her for a couple minutes if you want," Norton called out to Dylan’s retreating back. She received a brisk nod in response as the coach hit the door and disappeared back into the waiting room.
A minute later, a flood of players entered the room, talking excitedly.
Back in the now empty waiting room, Dylan dug her cellphone from her pocket, flipped it open, and punched a button with her thumb. She held the phone to her ear until the line was answered by a sleepy, annoying voice. "Manny? We need to talk. Now."
"And that was the buzzer, Lori, bringing to close a, well, I guess you would have to call it ‘inspiring’ half of basketball."
"Inspiring indeed, Ted. With the Badgers’ great defensive shot blocker and outside threat Angela Tippens out with an injured knee, Lola Dobbins has been doing her best to fit in, but you could tell several times out there that her back was giving her a lot of trouble. Frankly, I’m surprised Coach Lambert kept her in the entire half."
"Well, Lori, it’s not that surprising when you look at their roster and see that there really isn’t anybody to replace her with. Thorne’s been having trouble with bursitis in her shooting arm, and I don’t think Dylan is comfortable going up against a team as all-around tall as the Lightning with three women in there under 5’6". Especially with Cat Hodges, their outstanding point guard and court general, hobbled with that sore knee."
"Very true. What is surprising, I think, is that the Badgers, the little team that could, has actually managed to make somewhat of a game of it out there today. Yes, they’re losing by fifteen at the half, but they’ve overcome worse deficits, and in the last game, managed to win despite behind eleven at the half."
"I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what tricks Coach Lambert can pull out of her sleeve this week, Ted, because things the way they are, I don’t think we’re in for a repeat of that last game."
"Understood, Lori. Well, folks, stay tuned for the second half of what promises to be a gutsy performance by the Birmingham Badgers against the perennial favorites, the Louisiana Lightning. And we’ll be back after this commercial from Maxi-Fresh."
"I’ll be fine, Coach!" Lola Dobbins yelled from the depths of the whirlpool into which she’d been ensconced the very second the buzzer rang ending the half. "Just a little more of this hot water and a good massage, and maybe a shot, and I’ll be good to go. I can feel the muscles relaxing already!"
"Just relax in there, Dobbins," a harried Norton said, buzzing past Dylan with a soft brace and liniment in her hand for Cat’s swollen knee. "I’ll be back in a minute."
"I swear, Coach, I’m feeling better. Honest." Dobbins turned pleading eyes to Dylan. "Please. Let me play. I can do it."
Giving her player the best smile she could offer, Dylan rapped her knuckles on the whirlpool rail and said, "We’ll see."
Leaving the relative quiet of the whirlpool/treatment room, Dylan made her way back into the organized chaos of the locker-room, making a beeline directly for the bench where Cat was being tended to. Coming down to one knee, she put a hand on her lover’s thigh, not caring what anyone saw, or thought, and met Cat’s eyes directly. "The truth."
"It hurts like hell. But…I can play on it. I’ve had worse knee strains before, and the Doc has already taken my picture and pronounced me fit, right?"
Norton grimaced even as she nodded. "It goes against my utopian world recommendations, but…right."
Dylan sighed, worrying at her lower lip, comforted slightly when Cat reached down and covered her hand with her own. "How’s Dobbins?" she asked softly.
"Not good," Dylan replied, not needing Kelly’s assessment of the situation. "She’s hurting bad, and I don’t think all the backrubs and whirlpool baths in the world are going to stop that."
"I’m sorry, D," Norton said, finishing up with Cat’s knee and giving it a light pat. "I did the best I could."
"I know, Kelly, and I thank you for it. It just wasn’t in the cards, I guess."
"You could always put Thorne in and shift Chane to small forward," Cat hazarded, hating the bleak look in her lover’s striking eyes. "She’s played that position before, you know." Cat frowned when the look didn’t disappear. A cold feeling of dread spread its way through her belly and limbs, making her shiver. "Dylan? You’re…you’re not thinking of forfeiting, are you?" The slight shift of color in Dylan’s eyes told Cat all she needed do know. Lifting her hand, she clamped it on her lover’s shoulder. "Dylan, no. Please. Don’t give up, not when we’ve gotten this far. Even if we wind up losing by thirty points, it won’t be because we didn’t try our damndest out there. Please, let us have that chance. Don’t quit. Don’t make us quit. Please?"
Still worrying her lower lip, Dylan dropped her eyes, gently released Cat’s grip on her shoulder, and stood. Her gaze scanned the rest of the players, who had all overheard the conversation, soft-voiced as it was, and looked back at her with desperate, pleading eyes. She allowed those looks, those emotions, to penetrate for one intense moment, then hardened her heart, and let her face show that. "Caulley," she called to the assistant coach who was leaning against a locker, arms folded, "come with me."
As soon as the door closed behind them, the sense of deflation and disappointment filled the air like a pall. The players slumped in their seats; several had tears in their eyes.
"MotherFUCK!!" Chane shouted, pounding the locker with her fist. "I can’t believe she up and fucking quit on us. What the fuck?!?"
The locker room door opened again, this time admitting an official. "Five minutes, guys. Time to get out there and warm up."
"Why should we bother?" Chane asked after he left. "It’s not like we’re gonna be warming up for anything. Looking like goddamned fools standin’ around there till they tell us to go home. Screw that. I’m gettin’ a shower and gettin’ the fuck outta here."
"Chane, wait." Taking in a deep breath, Cat stood, wincing only slightly as she put weight back on her knee. "If nothing else, we are professionals. Face it. No one expected us to make it even half this far, right? But we did it. We showed them all what we could do." She shrugged. "We can’t help it that Angela’s knee got busted, or that Dobbsie’s got a bum back. Those things happened because we played harder, smarter, and better than anyone ever thought we could. Even if we forfeit, we have a right to be out there, in front of that crowd, not slinking off like thieves." She met each player’s eyes, letting them see the strength of her convictions, the passion in her heart for the game she so loved. "We always won with dignity and grace. Let’s show this crowd that we can lose the same way, ok?"
One by one, the players rose to their feet, inspired by the words of this rookie, their Captain, who had led them this far, and was willing to lead them to the end, however ignoble that end might be. Even Chane managed to muster a smile and, walking over, clapped Cat on the back. "If ya ever decide to run for President," she said, "call me. I’ll vote for ya."
Chuckling, Cat turned to her teammates. "C’mon, guys. Let’s get out there and, well, just…get out there."
It was a group of subdued, but proud Badgers who left the locker room for the court, chins held high, even if their hearts weren’t.
"It’s a pretty quiet crowd here in Bayou Arena, Ted, since the players have come back on the court. Especially since the Badgers seem short a player and two coaches."
"You’re right, Lori. Dobbins was really hurting during the first half, and from what I’m hearing, the team physician has nixed her reentry into the game tonight."
"Bad news indeed, Ted. And since the Lightning coach, Merla Gibson, just crossed the court to the official’s table a few minutes ago, I’m guessing that a forfeit is in the cards for tonight."
"And that’s just too bad, Lori. The Badgers really were showing some spunk out there tonight, despite all their injuries, and it would have been good to see them play it through to the end."
"Sometimes, these things just can’t be helped, Ted."
"Unfortunately, you’re right about that, Lori. The officials are gathering around the mic now. Let’s listen in to their announcement."
"I’m telling you, I’m launching a formal protest!" shouted Merla Gibson, the first-year coach of the Lightning. "This is completely unprecedented! Completely!!"
"I’m not trying to stop you, Ma’am. You can file a protest any time you want," the head official replied, "but she’s on the roster. Has been since the beginning of the season. I checked it out myself. Everything’s in order."
"I will not stand for this!!" Gibson screamed, getting in the official’s face in the best baseball manager tradition. If there had been any dirt on the waxed floorboards, she would have kicked it over his shoes. "It’s a travesty!! This cannot be allowed!"
"Ms. Gibson," the referee said, easing his way into the about-to-be fracas, "I don’t want to have to give you a technical here. Please just go back to the bench."
"Technical!?!" the coach all but screeched, turning to the ref with her hands raised, "you want to give me a technical?!? I’ll show you--."
"That’s enough, Merla," said Josh Sellers, the assistant coach, grabbing his boss by one upraised arm and tugging. "Let’s just go back to the bench, alright?"
"Get. Your. Hands. Off. Of. Me!!"
"What the hell is going on over there?" Chaney asked, watching as the red-faced coach in front of the official’s table almost knocked her assistant’s block off.
"Beats me," Cat replied, eyes skipping from the officials to the coaches and back like an avid spectator at a particularly exciting tennis match. "I’d think us forfeiting would be a good thing for her."
"Ya think?" Chaney asked, voice oozing sarcasm.
"Maybe she didn’t wanna win this way," Anya observed from her spot next to Cat. "Maybe she wanted to show her fans how bad she was by stomping the crap outta us."
"Pretty damn childish if that’s what her beef is," Cat replied, flicking her gaze to Anya, and freezing. "Oh my God," she breathed.
"What?" Anya asked, looking down at herself. "I got a bug on me or something?"
"Holy fucking shit!!" Chaney whooped, pumping both fists in the air. "Yes!!!"
"What?! C’mon you guys! What’s going on??"
Cat was grinning so widely, the lanky forward thought her face was going to split clear in half, and she thought she caught the shine of tears in the brilliant green eyes of her team captain. Following the direction of those eyes, she half turned, and found herself frozen to the court as if she’d suddenly sprouted roots. "Holy cow," she whispered, blinking, then rubbing her eyes to make sure that what she thought she was seeing was really what she was, in fact, seeing.
Briskly walking through the tunnel that separated the court from the locker rooms was Diana Caulley, and behind her, striding loose-limbed and easy, was Dylan, in uniform down to her trademark black high-tops.
