It’s just after midnight, and the celebration is in full swing. Our squad captain’s swanky flat is bursting with people and noise and cigar smoke. The floor throbs in time to a catchy pop song; girls dance on a nearby table. One of them keeps looking at me.
Well. Checking me out, really. Her eyes devour me from my legs up to my chest, but they stop there. She doesn’t bother to look any higher than my neck.
I slip out of the hall and make a beeline for the (relative) safety of the kitchen. The euphoria of tonight’s win over our rival, Barcelona, is beginning to fade, and my hip is sore as fuck from the hit I took late in the match.
Being ogled like just another footballer piece of meat is not doing wonders for my very real desire to get the hell out of here and read Harry Potter in bed. I bloody love that little wizard and his mates.
I use the bottle opener on my key ring to pop the top off one of the beers I brought with me. I take a long, hard sip, wondering if it’s too early to pull a Houdini.
I felt great on the pitch tonight. I helped the squad cinch a huge victory—Spaniards can’t keep their pants on when it comes to the Madrid-Barcelona football rivalry. I was on cloud nine, like I usually am when I’m playing footy.
But now? Now I’m tired and sore as hell, and after a half dozen post-match interviews, my capacity for small talk is nonexistent.
As a solid introvert, I like to recuperate, alone, after the craziness of a match day. Football is really the only thing that energizes me—it’s the only thing I’ve ever excelled at—so I’ve practically lived and breathed the sport since I was fifteen.
It’s not a bad gig. Not in the slightest. I may feel a bit out of place at these parties. But I love my job, and I’m fucking good at it. I get paid an obscene amount of money. Not that football’s ever been about the money for me, but it’s definitely a nice perk.
Needless to say, I’m content with my lot. Even if I do hate these parties and the girls that come to them.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to find the sort of girl I’m looking for—the sort who’s genuinely interested in me and not my money or my body or my career. I’m looking for a girl who wants the same things I do.
A girl who wants to get serious, maybe have a family someday. Not anytime soon, of course, but I don’t see the point in being with someone if our relationship doesn’t have forever potential.
I head to living room, which just so happens to be one room closer to the nearest exit. I’ve been at this party for a couple of hours already; I’ve paid my dues. Time to go home.
I hang out in the corner of the room and quickly drain the rest of my beer. I’m digging my keys out of my pocket when Rhys Maddox, one of my few friends on the squad and our resident golden-haired heartthrob, claps me on the shoulder. He nods at a group of girls, all of them pretty and smiling, across the room. “Ready to go say hello? Laura’s friends are lovely girls.”
Laura is Rhys’s American girlfriend. She’s funny, she’s nice, and she’s really great for Rhys (even though he may not know it yet). Basically she’s one of my favorite people on Earth.
I’ve seen these girls before; they’re her American friends she’s studying abroad with in Madrid. I told Rhys earlier tonight that I’d introduce myself. Now I’m really regretting that decision. Hermoine and Ron are calling my name, and my hip is killing me.
“They’re pretty,” I say, feigning anxiety when really I’m just impatient to get the fuck out of here already. “Really pretty. Forget it. I changed my mind. I can’t go talk to them, not right now.”
I’m about to turn for the door, but Rhys tightens his grip on my shoulder, turning me back toward the girls.
“Listen, mate,” he says. “If you can’t talk to girls after winning our most epic match yet, there’s something seriously wrong with you. C’mon.”
With a sigh, I let Rhys steer me toward the girls. I just have to play nice for two minutes. Two minutes of torture. But at least after that I can go home.
“Hi,” Laura says, smiling at us.
Rhys smiles back, a big, dorky thing I’ve never seen on him before. “Feeling all right?”
“Yes.” She turns to me. “Fred! I’m so glad you came over. The girls have been dying to meet you. This is my friend Vivian, and this”—she loops arms with a very pretty, dark-haired girl—“is Rachel, she really loves, uh, sports…”
Meeting my eyes, Rachel smiles and holds out her hand. I’m struck by the friendliness of her smile. It’s a high-wattage, Julia-Roberts-style smile, but it’s somehow sincere, too. Intimate.
So bloody different from the come-hither grin that girl dancing on the table gave me earlier.
“Hi, Fred,” she says. Her American accent dips a little, curls at the edges; I don’t recognize it. Southern, maybe? “Nice to meet you. You looked really great out there tonight.”
