It was only their first game, but the fans at the stadium where Texas Tech held their home games were packed into the stands, ready to cheer on their favorite team. Mark could hear them screaming through his helmet, and a rush of adrenaline flooded his veins at the snap of the football.
He ran the pattern they’d determined in the huddle, putting on speed to distance himself from the other team’s defensive tackle. Swiveling his head, his gaze locked onto the quarterback, who was scrambling left. Cannon Brown’s arm shot forward, and the ball flew from his fingertips and headed in Mark’s direction.
The team called him Cannon because he would brag that his arm could lob a ball the distance of a black powder cannon. Mark happened to know that a cannon from that time could shoot its ball nearly a mile, or around 1,500 yards. Cannon’s own abilities seemed to top out around seventy-five yards on his best day. Mark came to a stop to confuse the defense, then looped right to snatch the ball out of the air. It was a good throw, but only about thirty yards, which meant Mark had to do the rest of the work himself.
He could hear the cornerback hot on his heels, but Mark knew he was faster than the other team’s player. Head down, ball tucked safely in the crook of his arm, Mark ran like his ass was on fire toward the end zone. He had always had the fastest feet on the team, honed by years of chasing after his older brothers and wild sister. He’d always felt like he had to catch up, and by middle school, he had caught up, then surpassed his siblings, meaning they could no longer exclude the baby of the MacAllen family.
The roar of the crowd echoed around his helmet as he lunged into the end zone, scoring for his team. He raised his hands in triumph, one holding the ball, the other pointing his index finger toward heaven. Mark searched for his family in the sea of red in the stands, then spotted Brenne’s sparkly cowboy hat. His sister was standing on her seat, waving her hat in the air and screaming for all she was worth.
The cheerleaders were capitalizing on his success by running midfield and starting a cheer. Mark walked back toward the bench, watching as they built a pyramid. He’d always respected the bravery of the cheerleader who rode the top of the pyramid. Today Piper Hallworth had that position, one leg kicked up high with her hand holding it up, the other hand tossed up so that it was even with her extended leg. Piper had a bright smile on her beautiful face, and Mark had to turn away before the tingles she made him feel started to displace his athletic cup.
Mark made other plays that game, but none were as impressive as that first long rush into the end zone. Still, his team easily beat their opponents, and the mood in the locker room was upbeat. Many of his teammates came up to pat him on the back after the shower as he changed back into his street clothing.
“Where’s my little brother? The one who is on his way to a first-round draft pick next spring!”
Mark rolled his eyes at the sound of his brother Evan’s voice carrying through the locker room. Closing his locker, he readied himself for his brother’s enthusiastic attention. Evan arrived, then proceeded to pick Mark up and spin him around like he used to do when Mark was a toddler.
“Well done, baby brother!” he hollered, making some of Mark’s teammates laugh.
“Get a room!” one of them called.
“Put me down,” Mark gritted out, pushing against Evan’s shoulders until his brother released him.
“Sorry, Mark,” Evan said, his grin at odds with his words. “I’m just happy for you. Keep playing like this, and you’ll go pro for sure.”
“I had to stop him from grabbing you in the showers,” Jameson said, and Mark turned to find the eldest MacAllen brother leaning against a nearby locker. “Be grateful.”
Evan crossed his arms. “This is huge,” he argued. “I don’t know why our baby brother is acting like he didn’t just run the ball in for a sixty-three-yard touchdown.” Evan grabbed Mark around his neck and rubbed his knuckles over Mark’s head, causing his dark blond hair to stand up in corkscrews.
“Knock it off, Evan,” Jameson ordered at the same time Coach Belmont came up, taking his characteristic wide stance with his fists resting on his hips.
“When I find out who keeps letting you back here, Evan MacAllen, I’m going to make sure to give them a stern talking to.”
Evan’s grin was the opposite of sheepish. “I have my ways, Coach. You know that.”
“The day you graduated was the happiest day of my life,” the coach said through a clenched jaw. “Now stop accosting my players and get the hell out of my locker room.”
Jameson put his arm around Evan’s shoulder. “Come on, brother. It looks like we’ve worn out our welcome.” He dragged Evan toward the exit, giving Mark a wave as they went.
Mark tried to push down his unruly hair, then realized Coach Belmont was still watching him. “Uh, Coach?” he said, nervous at the expression on the older man’s face.
“Why don’t you take a walk back to my office with me?” the coach said, then turned and started walking away.
Mark took a deep breath and followed. Coach Belmont was a man of few words, and private conversations with him were rare things, which was why a thread of anxiety worked its way into Mark’s belly.
The coach entered his office and took a seat behind his desk, leaning back to rest his feet on its messy surface. Mark took one of the wooden chairs across from him, waiting as the coach bent his arms behind his head and looked Mark up and down. “This is your last year here. Your last year under my watch. But your talent is such that some will be impatient to recruit you.”
Mark fidgeted in his seat. He thought he was used to others’ expectations of him. He’d been attracting attention for his skills since high school, and he knew folks like Evan had high hopes for him, but hearing it from his coach somehow made things seem more real.
“I see,” was all he could think to say.