Badger fans, of which there were more than a few, after a moment of stone silence, began to cheer wildly, rising to their feet, pointing, and then clapping for all they were worth. Fans of the home team, confused, followed the direction of the pointing fingers, then looked at one another in stunned disbelief. Several, who would always see Dylan as "their" Goddess, began to cheer, not caring what the sudden presence of the game’s greatest player said for the chances of their own team. Like a wildfire, the cheers began to spread until, with the exception of a few scattered ‘boos’ and one red-faced and raving coach, the entire arena was filled to the rafters with chants of "God-dess! God-dess! God-dess! God-dess!"
Dylan, her game face set firmly in place, ignored the cheers from fans and players alike and came to join the rest of her team, staring straight ahead at Caulley, who had assumed head coaching duties. The other players took Dylan’s lead and faced their coach, though they weren’t quite able to suppress the wild excitement that lit their eyes as if from within.
"Ok, you guys, listen up," Caulley began, rubbing her hands on her once-pressed and now drenched shirt. "This isn’t the way we planned this game to go, and I think you know that. At least, I hope you do."
The players nodded.
"From the beginning of the season, we’ve, I hope, tried to prove that the Badgers are a team. We stand, or fall, as a team. Now you guys, as a team, have taken us all the way to the semi-finals, somewhere no one ever thought we could be. There’s a lot to be proud of in that. There’s no shame in losing, not like this, not when you’ve done your best." She takes in a deep breath. "So, as a team, we need to make a decision. Dylan is a legal player. She’s been on our roster since she was hired, as a player-coach." She held up a hand to still the cheering players. "But what I need to know from you guys, honestly and without fear of anything hard feelings, is…do you want her to play in this game."
"You crazy, right?" Chane asked. "Why the fuck would we turn something like this down! It’s a fucking gift, man!"
"Everyone might not think so, Shaniqua. What you’ve done this entire year has been done without a superstar, and that’s a damn good message to send to the fans out there, especially the younger ones who think that unless they’ve got a Dylan Lambert or a Michael Jordon, they might not even bother playing. You showed them what you could do without that kind of help. By god, ladies, you *did* it! And if we didn’t get hit with these damn injuries, I’m sure you’d be doing it still!" She shrugged. "But…people talk. You know they do. And if we put Dylan in the game, they’re going to be claiming all sorts of things that will effect you as a team." She tossed a look to Chaney. "Sometimes, gifts come at a price higher than we might be willing to play, and you have to think about that."
"Fuck the fans. Fuck the newspapers. Fuck ESPN. Fuck the league. I came here to win, Coach, and that’s what I wanna do. Cap’n D here is our coach. Without her we wouldn’t have gotten near as far as we’ve gotten, and everybody knows that. We need her help, like we always have, and I’m not gonna let some stupid fear or pride stand in the way of that. No way, man. No fucking way."
"Your opinion has been noted, Shaniqua. Anyone else have anything to add? Remember, nothing bad’s going to happen against you if you feel better just going this alone. I swear it."
The rest of the teammates looked at one another for a long moment of silence. Then Cat stepped forward, took Dylan’s hand, and placed her own atop it. With giddy grins, one by one, the rest of the team put their hands in. "Badgers….Badgers….Badgers…BADGERS….BADGERS!!!!"
"Any last words of wisdom, Coach?" Chaney asked Dylan as they broke their mini huddle.
The game face was still on. "Let’s get it done."
"Well, it seems like I’m at a rare loss for words, here, Lori."
"You said it, or rather didn’t say it, Ted. As you can hear all around us, the arena is still buzzing over the unexpected addition of Dylan Lambert to the Badgers’ playing ranks. To say I, myself, am surprised at this turn of events would be putting it mildly, Ted. It really doesn’t seem like Lambert’s style."
"Well, the Badgers’ owner, Horace Johnson has, shall we say, been known to push his product memorably. Perhaps this is one of those times."
On cue, one of the main TV cameras panned to the sky-box where Johnson was sitting. The owner rivaled the coach of the Lightning in facial redness and looked very much like another ‘coronary event’ was very near in his future.
"Well, I suppose we can cross that theory off the list, Lori. Johnson doesn’t seem any happier over this particular turn of events than his counterpart on the Lightning."
"Be that as it may, Ted, the players from both teams have taken the court, so I suppose the reaction to this controversial move will have to wait until after the game."
"Sounds good to me, Lori. The head referee has just handed the ball to Lambert as the possession arrows were pointing the Badgers’ way when the half ended. On the court with her for the Badgers are Hodges, Chaney, Anya, and Cooper. The Lightning are countering with Race and Blevins at guard, Toomey at center, and Holloway and Gathers at forward.
"Toomey steps up to guard Lambert and the whistle blows, starting the second half of this semi-final game.
"Lambert waits as her team sets up, then dishes off to Chaney, who is immediately trapped by Holloway and Gathers. She sees an opening and bounce passes to Hodges, who dribbles past half court and sets up the play. The Lightning look to be starting off in a man on man despite the backcourt trap. Blevins steps up to guard Hodges, who does a nice crossover dribble around the pick set for her by Anya, then passes off to Chaney. Chaney dribbles once, looking for an open shot, but she’s well guarded by Gathers in a real height mismatch.
"Lambert streaks into the paint and receives the pass from Chaney, then turns and puts up an eight footer that…oooh, Toomey got a piece of that one. There’s a story the rookie will be able to tell her grandkids, Lori!"
"True, Ted. Gathers got the rebound and passed it off to Race who’s dribbling past half court. Quick pass to Toomey who…yipes! Lambert got all of that one! Toomey’s gonna have to check her face for lines, I think. That ball came back at her at the speed of light!"
"Chaney grabs the ball and starts off downcourt, then passes off to Hodges on a three on two fast break with Lambert streaking down the center of the court. Her knee doesn’t look to be bothering her in the least right now.
"Hodges dishes to Chaney, who tips it back to Hodges who rifles a no-look bounce pass to her left, directly to Lambert who goes up for the layup, and scores! Very nicely executed fast break."
"Blevins takes the ball behind the endline and waits for her players. She’s guarded by Lambert, which looks like something out of David and Goliath. The rest of the Lightning players are being well guarded as the ref counts off the seconds. Blevins thows up a desperation pass, oh…Lambert tips it right into the hands of Hodges, who turns and rifles a pass to Chaney just outside the three point line. Chaney looks, shoots, and scores!! Beautiful shot."
"Great display of teamwork too, Ted. And in just…one minute and ten seconds, the Badgers have managed to take a fifteen point deficit down to ten."
"With Dylan Lambert a part of all five of the Badgers’ points, Lori. If she’s rusty, she’s surely not showing it to this crowd here tonight."
"I’ll have to agree there, Ted. The Badgers look really pumped, but then again, who wouldn’t, with the Goddess on their side?"
"Not me, that’s for sure."
The censor shot a glare at the announcer, who returned him a lewd grin and a waggle of his eyebrows.
"The Lightning are past mid-court. Toomey sets up a screen on Lambert, and Blevins passes a quick one to Holloway who fakes a shot and passes back to Blevins. The Badgers are set up in a two-three trap zone, now they switch to a box and one, with Hodges out guarding Blevins, who is a distinct three point threat, with four threes already this game. Blevins passes the ball to Gathers, who dishes it to Race, who tries a shot from behind three point range and misses completely.
"The rebound is gathered in by Anya, who passes to Hodges who calls out a play as she dribbles quickly down the court. The Lightning are back quickly this time and set up in a one-three-one. Hodges passes to Lambert, who avoids the trap and drives in toward post, then steps back and fires over the Lightning’s heads to Chaney who’s as open as an all night tavern. One look and she shoots, and another three is up on the board for the Badgers! Shaniqua Chaney is on fire tonight! Two threes in the space of less than a minute! The Lightning are starting to look a little frazzled as their lead has been cut in half, now in the single digits.
"Race gets the ball to Gathers, who passes it back to her, and—oh no! Hodges came outta nowhere to steal that one, ladies and gentlemen! She drives into the paint and scores an easy layup, cutting the Lightning lead to five. And with that, Gibson calls a time out."
"I think I need one too, Ted. We’ve been watching an absolutely amazing display of teamwork by the Birmingham Badgers these past few minutes. They’re putting on a clinic out there."
"Good job, guys," Caulley said, a rare smile making an appearance as she patted each player who passed her on the way to the bench. The level of excitement was so high from her players that she imagined she could feel it physically, like standing under a high-tension line. "Alright, now let’s not get too cocky here. In case none of you have noticed, we’re still down by five, and the Lightning’s an experienced team, so we’ve gotta take it easy and stay calm, alright?"
The players nodded as they toweled off and sipped from the cups of water handed to them by the trainers.
"Good play-calling, Cat," Caulley continued, moving to squat in front of her. "Keep it up. Chaney, you’ve obviously found your range, so stick with it. When you see an opening, go for it for as long as you feel you can. We’ll need those threes as often as we can get them. That team over there isn’t going to just roll over and die, no matter who we put up against them."
"No problem, Coach," Chane replied, mopping the sweat from her braids.
"Dylan, you’ve got Toomey rattled, which is exactly what we need. Anything you can do to rattle her more, short of fouling, do. With her out of the way, we’re much more evenly matched, height-wise."
Her face still set as stone, Dylan nodded, piercing eyes leveled at the goings on on the bench across court. Gibson had been sending increasingly murderous looks her way, and she wouldn’t put it past the firebrand coach to send out one of her thugs to make sure her knee didn’t stay as fine as it was feeling at the moment. It could be easily done, foul or no foul, and she’d have to keep a watch out for it as the game progressed. When the next look came her way, she saluted the Lightning coach with the cup she was holding, then quaffed the water and saluted again before crumpling the cup and sending it to the waste-bag for two.
Knowing well that Cat was sitting right next to her, she turned and dropped her lover a wink, the only display of any type of emotion she’d thus far shown. For Cat, it was as good as a grin, and she grinned back, patting Dylan’s thigh just as the whistle blew for the resumption of play.