I take her hand. She gives mine a firm, warm squeeze. My eyes flick down her body, back up again. She’s petite—I practically tower over her—and hot as hell. I didn’t know I was a boob guy until this very second. Hers are…gah, they are perfect.
Rachel drops my hand. I blink, mentally chastising myself for ogling her like a piece of meat. I don’t like being looked at that way, and I doubt Rachel does, either.
Get it together. I need to get it together. But something about this girl—her boobs? her smile?—is making it difficult to do that.
“Thanks,” I say. “I, um, hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“We froze our asses off, but it was worth it,” she says. “The energy in that stadium is ridiculous! It was so loud my ears are still ringing a little. Is it that loud on the field—the pitch, I mean?”
“Oh, God, yes,” I say. “So loud you feel it in your chest. To say our fans are passionate is an understatement. Other squads say it’s the toughest place to play when you’re on the road.”
“I noticed you were limping a little after that hit you took in the second half. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you rehab an injury like that? Ice? Ibuprofen? Probably lots of rest, too, right?”
Her eyes, dark and intelligent, are on the hip in question. So Rachel really paid attention to the match. I like her curiosity.
I also like her confidence. I’ve known her all of sixty seconds, but she’s got this lovely, down-to-earth energy that sets her apart.
She’s obviously gorgeous, too. Those eyes—Jesus, they make my pulse jump.
“Yes—a combination of all three, actually. How’d you know that? Do you play football?”
“Tennis, mostly, but I played a little bit of everything in high school—basketball, volleyball, soccer—sorry, football. I’m kind of a sports nut.” She grins, tucking her long, inky brown hair behind one ear. “I bet you’ll have one hell of a bruise tomorrow.”
I nod, trying not to stare at her. Not only is she beautiful and confident, she’s also as obsessed with sports as I am. I’ve got to be dreaming. This girl is way too good to be true.
“Yeah,” I manage, “this one’s going to be bad. Been wanting to get home all night so I can have a good cry about it.”
I pretend to wipe away a rogue tear, throw in a sniffle. She laughs.
The sound floods my ribcage with warmth. It’s not forced, her laugh, or fake. I’d know; I’m an expert at coaxing belly laughs from my niece Lilli (pro tip: the peek-a-boo game goes a long way with a nine month old).
“Oh, come on, you rolled around the field in apparent agony for, like, five minutes after that play. Surely there were tears then? Fake tears, at the very least?”
Americans love to poke fun at our, er, theatrical response to getting injured on the pitch. This is nothing new. But the good natured way Rachel is teasing me about it—that is.
I have no idea what the fuck is going on, but I suddenly want to stay at this party more than I want to dive back into The Prisoner of Azkaban.
I’m suddenly having more fun with a real live person than I would with fictional ones. She’s just so friendly and so gorgeous. Clearly smart, too.
I mean, this is usually the point in the conversation when I’d excuse myself, pleading one of three vague but believable excuses—I’m fucking exhausted, I’ve got to go to [insert football-related activity here], or so sorry, but my mum and/or sister is calling me. My life is predictable enough that one of the three is true at any given time.
But right now, I actually want to stick around. See what else Rachel has to say about…well, everything.
“I save my fake tears for weekday matches, thank you very much,” I reply.
“Oh?” She crosses her arms. I try—and fail—not to notice that this makes her breasts look even bigger. Get.it.together. “And why is that?”
“The thing about fake tears is that they really take a lot out of you,” I say. I notice that sometime in the past few minutes, Rhys and Laura disappeared. Rachel’s other friends are gone, too. Can’t say I’m not glad to have her all to myself. “I would know, as I’m an expert. I’ve got to prepare for days ahead of time.”
She cocks a brow. “Prepare? How?”
“Watch Titanic on repeat and practice in the mirror, obviously.”
“Obviously,” she says, chewing on her bottom lip as her face lights up with a smile. I really, really wish she’d stop chewing on her bottom lip, because it’s driving me crazy. It’s making me think about how much I’d like to take that lip between my own teeth. “So you’re German?”
“Where are you from?”
I grin harder, hoping it will distract her from the tent I’ve started to pitch in my pants. Fuck. “Germany.”
“I know,” she teases back. “Where in Germany?”
“The south. A town called Weilheim in Oberbyern. It’s in Bavaria. Best beer in the world there. I actually brought some bottles with me—want to grab one?” I ask, nodding my head toward the kitchen.