“You don’t yet,” Belmont replied, “but you will soon. Case in point, did you know we had a scout in the stands today?”
Mark swallowed nervously. “A scout?”
Coach Belmont nodded. “His name is Kevin Barnes, and I’ve met him a time or two. He scouts for a very recognizable team, one you might have heard of. They play in Dallas.”
Mark’s eyes widened. “You’re kidding.”
Belmont chuckled, shaking his head. “’Fraid not, kid. You’ve got a lot of heart and more than enough hustle. Barnes’s team would be lucky to have you.”
“Wow.” Mark wasn’t sure how to respond. He felt shy when it came to his natural talent, almost undeserving of the praise he received. “I don’t—that is, I’m not sure—”
“You don’t have to make any decisions now. I told Barnes to buzz off and let you concentrate on the present and not what is sure to be a remarkable future. But he will be back, and I want you to be ready. Scouts and teams like to promise the earth to their recruits, but football isn’t all adoring fans and cheering crowds. Remember that.”
The door to the office burst open, and a red-faced towel boy spoke rapidly, accompanying his words with jerky gestures. “Reggie pushed Sterling into an ice bath and held his head under. Now Sterling is threatening to, uh, have his revenge, and what he’s suggesting is? Well, it’s bad.”
Belmont let out a sigh and stood. “I better go handle this. But think about what I said, son. The future will be here quicker than you think.”
Mark sat there for a moment after the coach left, collecting his thoughts. A scout was watching me. And he’ll be back. He knew what that meant, understood the magnitude of being recruited to play professional ball. What he didn’t fully grasp was his own feelings on the subject.
A cacophony of hoots and howls from the locker room broke him out of his contemplation. It was clear that Coach Belmont had handled the Reggie versus Sterling drama, to the amusement of the rest of the team. Mark stood, deciding to exit through the other door in Coach’s office, the one that led into the hallway instead of back into the locker room. He enjoyed the camaraderie and post-win celebration of his team, but today it was all a little too much for him.
Besides, he knew he had a similar celebration waiting for him back on the ranch. His family had always supported him, as well as the other brothers who had walked the same path before him. His parents and siblings made a point to attend every home game and even some away ones, assuming they weren’t too far from the ranch. They were there every week, wearing their Red Raider gear and cheering along with the crowd.
Then, after the game, they all returned to the ranch for a large family dinner. Gathered around the big table, they’d talk about the game and Mark’s performance. He didn’t mind getting ragged on by his brothers whenever he missed a catch or was caught off guard long enough to suffer a brutal tackle. But lately, the only thing anyone seemed to want to talk about was his moving up to the pros. It was a foregone conclusion that he’d be drafted by an NFL team and start his journey to glory.
The only problem was, Mark wasn’t sure he wanted to take that journey.
He’d thought about leaving the ranch before, but it had always been an abstract consideration that seemed far away from his day-to-day life. But as Coach had said, the future would be upon him soon and he’d be faced with a real decision.
Mark pushed through the door that led to the parking lot, squinting into the bright sunlight. The transition from the dark interior had him temporarily blinded, which was why he didn’t realize he was about to run into the person in front of him.
After colliding with another body, Mark staggered backward in surprise.
“Oops!” came the female voice in front of him.
His eyes adjusted and he realized he’d just plowed into Piper Hallworth, the cheerleader from the top of the pyramid. The prettiest one, if you ask me.
“So sorry,” he stammered, embarrassed. He watched as Piper turned around, her dark eyes like twin pools of ink reflecting the sunlight. Mark’s mouth went dry and he swallowed hard.
She flipped her dark ponytail over her shoulder and smiled up at him. “I guess I should be glad you don’t play for the defense, huh?”
Mark smiled. He couldn’t help himself. There was something about Piper’s bubbling personality that always put him in a good mood. They didn’t know each other well, but he’d run into her before and after games and at events, enough to know her name and a few other things. Like how dang pretty she is.
“I’m sorry again,” he said, gesturing agitatedly, distracted by her attractiveness. “Didn’t mean to almost knock you off your feet.”
She shrugged a shoulder in response. “I’m stronger than I look.”
Mark chuckled, mostly because he couldn’t think of a response. “Some game today, huh?” he said finally, feeling awkward as all get out.
“Some game for you,” she said with a wink. “You’re a shoo-in for MVP this year. I expect you to be holding up that Heisman at the end of the season.”
He hoped like hell he wasn’t blushing. “Heck, there are a lot of guys better than me out there. I just catch the ball and run like hell.”
Piper shook her head. “Don’t underestimate yourself, Mark. You’ve got real talent, and that’s rare.” Her phone started buzzing in her pocket, and she dug it out. “I’ve got to take this, but I’ll see you around.” She smiled and walked away.
“See you around,” he echoed lamely. He watched her go for a moment, eyes glued to her petite frame. She’d changed out of her cheerleading uniform, but her shape-hugging leggings and crop top were no less sexy. Mark had to pull his attention away and force himself to walk toward his truck.
It might be a cliché, but Mark didn’t care. He was a football player with a full-on crush on a cheerleader.