As she took the court, Cat noticed something by the Lightning bench and reached out to place an arm on Dylan’s wrist. Cold blue eyes looked down at her like a laser, and Cat swallowed hard. "I noticed something," she said as softly as she could manage, given the crowd’s noise.
Dylan’s eyebrow rose in question.
"Gibbons is putting in Tanya Stephenson." Her fingers went up in quote marks, though she was deadly serious. "The Enforcer. Please, watch out for her, alright? I’ve got your back, and so does the rest of the team, but…."
Dylan’s smile was, if possible, colder than her eyes. "Oh," she purred, voice dark and deep, "I plan to."
Cat blinked, then nodded as Dylan walked away, setting up to guard against the inbounds pass. The guard exchanged a crosscourt look with Chaney, who gave her an evil little grin and a ‘thumbs up’ gesture that let Cat relax, at least a little. Shaking her hands out, she went chest to chest with Blevins who was looking to take the outlet from the sideline.
"I guess we’ll see if Coach Gibson’s sideline pep-talk was effective, Lori."
"If it isn’t, putting Stephenson in for Gathers may well be, Ted."
"This is true, Lori. Stephenson certainly isn’t known for her shooting ability, and with an average of four fouls per game, it’s quite obvious, at least to me, what her role is going to be these next few minutes."
"It sure will be interesting to see how it plays out, Ted."
"We’ll just have to watch and see, Lori. The referee has just handed the ball to Holloway, who is closely guarded by Lambert. Holloway gets a pass in to Blevins, who dribbles, then passes to Stephenson, back to Blevins, over to Race, who sets up a half-court offensive play. The Badgers are still in their box-and-one with Hodges now guarding Race.
"Race takes her time, waiting for the play to set up. Holloway moves in toward low post, then back out. She takes the pass from Race…it slides off her fingers, ball’s loose, Blevins recovers and shoots it out to Race. Race dishes it back to Stephenson a few steps in from half-court as the rest of the players reset. Stephenson passes to Blevins, back to Stephenson, who drives toward the paint. Chaney slides over to help Lambert. OH! Write MasterCard all over that one, folks! She wasn’t even trying for the basket!
"Lambert and Chaney are down. Chaney pops back up…"
"Flagrant, ref!" Chaney shouted. "Flagrant! You saw what she was tryin’ to do!"
Smiling a little, the ref shook her head and called the charge as Cat ran over to Dylan. "Are you alright?"
"I’m fine," Dylan replied, shrugging off Cat’s hand and standing on her own. She looked over at Stephenson, who was smirking at her, and held up one finger. "That’s one," she mouthed, pleased when the smirk faded a bit from the red-headed giant.
"You’re fucked, meat," Chaney said, going chest to belly with the much taller Stephenson.
"You ain’t pretty enough, Chaingang," Stephenson replied, blowing the smaller player a kiss and trotting off, laughing.
"Well, Stephenson’s showing her true colors early on, Ted."
"You’re right about that, Lori. The referee must have been inclined to give out a freebie, because that’s about as flagrant as it gets."
"The Badgers managed to hold their poise, though, so I guess we’ll see what else The Enforcer has up her sleeve. Cooper takes the ball and passes off to Hodges, who dribbles downcourt and rifles a pass off to Anya, who shoots it over to Chaney. Chaney looks, dribbles, oh, Blevins steals the ball and heads downcourt! Holloway is pacing her, but she takes it all the way, stops at the line and shoots! Score another three for Taretha Blevins. And the Lightning crowd comes to its feet, their lead suddenly back to eight points."
"That was a beautiful play, Ted. Blevins is the league scoring leader, and it’s because of plays like that one. She’s got the eye and the range, that’s for sure."
"Lambert takes the in-bounds pass from Hodges, then gives it back to her. Hodges passes crosscourt to Cooper, back to Hodges, over to Chaney. Lambert moves to low post, receives the pass and kicks it back out to Hodges. Hodges to Chaney, down to Anya who shoots a short range jumper that rattles off the rim. Lambert up for the rebound…and Stephenson cuts her legs out from under her! Oh, that was a nasty play! Looks like Lambert might be hurt. No, she’s up, and boy is she cool as ice, folks! Anybody else would probably have taken a swing, but the Goddess is earning her name out there today.
"She steps up to the free throw line. Apparently, this time the official saw the flagrant foul, though it would have been pretty hard to miss. She takes the ball. It’s up, and in. Her freethrow style certainly hasn’t changed. No dribble. Just up and…in again. Four points so far for Lambert this game. And the lead is now down to six.
"Race dribbles down the court, guarded closely by Hodges. She dishes off to Holloway who tries a twelve footer. No go. Lambert up again for the rebound. She gets it and absolutely wings a pass to Hodges streaking down the sideline. And it’s an easy layup from the little guard from UCONN, cutting the Lightning lead to four points. Very impressive."
"That was a very impressive pass, Ted. Not many women in the league have the arm strength to throw the ball that hard and that far down the court, especially with such pinpoint perfection."
"Could be why she’s the Goddess and the rest of us are just mere mortals, Lori…. Holloway takes the pass and hands it to Race. Race tosses a long cross court pass to Stephenson who dishes it to Blevins. Blevins starts in, then steps back. Hodges is all over her like cheap perfume tonight. Looking…looking…she dishes off to Holloway, back to Race who resets the play. Race fakes to Stephenson, then bounce passes to Toomey who’s in the paint. She lays it up…it bounces off the rim, and back in again for two points. The luck of the Irish was with her on that one. The lead is back up to six with time slowly counting down.
"Chaney takes the pass from Anya and hands it off to Hodges. Hodges dribbles freely down the court, setting up her play. She passes to Cooper at the top of the key. Cooper turns and fires one over the heads of everyone, right into the hands of Lambert, who’s being extremely closely guarded by Stephenson. There’s a little pushing and shoving. Lambert dribbles, nice crossover, moves to her left, off a nice pick by Chaney, who rolls back, takes the pass from Lambert and shoots a midrange jumper that sails through for two and the lead, yet again, is back down to four."
"Pick and roll, baby. Pick and roll. I’ll be doin that to you allll night, meat."
"Go fuck your mother some more, bitch," was Stephenson’s smart retort.
"Nah, she doesn’t scream for it like yo mama do, meat."
"There’s some trash talking going on down there, Ted, between Chaney and Stephenson. Apparently, Chaney’s taken exception to the Enforcer’s treatment of her teammate and coach. Lambert moves in and pulls Chaney away, settling her player down somewhat."
"Stephenson flicks a lazy pass to Toomey, who puts it down on the ground and is pickpocketed by Hodges. Oh, what a beautiful move. She’s dribbling down the court, tailed by Lambert and Chaney. Passes to Chaney, who dishes it off to Lambert who goes over the head of Stephenson for a JAM, ladies and gentlemen! The first dunk of the season, and it comes in this semifinal match."
"That was a thing of beauty, Ted, and the look on Stephenson’s face right now…well…if revenge is a dish best served cold, she just got a heapin’ helpin’ of ice cubes shoved right down her shorts."
"Stephenson isn’t very happy with events, Ted. She’s stalking after Lambert, who has her back turned and…oh! Stephenson gets absolutely bulldozed by Chaney and Hodges! Lambert steps in again, grabbing the two guards by the back of their jerseys while Toomey and Holloway restrain Stephenson who looks like she’s ready to do some serious damage right about now."
"The officials have stepped in. Let’s see if they’re going to assess some technicals to these players. Fighting is very frowned upon in the league after last year’s debacle that cost Myrna Hamilton her sight. No…looks like they’re just going to let play resume. I guess that was a warning shot over the bow, Lori."
"Well, no fists were thrown, so I’m guessing they’re going by the letter of the law here, Ted. I’m not sure I like what that says about tonight’s officials, though."
"Look," Dylan said, hands still full of jersey, "I appreciate what you’re both trying to do, but you need to let me handle this my own way, alright?"
"She’s tryin’ to kill you out there, Coach!" Chaney protested. "Motherfucker!"
"I understand that. But if either of you gets ejected, we are going to lose this game. So just keep your cool and let me handle Stephenson, alright?"
"How’s your knee?" Cat asked.
"My knee is fine," Dylan replied through gritted teeth. "You’re the team captain, Cat. Start acting like one and not like a thug, alright?"
Cat blinked, stung by her lover’s words. "But--."
"I’m serious, Cat. You let me worry about Stephenson. You worry about this team."
"But you’re part of this team!"
"Yeah, I am. A small part." She sighed. "Listen, Cat. I can handle her. She’s nothing but an overgrown bully who thinks she’s the top dog in the pen. You two start acting like dogs, she’s gonna come after you. Let me handle this, alright?"
Dejected, both women nodded. "We gotcha, Coach," Chaney said, eyeing her sneakers and looking oddly adolescent. "We’ll back off."
"Alright, then. Let’s go play some ball."
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s less than two minutes to go in the second half of play, and the Badgers, true to their name, have come out scrapping. Stephenson’s intimidator tactics have been neutralized by Lambert, courtesy of several spectacular shots right over the big woman. Looks like the intimidator has become the intimidated. Gathers is back in in her normal position as the Lightning, to pull this off, need all the firepower they can get. Badgers ahead by three, and the Lightning have the ball.
"The Badgers have shifted into a one-three-one trap type defense whose sole purpose is to get the ball out of Blevins’ hands. Gathers inbounds to Race, who heads for the paint, fakes a shot, fakes a pass, then moves in again, dodging and dipping her way through the larger bodies. She lays it up. It hits the front part of the rim and bounces straight up. Lambert and Gathers go for the rebound. Lambert grabs it and uses her sharp elbows to clear out a space for herself. She passes to Chaney, who loses the handle.
"Toomey picks it up and shoots from the key. Scores! The lead is now cut to one with…less than a minute to play. Perfect foul situation for the Lightning."