Rachel looks at me. She appears as startled by the invitation as I am. I’m never this cool or forward with girls. With people. Ever.
“Yeah,” she says after a beat. “Yeah, I’d like that. Everyone here is drinking this fancy champagne—someone said it was the most expensive in the world?—but I’m more of a beer girl myself.”
“Yeah, that’s our captain, Olivier Seydoux, for you. Only the best of the best for that bloke.” I glance back at her as we head for the kitchen. “So you really like beer, huh?”
“I do. My dad’s from Milwaukee, and my grandmother worked at one of the big breweries there. Needless to say, my beer education started at a young age. My high school friends thought it was so cool that my dad would let me have a beer with him when we watched college football—American football—on Saturdays.” She rolls her eyes. “I was so badass back then.”
I reach inside the cabinet where I hid my stash and grab the last two beers. “You’re not badass anymore?”
“Meh,” Rachel says with a shrug. She watches as I grab the key ring from my pocket and use the opener to pop the tops off the bottles. Her eyes linger on my hands. “Do you always carry a bottle opener with you?”
I spear her with a look. “You don’t?”
“I don’t. But!” She rummages around in her purse, and pulls out a pair of these little foam sleeve things. “I do always have a couple of coozies on me.”
“Coozies? What the hell are those?”
“Watch and be amazed.” She slips the first foam sleeve onto one beer—it’s printed with white letters that read BATCAVE SPRING FORMAL 2016, MERYTON U—and then the second, emblazoned with a donkey’s ass and nothing else, on the other.
“You see,” she says, handing me the one with the donkey ass, “it keeps the beer cold. Although we’re not drinking it cold, so I guess it would just keep the beer from getting too warm from our hands?” She scrunches her nose. “I don’t know. I guess it makes sense coozies wouldn’t be a thing in Europe.”
The scrunched nose—seriously, could Rachel be any more adorable?
“At the very least, they keep you from getting your bottle mixed up with someone else’s, yeah?” I offer.
She laughs, crossing one leg over the other. Her body tilts toward mine, just a little, and suddenly the temperature in the room goes up a notch. I haven’t been attracted to someone like this in what feels like forever. The impulse to erase the small space between our bodies is fucking hard as hell to resist.
“Yeah,” she says. “I’ll take it, mostly because I got to show off my coozie collection.” She holds out her beer. “Cheers, Fred. Congratulations on your win. And on your amazing theatrical performance.”
“Thanks. I worked quite hard to get it just right tonight,” I say, and now I’m laughing, too. Genuinely laughing. I give her a little bow, my fingers brushing hers as our bottles tap on my way up. A ribbon of heat unfurls inside my hand, moving up my arm.
God, I want to touch this girl. I want to put my hands on her and kiss her hard and make her laugh.
We hold our bottles like that for a beat too long. My gaze latches onto Rachel’s and doesn’t let go. She’s feeling it, too—this energy, this attraction between us.
“You’re staring,” she says with a smile.
“Can’t help it,” I say. “Sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“Because I hate when people look at me like…like I’m a piece of meat, I guess.”
“I don’t feel like a piece of meat right now.”
“No? Good. What do you feel like?”
“Like…I don’t know.” She gives a little shrug. “Like I’m having fun with a really tall, really cute dude at an otherwise lame party.”
I grin. “It is quite lame, isn’t it? And here I believed I was the only one who thought that.”
“Of course it’s lame. I mean, it’s amazing, but also lame. It all seems kinda fake, I guess—the schmoozing, the fancy champagne.” Rachel shrugs again. “I’m having more fun with you than I would be mingling with everyone else, that’s for sure.”
This girl—it’s like she’s reading my bloody mind.
Which she can’t actually do, thank God, or she’d know I am currently fantasizing about having her in my flat, naked, her eyes closed as my fingers between her legs, her mouth open, her pussy pulsing. She’d pant, make these little breathless noises.
The head of my dick presses against the fly of my jeans. I close my eyes, take a deep breath.
“You okay there, killer?” Rachel asks.
“Yes,” I grunt.
She laughs. “That’s the least convincing ‘yes’ I’ve ever heard.”
I open my eyes and look at her. Jesus, she’s pretty. Lit up.