"Yes, just don’t foul Hodges, who is the Badgers’ best free throw shooter at seventy eight percent from behind the line."
"Lambert takes the ball out of bounds, guarded heavily by Gathers and Holloway. Race and Blevins are all over Hodges, and Chaney breaks free, wide open. Lambert sees her, but can’t get the pass off.
"The ref is counting down the final seconds. Lambert lifts the ball, and throws it at the belly of Gathers. The ball bounces off of her and out of bounds. Good play to keep possession by Lambert."
"It was a gutsy call, Ted. Gathers could have easily caught that and scored the lead basket. Lambert was lucky that time."
"There’s a switch behind the endline as now Toomey handles the ball. Chaney sets a pick for Hodge’s defender, springing the point guard, who catches the pass with sure hands. Turning, she sees Lambert streaking down the sideline all alone, and as the clock begins to wind down, she launches an airball as hard and as high as she can make it.
"The ball lands in Lambert’s hands at the apex of her jump and she JAMS it through. The perfect alley oop schoolyard play, but in this case, it worked to perfection. The lead’s back up to three.
"The Lightning race back and get the ball. The seconds are ticking down. Gathers manages to get a pass off to Blevins who is immediately fouled by Chaney."
"A good call, Ted. The Badgers are just at their team limit, and Blevins can sometimes be inconsistent with her free-throws."
"It’s a one and one situation, here as Blevins steps up to the line and receives the ball. She dribbles, looks, and shoots. The ball rattles around the rim, then goes through, cutting the lead to two.
"Pretty much everybody in the house knows this is going to be a deliberate miss, Ted. It’ll be interesting to see what the Badgers have planned. Lambert and Gathers switch sides, ready to box out."
"Blevins steps up to the line. She dribbles once, twice, looks, and launches a complete brick that hits the rim and bounces nearly back to her. Hodges steps in and grabs the rebound, but has it stripped from her hands by Race. Both women go down and the ball rolls free. Lambert vaults the pile of bodies and lands on the ball just as the buzzer sounds, ending the game, and with it the Lightning’s hope for a repeat championship appearance."
"It wasn’t a pretty game, but it sure was a gutsy one, Ted, I’ll have to give both teams that as we watch the euphoric Badgers dogpile on their Coach who still has the ball in her hands."
"Interestingly, the only person who looks upset about this is Lightning Coach Merla Gibbons. The rest of the team is helping Lambert to her feet and showering her with as much congratulations as are the members of her own team."
"Well, she played with them for many years, don’t forget, and I think they can be forgiven for feeling some of the same excitement we feel just watching her out on the court again."
"Very much so, Ted. Well, that about wraps it up here at Bayou Arena, with the Birmingham Badgers coming out on top of the Louisiana Lightning 74-72. For Ted Richardson and all the rest of us at ESPN, this is Lori Belchar wishing you all a good night."
Cat sat in the hot tub up to her chin. Every muscle in her body hurt. Some of them hurt twice. All she wanted to do was soak, take a hot shower , crawl into bed next to Dylan, and sleep for a week. If Dylan was in the mood to share her bed, that was. The tall coach had been very quiet during the drive home. Part of it, Cat knew, was processing the game and her role in it. Part of it, too, was the fact that she hadn’t "come all the way back" from the Dylan Lambert she was on court—the cold, stone-faced, nothing-but-business persona that Cat had, from time to time, caught glimpses of, but never directed at her.
The memory of Dylan’s words to her on the court still stung, even though she understood the logic of them. It was the lack of emotion behind those words that cut into her heart and made her feel, if not unwanted, at least rebuked.
As if on cue, Dylan entered the room with two glasses of juice. Dropping her robe she slid into the tub next to the blonde, groaning all the way down. "Oh God."
"Tell me about it," Cat took the offered juice, enjoying the fact that it was ice cold. "My aches have aches." A moment later, she opened her eyes to see the perfect bud of a long-stemmed blood red rose just beneath her nose. "Thank you," she said, surprised, as she carefully took the rose from her partner’s fingers.
"Thank you," Dylan replied. "For putting up with me out there today. I know it’s not something you’re used to seeing, or dealing with."
Cat chuckled, as if she hadn’t been having those very same thoughts just seconds before. "It’s alright, love. It’s not like you haven’t spoken firmly to me as my coach, you know."
"I know. But it’s different getting ‘talked to’ by your coach and getting ragged on by a teammate."
"Well," Cat replied thoughtfully, "that’s true. And I’ll have to admit that it knocked me for a loop for a bit. But I thought about it…even while you were just talking to me, actually, and, well, I think I understand better now. I mean, it’s the first time I’ve really seen you with your game face on, and that’s a part of your personality I’m just going to have to get used to as I get more exposure to it."
"You talk like my playing is a permanent thing."
"Well, I think that based on what you proved out there today, it can be, if you want it to."
"Anyway," Cat continued lightly, knowing this was a subject at its end, "it’s something to think about. Right now, though, all I can think about is my aching muscles."
"This is the best thing for you. Just sit in here for about a half hour and tomorrow it won’t hurt nearly as much."
"You’re trying to make it better aren’t you?"
"You’re lying aren’t you?"
Cat smiled and slid closer, giving Dylan a kiss on the cheek. "You’re sweet."
"I had plans tonight," Dylan sighed. "I was going to treat the team to dinner and then come back here and make love to you."
"Just me or the whole team?"
Dylan growled and splashed water at Cat. "Brat." She grimaced and straightened her own leg.
"It’s a little stiff," she allowed.
"You know a very wise person once told me if you soak in a hot tub for a half hour the pain won’t be so bad in the morning."
One blue eye opened and looked at the grinning blonde. "I could drown you, you know?"
"True, but you won’t."
"Because I’m the only one who knows how to make you forget when your knee is bothering you."
"You are in no condition to do that."
"Well, perhaps I could invite you into the shower with me and I could wash your back. It might not make you forget, but it certainly couldn’t hurt."
Dylan’s brow rose as she sipped her own juice. "True."
Cat rubbed her hands over Dylan’s back, knowing she should be using the sponge to actually do some washing, but why anyone would want a sponge between them and Dylan’s silky skin, she just couldn’t fathom.
The water ran over them from multiple jets set to massage their bodies gently, though as Dylan leaned with her hands against the wall, she realized Cat was doing a much better job than the showerheads ever could. "I have I told you tonight, I love you?"
"You haven’t mentioned it tonight."
Dylan turned and looked into Cat’s eyes. "My mistake. I love you."
"I love you too."
"How’s your knee?"
"I’ll show you mine if you show me yours." Cat smiled and leaned up to kiss her lover.
The kiss, which was meant to be chaste, quickly turned passionate. The warmth of the water enhanced the heat between them as their hands began to explore well-known flesh. Cat forgot the pain in her body as Dylan’s touch turned insistent, causing her nerve endings to focus on other things.
The wall of she shower was cool against her back, making a delightful contrast for her as her eyes slipped closed when she felt Dylan, kissing her way down her body. There was soft moan when the sensation of the water running over her stomach continued down, only to have Dylan kissing it away.
"Your knee…" Cat managed to concentrate long enough to gasp it out even as her fingers tangled in dark, wet hair.
"Shhhh…" Dylan whispered, becoming more focused on her task.
It didn’t take long before they were both on the floor of the shower. What had started with Dylan taking charge was now a mutual exploration in pleasure and satisfaction. As their bodies released and fell together, Dylan managed to pull them up against the wall to keep the water from overwhelming them.
"Oh to hell with the hot tub," Cat sighed, pushing her hair from her eyes.
"How ya feelin’?" Shaniqua Chaney asked Cat as she came to sit next to her on the locker-room bench. Though they were deep in the underground of Metropolitan Sports Arena, they could feel the crowd noise pulsing around them like the beat of a heart. It was, in a word, unnerving.
"Well," Cat replied, taking a sip of water and praying it would stay down this time, "breakfast, lunch, and all three of yesterday’s meals never got a chance to become fat cells, and my toenails were in danger of coming up through my throat, so if that’s any indication…." Chaney winced in sympathy. "How about you?"
"Well, my food managed to stay where it’s supposed to, but I’m about as nervous as a longtailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."
"You dissin my grandpappy?"
"God forbid," Cat replied, hand over her heart to show her sincerity. "I’m sure he was a very wise old fellow in his day."
"Was? Girl, he’s sitting in the stands somewhere with his cane, his hearing aids, and his air horn. Best be hopin’ it’s not too close to the court! He’ll blast you one and you won’t come down till after you’ve gone around Mars a few times!"
Cat’s laughter had the desired effect on her belly, and her nerves settled to a dull roar. The next sip of water went down easier than the first into a stomach that was now calm, cool, and steady. "Thanks, Chane," she said, finally, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
"No problem, Shortchange. Can’t have our point guard with a case of the terminal jitters. Bad for business, ya know."
"I guess you’re right about that."
"Speaking of terminal, where’s Coach D?"
"I wish I knew," Cat sighed, throwing her hands in the air. "We split up after we came here and I haven’t seen her since."
"So, you rode in together," Chaney said slyly. "Must be nice." The guard laughed at Cat’s expression. "Oh, c’mon, Shortchange. It’s not like I’m blind to the situation, you know. Hell, I don’t think anyone is. We all think it’s kickin, actually."
"I don’t want to talk about it," Cat mumbled, flushed face hidden in her hands.
"You’re gonna be up in the sky box with him, right?" Dylan asked, leaning against the wall in her warm-ups.
"Yeah, yeah. You just worry about playing. Let me worry about the old man, alright?"
"Mac, something’s going on. I can feel it in my gut. I haven’t been able to get ahold of him for the last three days, and if you’d have seen the look on his face when I stepped out onto the court…."
"I know. And I’m trying to get to the bottom of it. And I will, I promise."
"By then, it might be too late."
"Let me do my job, D," he replied, putting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing lightly. "You just concentrate on winning this damn thing. If it’s what you think, and he’s stacking his cards against the Badgers taking it all, winning will piss him off more than anything else could. Then we’ll see what happens."
Dylan sighed. "I don’t like it."
"Either do I. Just…trust me, okay?"
"Alright," Dylan replied, summoning up a small smile. "Good luck."
"To you as well, my friend. Kick some ass."
Dylan took a blistering pass from Cat on the fly and didn’t even bother to dribble as she left her feet for a thunderous jam. At the last second, Tanisha Bradford, center for the Monarch, slipped into a blocking stance after Dylan’s feet had already left the ground. The two collided and Jackson, no doubt trying for the Best Actress award at the next year’s Oscars, fell to her back with a loud cry.
"Foul!" the ref shouted, waving his arm. "No basket!"
"What the hell?!?" Cat yelled, running up to the ref. She would have grabbed his arm and spun him around, no doubt earning her an ejection, if Chaney hadn’t luckily gotten there first and grabbed her arm, pulling her quickly away. "Let me go," Cat growled from between clenched teeth. "Now!"
"No way, man!" Chaney growled back, shaking Cat like a terrier with a bone. "That’s just what they want, don’t you get it? The refs are shit, man! They’re gettin’ paid off!" The guard held tight as Cat tried to wriggle free, her gaze rapt to Dylan as she pulled herself out of a tangle of arms and legs and slowly straightened, testing out the strength in her knee. "Listen, Shortchange. This ain’t college ball." Chaney’s breath was hot on her face. "This is business, man! All fuckin’ business! Look at it! Big D’s got three fouls on her and she ain’t touched nobody! You! You got four fuckin traveling calls! I bet you ain’t traveled since you were in grade school!"
Chaney’s words finally got through, and Cat stopped struggling, then turned to her friend, expression set. "What are you saying?"
"It’s a sham, Cat! Nothin’ but a fuckin’ sham. We’re pawns in some fuckin’ chess game so Johnson can get his latest ‘ho a new Mercedes. Don’t you get it? He’s bettin’ against us!"
"But nothin’, Shortchange. Face the facts here. He wants us to lose and he’s paid off the fuckin’ refs to make sure it happens."
"But why would he bet against his own team?"
Chaney snorted. "He don’t give a shit about no fucking championship trophy, Cat. It’s all about the green, man. If he can make more dough bettin’ against us, that’s what he’s gonna do. Face it, Cat. We’re bein’ played."
"You don’t sound too upset about it," Cat observed.
"I guess I ain’t," Chaney replied, shrugging. "My contract’s up after this game anyway, and a pro team in Spain offered me some big bucks to come play for them." She shrugged again. "I’ll probably take ‘em up on it."
"You’d do that, leave the team, leave Dylan like that, even if we win?"
Chaney’s smile was sad as she reached out and gently clasped Cat’s shoulder. "Hon, we ain’t gonna win this one. We gave it a damn good try, but…." Shaking her head, she walked away, leaving Cat standing alone at center court, her heart a whirl of emotions.
Catching the towel tossed to her by the trainer, Cat sat down on the bench next to Dylan, who was adjusting her knee brace. "You okay?" Cat asked.
"Yeah," Dylan replied, straightening up and guzzling a bottle of water before turning to look at her lover. "You?"
Cat looked down at her knotted fingers briefly before raising her head to meet Dylan’s intense stare. "Was…what Chaney said to me back there true?"
Looking over Cat’s head, Dylan lifted an eyebrow in Chaney’s direction. Chaney looked back, shame-faced, giving Dylan all the answer she needed to answer that particular unasked question. She returned her attention to her lover. "It’s true."
Cat’s shoulders sagged. "But why? I don’t mean to come off as terminally naïve here, but isn’t betting against your own team, betting at all, you know, illegal?"
"And your point would be…?"
"This isn’t a joke, Dylan."
"Sure it is. Look around you, Cat. This whole thing is a joke. And by now, everybody’s in on it."
"We’ve got the starring role, Cat."
"How long have you known?"
"I suspected something over the past couple of days. The bastard was just a bit too smug. When I actually knew…well, let’s just say in the eight months that I’ve known you as a player, I’ve never seen you travel. And I still haven’t."
"What are we going to do?"
"Do? What we’ve been doing all year. Play to win."
"Even if they won’t let us?"
"Especially then. He might be able to keep us from winning, but he’ll never make us lose."
Cat wanted to have a fit of temper and lay into the referees and opposing players, but she knew that wasn’t really her style and that Dylan would be disappointed in her. As she stood to retake her place on the court, she looked into the seats where the fans were all cheering for the Badgers and she knew she wouldn’t let them down either. She’d play the best game she could and if they lost because the game was rigged, she would know that she did her best against impossible odds.
The thing that bothered her most was the attitude of the other team; they really seemed to be getting off on what was happening. She wondered if they were in on it too, or just stupid. It was true that they were a damn good team, and under normal circumstances the Badgers would be working hard to give them a run for their money, but now the game was being handed to them and they seemed to be enjoying it.
She took a deep breath, as the ball was returned to play. This moment seemed to be going well. They were moving the ball down the court for a shot; the ball came to her and made a fast pass to Dylan who was clear and ready for a beautiful three pointer.
Then it happened. As they tried to block Dylan she whirled to get around them and the whistle blew. She had felt her elbow make contact with her opponent when she tried to make the turn, but she knew, the opponent knew and the fans knew it was accidental and would have been ‘incidental’ contact in a normal game. But this was not a normal game.
"Son of a bi…" the look from Dylan stopped the words form Cat’s mouth as they waited for the ref to make his call. Dylan was warning her against getting pitched out for unsportsmanlike behavior, because the coach knew damn good and well the ref’s would do it.
When the foul call came down and Dylan was sent to the bench the fans were on their feet, screaming and yelling and booing. The referees (and coincidentally some players as well) were pelted with programs and wadded bits of paper that rained down on the court. A time out was called to get the litter cleaned up.
Cat closed her eyes and scratched her fingers over her scalp to work out some of the frustration she was feeling. She didn’t care if it did go against her personal code. Someone was going to die if this kept up. Striding over to the bench, she grabbed a towel and draped it over her head as she took a long hit from the water bottle thrust into her hand.
"Well that’s it; they’ve managed to wrack them up against us…" Caulley remarked, looking down at her ever-present clipboard. It was covered with scribbles that might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the good they were doing the team.
"It’s bullshit!" Cat growled as she toweled her neck.
"I know it is, Catherine, but we don’t have a choice. Dylan is done, so we need to do the best we can here. From this point forward, we’re playing a straight passing game and we’re going to do our damndest to keep ourselves and the ball away from them. If we can’t get close to them, then we don’t want them close to us."
"They’ll just call us out for traveling." Chaney grumbled from her position kneeling at the coach’s feet. "Look at what they’ve been doing to Shortchange."
"There’s no easy answer here."
"Maybe we should just forfeit."
"No way." Caulley stood, pointing her tablet at the guard. "You’re going to go back out there and you’re going to play this game. We’re not going to let these people down. You can bet we’re going to challenge these calls, but we can’t do it now. All we can do it give it our best shot."
Diana looked at each of her players and she could see that mentally, they were beaten, but she wasn’t going to let them give in. "I promise you all that this will work out. Not today and maybe not tomorrow, but it will work out. You have to act like the professionals you are. So go back out there and do your best. Party at Dylan's house tonight for the best damn team in the league."
Everyone couldn’t help but laugh as they made their plans to finish the game.
Dylan zipped her warm-up jacket as she strode down the short, dark hallway toward the Skybox that held one Horace Johnson. Standing next to the closed door was Mac, resplendent in a dark suit and crisp white shirt, his face grim. "D...."
"Buzz off, Mac."
"I'm serious. You don't want to be here right now. I'll catch up with you later." She reached for the door handle, only to have Mac's huge hand clamp onto her wrist at the last second. She looked down at the hand for a moment, then turned cold, steel-colored eyes to her friend. One eyebrow slowly rose.
Clearing his throat, Mac released her wrist, and thrust a folder into her face. "Before you do anything, just take a look at this, alright?"
After a moment, she relaxed her muscles and, with a frustrated breath, grabbed the folder. Inside were three summary sheets. She began to smile. It wasn't a pleasant one, by any means, but its very presence caused Mac to breathe a silent sigh of relief.
"We got the bastard," she said finally, eyes sparkling fiercely.
"Yeah, we got him. Safely, and legally. D, listen to me, please. You don't have to do...whatever it is that you're going in there to do. You do something stupid, and this could all blow up in our faces."
"'Stupid' as in using his fat head to test the tensile strength of the window glass inside his skybox?"
"Yeah, something like that."
Dylan patted his chest with the folder. "No worries, my friend."
"I mean it. This is between Horace and me. You were never here. Now buzz off."
With a grunt, he pushed himself away from the wall. "Don't make me have to bail you out of jail, D. Not again. Please."
A last, pleading look, and he went.
Dylan twisted the door handle, opened the heavy door, and slipped silently inside. Horace was alone, standing before the huge windows of his box, staring down onto the court. He was rocking on his toes, hands clamped behind his back. He looked, in short, like a naughty little boy whose dreams were one second away from coming true.
"Always were a little lax with your personal security, weren't ya, Horace?"
Johnson slowly turned. His smirk seemed a permanent fixture on his seamed, homely face. "Ms. Lambert, how wonderful to see you here, darkening my doorstep." He looked down at the folder in her hand. "Your letter of resignation, I presume? It's a terrible pity, though it has been fully documented that ones of your particular...perversion...never were able to accept responsibility."
Dylan crossed the room in a few long, silent strides. "You'll probably want to be rethinking that...boss."
"Really? Why?" His eyes were filled with a babe's innocence, but the smirk never left his face. "Whatever you're going to show me, Ms. Lambert, please do it quickly. I'm missing the end of the game."