It’s weird, but something about her laugh reminds me of home. There’s always laughter in my parents’ house; my ribs ache for days after I spend a holiday at home with my siblings and their significant others and my parents. I miss that.
We sip our beers. Rachel smacks her lips and lets out a sigh of satisfaction. “That’s delicious.”
“You like it?” I meet her eyes. The irises are so dark they almost fade into the pupils. Almost, but not quite.
“I love it. It’s different—tastes like a wheat beer, which is probably my favorite.”
“I’m glad. These Bavarian beers can be a bit of an acquired taste.” I take another sip. “So, the sports thing—are you planning to play tennis professionally? Maybe go into sports management or something like that?”
“I’d really like to go into sports medicine, actually,” she says, setting her beer on the counter. “Maybe physical therapy or something like that. As a matter of fact, I had a phone interview for an internship at the Meryton University athletic department right before the match.”
“That’s brilliant,” I say, and I mean it. I never doubted her sincere interest in sports, but I adore just how much she obviously loves them. “How did it go?”
She shrugs again. “I’m trying not to get my hopes up. But it’d be really awesome if I got that internship. My ultimate goal would be to work for a sports franchise—a team like yours—but working at the athletic department is a great way to get my foot in the door.”
“You know,” I say, my heart skipping a beat, “if you want a tour of our team’s training facility, all you have to do is ask.”
“Yeah, right, I’ll just ask for a tour of the training facility that belongs to the world’s most valuable sports franchise. The facility that’s more closely guarded than the Pentagon. No big deal,” she says.
“Rachel, it’s really not a big deal.” She meets my eyes when I use her name. “If you want a tour, I can make it happen. Easy. I’ll ask the club medical staff to show you the ropes. Might give you a better sense of what you’re looking for? The club just built a new medical facility that is bonkers, and we’ve got a couple doctors on staff, plus fitness coaches, physios, even a sports psychologist. A bit of everything, really.”
She blinks a couple of times. Looks away. Looks back up at me, her hair falling into her face. “Seriously? You’d do that?”
“Of course. You’re in Madrid, for Christ’s sake, so you might as well do it while you’re here.”
“Wow,” she says, pulling her hair back. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you. This is huge for a lot of reasons—I’m heading back to the states in, like, less than a month, and if I hadn’t talked to you tonight…just. Wow. I’m the luckiest freaking person on the planet. Thank you.”
I grin. “Not sure if you saw how great I looked on the pitch tonight—”
“Now you’re just bragging,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“I am. But the squad really, really likes me at the moment, and they’ll do pretty much anything to keep me happy. I’d love an excuse to exercise some of that muscle, especially on behalf of a mate’s friend. The tour would be asking a small favor, nothing more.”
“Small favor? Fred, I can’t tell you how many sports medicine internships I’ve secretly applied to without ever hearing a peep back.”
“Secretly?” Now I’m intrigued.
Rachel waves me away. Her eyes change. They’re sad, I think. Sad or hurt. “Long story.”
“How does Wednesday sound? I’ll arrange everything, and I can send my driver round to pick you up.”
She blinks. “You have a driver?”
“I do. I usually drive myself around, but it’s always nice to have someone on call.”
“Uh. Wow. Sorry, sorry, I know I keep saying wow, but this whole thing is just—I mean. Wow! I’m speechless. Wednesday works for me.”
I smile. So does she. Bloody hell, that smile. “Great,” I say.
“Great,” she says.
I try to tamp down on the pulse of warmth low in my belly, between my legs. I want to touch this girl, take her home, but I can’t.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I haven’t fooled around with girls casually before. I’m not a monk. But every time I’d get physical with a girl without any intention of seeing her again, I’d just end up feeling empty. Lonelier than before. Used, even as I felt like I was using her.
I’m done with that shit. I’ve been done with it for a while now. Rachel may not have said outright she doesn’t want to get serious with a guy, but she’s moving thousands of miles away in a month’s time. There’s no way she’s looking for forever with someone in Spain.
I am. Which may explain why I’m twenty-two years old and still haven’t swiped my v-card. Yeah, I’m not proud of it, but I suppose I’m an old-fashioned sort of bloke. I want to fall in love before I have sex; fall for someone who will stick around for the long haul. It just feels right, I suppose.
At this point, I’ve waited a long time to lose my virginity—so why not lose it to someone special? Someone who really means something to me? I think sex is sacred. It’s important I get it right.