"As if you didn't know how it was gonna end already. Does the name Tony Scippone ring any kind of a bell with you, Horace?"
A muscle twitched, just briefly, near the corner of one eye. Then his brow smoothed and the smug look returned. "Can't say as it does, Ms. Lambert. Friend of yours? Fellow Sodomite, perhaps?"
"Las Vegas bookie, actually. Some degenerate laid down two hundred grand on the Badgers to lose by fourteen or more points."
"Really," he drawled, rocking on his toes again. "I'd say that that person was in for quite a handsome profit, given that the team is currently losing by...." A quick look over his shoulder, "...twenty one."
Dylan shrugged. "Guess you're going to have to fire the help, then. Seems that your new admin assistant...Bambi....Barbie....Bimbo...whomever placed the bet in her name, but used your line of credit with ol' Tony to do it."
The muscle twitched again, then smoothed. "Pity. She had the makings of an excellent assistant."
"Betting against your own team, Horace. That's a new low, even for you. Of course, it's not just the kind of thing that's against league rules. It's also illegal."
"What you lack, Ms. Lambert, other than good breeding and good manners, is proof. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get back to the game. Leave now, or I'll have security escort you out, and it's you who will be spending the night in jail."
"I wonder how many of those refs your purchased tonight will stay bought?" she mused, as if to herself.
Johnson frowned. "That is the second slanderous allegation you've made against me in these past ten minutes, Ms. Lambert. Because I'm a gentleman, I'll allow you those two free of charge, as they say. A third, and you will be escorted from here directly to the nearest police station, and that I can assure you."
Dylan smiled her dangerous smile. "Oh, I think I'll chance it, Horace. Because I really don't think you'd want me to leave before you had the chance to look at this."
With an easy toss, the file slipped into his hands. "Really, Ms. Lambert," he remarked with a martyred sigh, "you're becoming quite the bore. If I didn't know any better, I'd....." There his voice trailed off as he opened the folder and began to read the documents inside. His face paled even as a string of sweat beads popped out across his forehead.
"Horace, Horace, Horace. If you're gonna try to make a living outta scamming Wall Street with that insider trading shit, don't you think you should have taken a couple lessons from Martha and covered your tracks just a little bit better?"
He looked up at her. His mouth opened. Then closed. Then opened again, and stayed that way.
Grinning, Dylan slipped into one of the obscenely opulent skybox seats and crossed her legs casually. "Now it seems to me that my best course of action would be to call the cops right now. But, because I'm a 'lady', and a fair one at that, I figure now might be the perfect time for us to do a little dealing."
A strangled sound came out of his mouth.
Dylan smirked. "I'll take that as a 'yes'." She pretended to think on her words. "You're scum, Horace. You know it. I know it. Your wife and kids know it. But you're lucky, because I like your wife, and your kids. A lot. Almost as much as I detest you. And I really don't want to see them deprived of your company--and your money--for, oh, say the next ten years or so."
Another strangled noise. The folder slipped from his hands as one fist came up to clench at his heart.
"Not that I wouldn't spill every single word in those documents to the DA, the press, and anyone else I felt like spilling it to, but if you give me a reason not to, I might be persuaded to keep my mouth shut. For now." When it was obvious he was incapable of responding, she continued. "Here's my one time only, never to be repeated, take it or leave it offer, Horace. You let Cat out of her contract, quickly and quietly. An amicable decision all the way around. No whispers of improprieties, no nothing. You just...let her go. Me, you can fire if it'll make you feel any better, but Cat is not negotiable. You also let anyone else who wants to get off this team go, no questions asked. And...for my final demand, you sell the team. Tell the league owners it's too hard on your health. Tell them it takes too much time away from you banging your secretary. Tell them anything you want, but you sell and retire from the sport permanently." She smiled. "If you don't, then I walk, and then I talk, and I keep on talking until there is nothing left of you but a pair of holey boxers. Do we understand one another?"
"Heart? You mean you actually have one of those? Please."
Dylan slowly stood until she was towering over him. "Do we have a deal, Horace? A simple yes or no will suffice. Yes, and I get on the horn and get you an ambulance. No, and I get on the horn and get the cops. What'll it be?"
"Bzzt! Wrong answer." She strode easily over to the phone hanging on one wall. "I'm sorry about this, Horace. Really, I am. But if you can't swim with the big dogs, well....I'm sure you know how the rest of it goes."
"Yes! Yes!! ....deal....!"
Dylan beamed. "I knew you'd see it my way eventually. For the record, though, I would have called in the paramedics either way. You're scum, but I want you to live with your mistakes and my threat hanging over your head for a good long while. I get nasty that way when you threaten people I love." Picking up the phone, she called for the paramedics and ambulance crew stationed outside the arena. Hanging up, the turned to the pale, panting man and patted one of his cheeks before bending down and retrieving the folder. "Goodbye, Horace. A little slice of heaven, and all that."
As she exited the box, he slid slowly down the wall, clutching his chest and retching violently. Behind him, barely heard, the buzzer sounded, ending the game.
Cat walked, shoulders slumped, down the long, dark hallway leading to the locker room. She could hear the boos of the crowd echoing along the corridor, but it did little to lift her spirits. Even the fact that she'd managed, somehow, to score thirty two points in the game didn't cheer her. If she had known that her last second three pointer had narrowed the lead to eleven, thus losing the ubiquitous Horace Johnson two hundred thousand plus dollars, she might have smiled.
Then again, she might not have.
Cat was a woman who didn't like to lose. And she had never, ever lost a championship game she'd ever been a part of, from the Bridgeport Girl's Club Rec League all the way through her final year at UConn. When it counted, she always found a way to win.
"Except today," she mumbled, looking at the scuffed and dirty floor as it passed beneath her scuffed and dirty sneakers. "Fuck."
"You kiss your mother with that mouth?"
As Cat looked up, Dylan detached herself from the shadows, crossed over to her, and enveloped her in her long, strong arms. "Hey, sweetheart."
Cat snuggled into the warm embrace, tears pricking at her eyes. "I'm sorry, Dylan," she murmured against the fabric of her lover's warm-up jacket.
Dylan pulled away just enough to reach a hand under Cat's chin and tilt it up so that their eyes met. "Sorry? What could you possibly be sorry for? You did great!"
"But we lost!"
"Hon, that wasn't your fault."
"Cat, listen to me. You did everything you could. How many times does the point guard, one with four fouls against her, by the way, get to be the high scorer of the game? Thirty two points, Cat! Seven steals! Nineteen assists! Those are All-Star numbers! Hell, they're Hall of Fame numbers! You need to be proud of that! I sure as Hell am!"
Cat shook her head, looking away from her lover's blazing eyes. "It doesn't matter. We still lost."
"No, Cat. Remember what I said before. We didn't win because Horace fixed it. But we're not losers. Listen to that crowd out there. They know who won. And it wasn't the Monarch, no matter what the scoreboard says." She chuckled. "And it certainly wasn't Horace Johnson, either."
Cat's eyes went round. "What? But how can you-- But you said--"
"Yeah, he bet against us, that's true enough. But, he also bet against the spread, and with your last second bucket, you brought us inside that spread and he lost himself a bundle of cash." The wan smile she received wasn't enough, and Dylan took her lover back into her arms again. "Sweetheart, within a week, probably less, your phone is going to start ringing off the hook with calls from owners, coaches and scouts who want to wine and dine you into accepting a huge dollar contract from them. The same with sponsors. Your agent's gonna think she died and went to Agent Heaven. With how you performed out there today, despite all the obstacles thrown in your path, you can write your own ticket. You won, Cat. You won it all."
"But...what about the contract I already have? With the Badgers?"
"If it isn't dissolved yet, it soon will be. Easy split, no nasty words, you're just left free and clear to follow your heart."
Cat looked up at Dylan, her eyes showing her puzzlement. "But...how?"
"Horace and I...came to an understanding." That shark's grin came again. "In exchange for keeping some rather nasty information to myself, you get cut loose with no strings, anyone else who wants to leave gets the same ticket and, for the piece de resistance...." She twirled an imaginary moustache, "...he's selling the team."
"Oh my God," Cat breathed. "What the hell do you have on him?"
Dylan shook her head. "The less you know about that, the better off you're gonna be, love. Let's just say that Mac was able to dig up a couple of things that could have put our ex-owner in the pokey for a very long time. In exchange for my silence in the matter, he's accepted my terms."
"But that's blackmail!"
Dylan's grin was unrepentant. "You bet it is, darlin'. Blackmail for a blackmailer. He got hoist up by his own ass, and I'm the one holding the scissors. And he knows it. He's through, Cat. Finished. And it couldn't have happened to a bigger scum sucker."
"And what about you?"
"He can do what he wants with me," she replied, shrugging. "It doesn't really matter."
"He could ruin you, Dylan! He could spread things about you all over the place! Horrible things!"
"As long as your name and face is kept out of those 'things', Cat, then I'm not worried. My reputation will either speak for me, or it won't. And either way," she shrugged again, "it doesn't matter."
"But basketball is your life!"
"I've come to find that I've got other priorities now, my love." So saying, she bent down to give Cat a soft kiss. "Something much more important to me than basketball could ever be." She pulled away. "You, however...."
Cat frowned. Dylan looked alarmed. "Cat? What is it?"
"What would you think if I told you that...maybe...basketball isn't what I want anymore, either?"
"Cat, you can't mean that! You're just starting out! You'll be the star this league is looking for, love! You deserve that!"
"Dylan," Cat said, sighing, "if tonight proved anything to me, it proved that this is not the basketball I fell in love with. It's not a game anymore. It's politics, it's bullshit, and, tonight, it's a joke. Why would I want to be the star of something that I detest? What does a whole room full of money mean when I can't stand to do my job anymore?"
"I don't know. Maybe I'll think differently about all this tomorrow, but for right now...." She shook her head. Then, for the first time tonight, a genuine smile curved her lips. "You told me I was free to follow my heart, right?"