So…yeah. As attracted as am I to Rachel, I’m not interested in a casual hook-up with her.
With a sigh, I tug a hand through my hair. I’ve been here before. I’ve been attracted to girls who clearly weren’t my forever, and I managed to keep it in my pants then. I can do it again. The attraction fades. It always does.
But damn if that smile of hers doesn’t make me feel fucking awake and alive and, yeah, more than a little turned on.
I’m so excited for my tour of Fred’s training facility I can hardly pay attention in my one and only class of the day. But I have some work to do—exams are coming up—and the driver isn’t picking me up until later this afternoon. So after class I run a few errands, then head for the Reina Sofía Museum. I’m writing a paper on this gorgeous Herman Anglada Camarasa painting that hangs there.
I peep the painting for a bit before sitting down to write in the museum café. It takes me way longer than it should to get going on the paper. Now I’m not only thinking about my tour, but I’m thinking about the cute, charming guy who made it happen—Fred Ohr, soccer star and all around stud.
Athletes are my type, and not just because I’m an Exercise and Health Sciences major. Fred is a big guy, with thick shoulders that taper into a slender but still well muscled torso (I may or may not have Googled shirtless pictures of him when I got home from the party). I felt like a pixie next to him.
I liked it. Him. I liked him a lot. His sense of humor. His generosity. The way his blue-green eyes got all squinty when he smiled.
I noticed him even before we were introduced. He was standing off to the side, alone, nursing a beer. I wouldn’t say he looked sad or anything. I mean, the guy was getting plenty of attention from girls at that party. But I definitely picked up on some loneliness there. I’ve felt lost at parties, too—the old cliché of being in a room full of people but feeling lonelier than ever—so I could sympathize.
I’d like to think he felt a little less lonely after our chat. I sure as hell did. I actually haven’t stopped thinking about how much fun I had, talking to him.
How goddamn hot he was.
My memory of how Fred looked is crystal clear. He’s handsome, but in a way that’s totally different from the rest of the guys on his team. Guys like Rhys Maddox, who, with their smoldering gazes and cheekbones and ridiculous Euro haircuts, could easily be underwear models.
Fred is less classically good-looking, more square and masculine. His blond hair is cropped close to his head, and he had it combed in a hipster schoolboy swoop to one side. He’s got a hockey player nose: a little too big for his face, a little crooked, too, like he’s broken it a couple times in epic fistfights with the losers who threw him into the boards. He was dressed in jeans and a blue sweater he wore over a white button up. Simple, nothing fussy, but still sexy. I remember how freaking handsome he looked.
I liked that he was different. The other footballers were too much for me. Too pretty, almost.
I’m so distracted by the memory of his smile and the zing of warmth it sent through me that eventually I give up on my paper and check my email instead.
My heart skips a beat when I see a note in my inbox from the athletic director at Meryton.
The internship I’ve applied to—the one in sports medicine I really want—there’s news.
My fingers shake as I guide the mouse across the screen. I open the email, my eyes moving over the words faster than my brain can process them.
You’ve made it to the final round of candidates…you will receive a call for one final phone interview…please provide proof you are able to find housing in the Durham area this summer…
“Holy shit!” I say, loud enough to make the old Spanish dude beside me look up from his newspaper.
I sheepishly offer him my apologies, then reread the email. Oh my God oh my God oh my God I totally wasn’t expecting this to happen. The internship is prestigious and highly competitive. I didn’t think I’d even make it past the résumé stage, much less the final round.
Wow. Now that this sports medicine thing might really happen, I recognize how badly I want the internship. The thought of getting it and working at the athletic department all summer long makes me so excited I can hardly sit still. I want this. I really, really want this to work out.
Sports medicine combines two of my favorite things: sports (obviously) and science. Mom wants me to channel my interest in science into a career being a superwoman surgeon like her, but over the years, I’ve seen how her job absolutely consumes her life. How stressed and overwhelmed she always is.
I’d like a career that offers at least a little more balance. I want to work to live, as cheesy as that overused byline is, and not the other way around; I want there to be enough room in my life for things like travel. Books. Kids—lots of kids—and fun. I’ve talked to several people—doctors, physical therapists, trainers—and from what I can tell, I have a much better chance of finding that balance in sports medicine than I do in cardiothoracic surgery (mom’s specialty).