"Good," she replied, pulling her lover in close, "because right now, my heart wants a big bowl of ice cream, a long soak in your Jacuzzi, and you, naked."
"Ohhhh, darlin, your heart can have whatever it wants, any place, any time."
"Good. Then let's get changed and get the hell out of here."
"Right behind you."
Before they could leave, however, Dylan made a farewell speech to her team. "...and you should all be proud as Hell over what you managed to accomplish. Not just tonight, but through the entire season. You became more than what you started out as. You became a team, the best damn team in the league. You comported yourself with style and grace, flair and good sportsmanship. And when you look back on this night some day, years from now, you'll see that it, more than any other, was the point that you went from being simple ballplayers to being champions." She gave a fond smile to each member. "As a result of what happened here tonight, there are going to be some changes, changes that you'll be hearing about shortly. Basically, this team is being dissolved and the owner is stepping down. Any one of you who want out of your contracts will be allowed out, free and clear. You'll be back on the open market, and believe me, with what you showed everyone out there today, you're all going to be fielding a lot of phone calls."
"What about you, coach?" Chaney asked.
"That...remains up in the air. But I'm not worried about it, and none of you should be either, alright?"
There was some grumbling over this, but a look from 'the Goddess' quieted it instantly. "I just wanted to tell you all that I've been proud, damn proud, to be associated with each and every one of you. You're a helluva team, and I wish you nothing but good luck and smooth sailing wherever your careers take you. Thanks for taking me on this trip with you."
As one, the team stood and began to chant Dylan's name. Even though they hadn't won, champagne corks popped and they were soon dousing one another with the bubbly liquid, laughing and cheering as if they'd taken the whole thing.
Cat joined in the laughter as she watched her lover use her much vaunted defensive skills to stay, for the moment, out of the fracas. She was right, Cat thought with a sense of surprise. That jerk could keep us from winning, but he could never make us lose.
And with her spirits thusly buoyed, she waded into the fray, a freshly popped champagne bottle ready for dumping on the most beautiful woman she knew, inside and out. Screw you, Johnson, and screw you basketball. There's finally something in my heart more important than the both of you could ever be.
And then, she pounced.
Grinning, Cat fanned herself with her open copy of "Alabama Coaches Monthly". Lowering her sunglasses just slightly, she turned her head to fully take in the view of the woman beside her. Lying on her belly in a seaside lounge chair, Dylan Lambert was the posterchild for clean living. Toned almost black by the constant sun, the white thong part of her bathing suit left nothing to the imagination, and Cat spent a good few minutes mapping every curve and valley of the long body stretched out before her. The tiny straps that held her top--what there was of it--up were, of course, untied to permit even tanning, and Cat found herself half-hoping that a loud noise or something would startle her somnolent lover enough to have her come up from her position.
Then she looked over that the small groups of men and women who continued to dart looks her dark lover's way and nixed that hope for good and all. Mine, she thought to herself. Allll mine.
Turning her head toward Cat, Dylan cracked her sun sensitive eyes just the slightest bit open. "Did you need something?"
Cat smirked. "Oh, the many ways I could answer that particular question. However, since we're in public right now, I just was wanting to tell you that I saw an ad here for a coach over at St. Catherine's Girl's High. The candidate has to have a teaching degree too. I think they want them doing the Health classes or something."
Dylan chuckled. "Your mom will think she's died and gone to heaven. You...teaching. In a Catholic girl's school even."
"Mm. You have a point there."
"Is it something you're considering?"
"I don't know. Guess it's good to keep my options open."
As Dylan's eyes slipped closed, Cat thought back on the past three weeks of her life. True to her lover's prediction, no more than two days had passed since the championship game when her phone began ringing off the hook. Seemed that every single coach and owner in the league wanted to talk to her. She'd even been surprised by the number of calls coming from outside the United States. Teams from Spain, France, Germany and Japan were hustling to beat the band. She was, it seemed, a very hot commodity.
Thus far, Horace Johnson had managed to keep his word. She received the letters releasing her from her contract, and there was, as Haley Locke put it, no muss and no fuss to go with them. The team's owner--he hadn't sold yet--refused to be interviewed in the aftermath of the last game of the season. Of course, it had helped that he'd just been released from the hospital after an attack of angina, and the press wasn't all that inclined to push.
More surprisingly, he'd let Dylan go just as quietly as he'd let Cat, and most of the other Badgers go as well. Cat often wondered just what it was that Dylan dangled over his head, but realized that in this case, some secrets were best kept behind locked lips. At least until she'd determined her life's path and couldn't be hurt by them anymore.
Dylan had fielded more than her fair share of calls--she *was* the Goddess, after all, and number one in anybody's eyes, be it as a player, a coach, or a combination of the two. She'd turned them all down with class and aplomb, leaving her many callers feeling better than any right to feel, considering she'd said 'no' to their offers.
Finally, when neither of them could take anymore, Dylan suggested a vacation on Antigua. Cat had jumped at the suggestion before it had even fully left her partner's lips, kissing her soundly for her good judgment, then rushing off to pack. They'd both left their cell phones at home, and their destination with Mac, who was under orders not to breathe a word of it to anyone under penalty of a severe hurting. He'd gotten the message loud and clear.
So why, she mused, was Carlos, the admittedly hunky cabana boy, coming toward them with a tray in his hand? A tray that bore something that looked suspiciously like a phone atop its silvery elegance?
As he approached, Carlos flashed a toothy grin at them both while bowing at the waist. "Good afternoon to you Ms Cat and Ms Dylan," he began in his lightly accented voice.
"That'd better not be a phone in your hand," Dylan muttered from her place on the lounge.
The young man's smile faltered slightly, then regained previous wattage as he bowed again. "Yes, Ms. Dylan, it is a phone."
"I'm gonna kill Mac," she grumbled, pressing her top to herself in deference to Cat, and reaching for the phone.
"No, Ma'am, it is not a Mac. He says his name is a....Thad Carter?"
Dylan and Cat exchanged glances. Thad Carter was the head coach of the Dallas Mavs, the men's pro basketball team. Pressing the phone to her ear, Dylan said, "Thad? That you?"
"Dylan! Thank God. I've been looking for you everywhere!"
"I'm on vacation, Thad." Cat could see her lover's jaws clamp hard on the invective that was just begging to come out.
"So, what was so urgent that you had to call halfway around the world to speak to me? Is the sky falling? Stock market crash? Horace Johnson finally bit the big one while screwing his admin? What?"
Thad chuckled. "No, no, nothing like that. It's just that...well....I....."
"Spit it out, Thad. I'm beginning to tan unevenly here."
Cat smothered her laughter with a hand to her mouth. Dylan turned and tipped her a wink.
"I'm waiting, Thad."
"Ok, listen, it's like this. You probably haven't heard the news, being on vacation and all, but I've been named the Head Coach of the USA Women's Basketball team for this year's Olympics. And, well, I'd like you and Catherine to consider playing for my team. Now I know that you're both semi-retired, but you're also the best female players in the damn world, and I want you and your talents on my side of the court. We'll win the gold if you're there, sure as shit sticks to a sheep's ass."
"Charming, Thad. Utterly charming."
She could almost feel the man's blush on the other end of the line. "Sorry. It's just...."
"I know what it's just, Thad." She sighed, rolling over to one side so that she was facing Cat, who looked to be ready to go into convulsions unless she found out what they were talking about, and soon, too. "Listen, you're right. We're both semi-retired, and we took this vacation to get away from all the hounds and freaks and assorted other nutjobs wanting a piece of us. So I can't give you our answer right now. We'll have to discuss it between us."
"I understand," he replied quickly. "I am a little pressed for time, though. This was kinda sprung on me the last minute too."
"Spreading the wealth around. I like that about you, Thad. But the fact is, we'll take all the time we need to come to a decision. Neither of us is in the mood to be pushed right now. If that is too tough on you, go ahead and get someone else."
"No, no. I want you two first. It's a lot easier for top prospects to say yes if they know the top dogs are already in the pen."
"Another brilliant analogy from a man full of...something." But she grinned as she said it, and she knew he could hear the levity in her voice. "Give us a day or two to talk it over, alright? We'll call you when we've made up our minds."
"Either way. I promise."
"Alright. I'll look forward to hearing from you, then. And I'm sorry about disturbing your vacation."
"That's fine. Talk to you later."
Hanging up the phone, she waved Carlos away, then rolled to a sitting position on the lounge. Cat was all but buzzing with anticipation, gem green eyes sparkling in the strong sunshine. "Well?"
"That," she teased, "was Thad Carter."
"I know that."
"He coaches the Mavs."
Dylan could hear her lover's teeth grinding. "I know that, too, dear."
"Yes, I guess you do." Hands over her head, she gave a leisurely stretch, showing off every deeply tanned and muscular ripple in her skin. A short distance away a man, too busy eyeing Dylan to know where he was going tripped over his wife, dumping her into the sand. Cat chuckled despite her frustration.
"C'mon, Dylan, stop teasing the tourists and give already."
"No, you rat. What did Coach Carter say to you?"
Dylan gave an offhand shrug, then peered down at her fingernails. "Oh, he might have mentioned that he got suckered into taking the Olympic head coaching job and wants us to play for our country in the Olympics this summer."
"You're shitting me!"
Cat tried hard to keep the joy flowing inside her deeply bottled. Without knowing how Dylan felt about the whole thing, she wanted to keep her reactions inside until she was sure, one way or the other.
Dylan, however, could easily read the happiness in her lover's beautiful face, and it brought a smile to her own. "You did mention, once, that you would have liked to represent your country in the Olympics, right?"
"Well, yes," she replied, trying to keep it casual. "I might have mentioned something like that once or twice."
Dylan nodded carefully. "So...it's something that you might want to consider?"
"It might be," she replied slowly. "If it's something you're willing to consider as well. I know what happened last time, Dylan. It just about ruined your career."
"But it didn't. And the more I think about it, the more I think I'd like to try the whole experience again. With you."
"Funny. That's exactly what I was gonna say to you. Except for the 'again' part."
"So, we're in?"
And the two lovers kissed to seal the deal.
Seven months later, Cat grinned as she looked over the mantle in the house that they both shared. Inside a velvet lined, glass fronted box hung two gold medals, their rewards for taking the USA team to the very top of the Olympic world. She grazed her fingers very close to the glass, seeing the bright and shining memories of that heady, wonderful time in the medals hanging before her. She could almost hear the chants of "USA! USA! USA! USA!" when they'd been called to the top of the podium to receive their just rewards. A large framed shot held the place of honor next to the medals. It was a picture of the whole team standing atop the highest step of the podium. Dylan and Cat, in the center, were holding hands, eyes sparkling with tears of pride as they watched the flag being hoisted to the top of the arena, mouths frozen in the singing of the National Anthem.
"God," she whispered, "what a time." She could feel the goosebumps prickle across her skin and a warm, tingling flush of blood moving through her. "What a time."
Taking her tea, she moved to sit in the butter-soft couch that lined the back wall of the den. Dylan was off getting her face plastered on Wheeties boxes from here to Peoria. Cat herself had just returned from a relatively tame Nike shoot. All of her clothes had stayed on, at any rate. And right here, right now, she was perfectly content. The past was unchangeable, the future not yet set in stone, and she could, for once in her life, live completely in this moment.
Unfortunately, this particular moment wasn't exactly the most exciting of its genre, and she soon found her lids grow heavy. Listening to her body, she placed the tea mug on the table beside the couch, and slipped more comfortably into its warm embrace. She was asleep more quickly than she ever realized.
In his opulent office, Horace Johnson mopped the sweat from his brow with a slightly yellowed handkerchief, then looked back down at the latest offer sheet. It was a blind offer, and it irked him no end not to know who was behind this thing. But as his daddy had been prone to say in similar circumstances, beggars can't be choosers, and it's best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. The Platitude King was Johnson's father, currently residing in the hottest pits of Hell, if his son's prayers had any effect on the thing.
He looked at the final numbers again, and scowled. The offer was much, much less than his asking price. He was getting scammed by a pro. A pro too chickenshit to show his face. "Shit."
"It's a viable offer," his lawyer informed him, as if he was blind to that fact. "Less than you wanted, of course, but more than anyone else has put on the table. Of course, we could give it more time."
Time. That blasted thing that Johnson seemed to be accumulating less and less of as the months went by. He could all but feel the combined nooses of the IRS and the SEC tightening around his neck as every hour passed. Most of his legitimate businesses had had to be shut down to conserve rapidly diminishing capital. What he needed, and quickly, was a chunk of cold, hard cash that he could use to buy the best lawyer in town, and let him slide an easy judge a bribe he couldn't refuse. Barring that, a good bit of grease would get him far away from here, perhaps to a place where there was no extradition back to this cesspit of a country who wouldn't rest until they saw him trying to pick up the soap in a shower-room filled with degenerates.
"Alright," he grumbled, finally. "Alright, I'll sign the damned thing. You're sure the payout's in cash, right?"
"That's part of the deal, yes."
"Alright, then. Let's get this over with." He signed page after page after page after page with his usual flourish, realizing with a sense of almost relief that he was slowly, but surely, taking himself out from beneath that dyke bitch Lambert's unnatural thumb. Oh yes, he would pay her back for what she'd done to him. Pay her back in spades. And his life would once again be sweet. Heck, it might be that the new owner of the Badgers would be willing to go in on it with him. It was a well known fact that the league owners hated queers every bit as much as he did. Some even more so. Yes, he thought, smiling, life turns out good after all.
He pushed the stack of papers to his lawyer, his customary smirk, which had been absent lo these past several months, returned in all its force. "Now that we got this out of the way, think the new owner will meet me now? I think we might have a few things to talk about." His smirk broadened, then lost some of its steam as his own lawyer supplied the same expression in return.
"Oh," he remarked, "I have no doubt that can be arranged. Stay here for a moment and I'll check with them to make sure everything's acceptable. Then you can meet, ok?"
Feeling every inch a fat, satisfied cat, Horace put his feet up on his shiny desk, pulled a cigar from his pocket, and lit it with a flourish. He eyed the bottle of cognac sitting on an antique table nearby, and began to laugh.
Several minutes later, his lawyer stuck his head in through the door. "The new owner's ready to meet with you now."
"Send him in," Horace replied expansively, round face flushed with joy. "Send him right the hell in."
The lawyer's head disappeared, and the heavy door slid open.
Horace choked on his cigar as the new owner of the Badgers strode into the room, briefcase stuffed with cash in one hand, an insufferable smirk on her stunningly beautiful face. "Hello, Horace," came the low purr.
"N--" He choked again. "No! Nooooooo!!!! It can't--you can't---I won't---"
"Oh, that's where you're wrong. It can, you will, and I just did. Enjoy your blood money, maggot. The Badgers are mine."
Wide, bulging eyes turned to his lawyer, who shrugged, but didn't look all that unhappy.
"Signed, sealed and delivered boss, just like you ordered."
With a grin, Dylan Lambert tossed the heavily laden briefcase across the table, where it landed against the chest of the former owner of her team. "There ya go, scumbag."
"You can't! I protest! I didn't....."
Dylan strode across the room to the other side of his desk. Placing both palms flat against it, she leaned over until their faces were mere inches apart. "Game over, Horace. You lose."
"Mac?" Dylan tossed over her shoulder.
"Yeah, boss?" the giant man responded, stepping into the office. "Something you wanted?"
"Yeah. Get this pig outta my office before I call the cops and have him arrested for trespassing."
Mac grinned. "With pleasure, boss. C'mon, you. You're outta here."
Pale and trembling, Johnson didn't even put up a fight as Mac dragged him from his chair and across the room. "I'll get you for this, you dyke bitch. If it takes every last penny I have, I will get you."
"Don't ever make a promise you can't keep, little man. Now get out, before I forget what a gentlewoman I am and kick your ass from here to the first floor."
"You're going to regret this, Lambert! Count on it!!"
"Oh, I'm countin on something alright. Now get the hell outta here. You're stinking up my space."
Very soon, the door was closed, leaving Dylan to survey her new empire. Chuckling, she moved to the other side of the desk, sank down into the leather office chair, and picked up the phone, dialing the number by heart. "Hello, my love," she purred into the speaker.
"Dylan? Where are you? I expected you home a couple of hours ago! How'd the shoot go!"
"Fine," she replied, grinning. "Just fine."
"Then why aren't you here?"
"Oh," she said, "just stopped to take care of a little business."
"What kind of business." The voice, rife with suspicion, came back over the phone. "Dylan, what did you do?"
Leaning back in the chair, Dylan propped her feet atop the desk. "Well, after our time in the Olympics, I realized that I still loved the game. It made me realize all over again just what is so special about it to me. And I figured that this league, if it's gonna have a chance in hell of recapturing that magic, has to undergo some real changes. So...."
A pregnant silence on the other end of the line.
"I bought the Badgers."
"You bou...you b...you bought the Badgers?!?"
"Yup. I installed myself as player-owner, with Diana Caulley as head coach. She's paid her dues, and she deserves this chance to prove herself. I'm willing to give that to her."
"Oh. My. God. You fucking bought the Badgers!"
"Sure did. And, you know, I could use a really outstanding point guard who knows how the game should be played and who can set an example for all those young kids coming up through High School and College."
"You're asking me to join you?"
"Well, yeah. But, Cat, it's called 'asking' for a reason. I'll not force you into anything you don't want to do. If teaching ball to schoolkids is what fulfills you and makes you happy, then you have my full love and support. I did this for us, and for those kids out there who need to know that there's someone other than the Horace Johnsons out there who just want to make a buck, no matter how. But you can do the exact same thing by teaching those kids when they're young and just beginning to dream of making it to this level. The choice is yours."
Cat thought about that for a moment. She remembered the look of absolute joy on her mother's face when she told her she'd been considering taking the coaching spot at St. Catherine's. The woman almost broke down and wept, for goodness' sake!
But she couldn't hide the fact that her time in the Olympics brought that competitive spark back so strong that it was with her still, many months after the event had ended. She was honest enough to admit to herself that what would truly fulfill her, profession-wise at least--was another shot at playing at the professional level. There would still be gobs of schoolgirls waiting for her wisdom once she retired from the game. She had too much to do and to learn first, though. Another thought popped into her head. "What...what if I decided to accept an offer from another team?"
"Well, of course I'd be disappointed, Cat, but I've always told you to do what makes you happy. An unhappy Cat makes for an unhappy Dylan, and I really don't want it to be that way."
"Well, I'd be happiest playing for you. I know that. But there'd be talk."
"Screw the talk. I've been given carte blanche to clean this league up, and that's what I intend to do. People either get their heads out of their asses and watch the game for what it's supposed to represent...entertainment...or they can go find another hobby. No more politics. No more bullshit. A good league, run a good way, and we might just have something." She fiddled with one of Horace's pens. "So, you just think about things, Cat. Have Haley represent you at contract signing, no matter who you decide to play for. You won't get a penny more or a penny less than what you deserve."
There was only a moment of silence before Cat came back on the line. "There's really no choice for me, Dylan. Loyalty means something to me. And you've always told me to follow my heart. My heart, Ms. Pallas Dylan Lambert, is with you. I'd come back to the Badgers even if you put me on the lowest rookie salary on the books."
Dylan laughed. "I don't think there's a chance in hell of that happening, love." She looked around the office once again. "So, why don't you throw on some clothes and meet me up here. I think I can promise you an evening to remember."
"I'll be holding you to that."
"Good. Now hurry up."
Cat laughed. "I love you, Dylan. With all my heart."
"And I love you, Catherine. Forever."
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