But I know how disappointed mom will be if I don’t go the surgeon route. And if there’s one thing I really hate, it’s letting her and dad down. They’ve just been so good to me. They’ve worked so hard to make my dream of going to Meryton University come true.
Probably why I haven’t told them I’m applying to sports medicine internships. Just the thought of having that call with mom that makes my stomach hurt.
I blink when an IM pops up at the bottom of my screen.
It’s mom. Of course. My heart falls. I don’t know why I’m surprised; she’s always had an eerie sixth sense of when to appear so she can burst my bubble.
I left you a voicemail this morning, she types. I’ve been waiting for you to call back—I heard from the head of the anesthesiology team. Said he may be able to get you in for some shadowing this summer.
I stare at the screen. I’ve shadowed doctors in mom’s hospital before, and I pretty much hated it every time. I can’t imagine having to do that again instead of working at the athletic department.
I also can’t imagine telling mom I’m passing up anesthesiology for sports medicine.
Something must be up with my phone—I didn’t get any voicemails today. Weird. I reply.
Maybe you should get it checked out? It would be a catastrophe if you missed a call about an internship opportunity.
I roll my eyes. Of course mom would use the word catastrophe. Like my phone dropping a call is on scale with a category five hurricane.
I’ll see what I can do, I type.
You need to make a decision soon. Have you applied to the research group I told you about? They are doing some great work with stents. This summer is huge for you. That’s when I interned at the CDC, remember? And I met Dr. Zhu, who got me into Yale.
Yes, I remember. You tell me that story every time we talk. Couldn’t forget it if I tried.
You don’t need to get so snippy, you know, she says. I’m only trying to help. You have to do something with yourself this summer, and it’d better be amazing. I’m not paying forty grand a year for Meryton for you to end up working at a gym. You can do so much better than that.
I’m working my ass off trying to figure it out, trust me, I reply.
But even as I type the words, a well-worn feeling—something like panic—makes me short of breath. Two minutes ago, I was pretty sure about what I wanted. I wanted to get my dream sports medicine internship. I was so excited about checking out the training facility of the best soccer team in the world.
Now I’m not so sure. I’m not excited.
A familiar set of memories moves through my head like the slides on a projector. Mom’s grinding frustration over not getting the promotion she wanted turning into a howl of joy the day I got into Meryton (her top pick for me); how the stress she wore like this giant, heavy overcoat every day would disappear if I came home with all As on my report card; how I distracted her from another fight with dad by telling her I’d take up violin, even though I so wasn’t into music or instruments or the creepy lady who taught orchestra. She, however, was thrilled, mostly because she’d read somewhere that playing music helps increase your standardized test scores.
My mother is not the happiest person in the world. I recognize that. But when I can make her happy—when I can make her proud—it’s the best feeling ever.
I want to see mom happy more often. I mean, duh, I love my mom. She’s my mom. But her bouts of happiness never seem to last, which leaves me scrambling for another accomplishment, another achievement to wave in front of her. I keep thinking that maybe this will be the thing that tips the balance. This semester’s GPA or this exam score or this internship will be the thing that finally keeps her happy.
Doing this internship at the Meryton athletic department is definitely not that thing. As great as it feels to make mom smile, I can only imagine how awful it’s going to be if I piss her off, or, worse, disappoint her.
I mean, maybe I should be more worried about ending up at a gym, the work-life balance I’m looking for be damned—although, honestly, what’s wrong with working at a gym?
Maybe I should be shadowing anesthesiologists; it’d look great on my med school application. Maybe I am wasting mom’s hard earned money by not working harder. I’m really, really lucky that I don’t have to worry about paying for college, and I definitely don’t want to be the kid that freeloads off her parents’ generosity.
I’ve just been really busy getting ready for exams, I type. I’ll get going on my summer plans once they’re over.
All easy As, she replies. At least this semester won’t be a total waste for you—those grades will help your GPA, and medical schools will love that.
Right, I say. That’s exactly why I came to Spain. To boost my GPA.
That’s my girl, mom types, clearly not picking up on my sarcasm. I can’t wait for you to come home. We can work on the essays for your applications together. I already have some good ideas for the Yale essay—you know the one about rising to meet a challenge? I figure you can talk about the research you did at the oncology center.
I fall back into my seat with a heavy sigh. When I think about pursuing mom’s route, I feel this surge of satisfaction at how thrilled and proud she’ll be of me if I do get into Yale. But at the same time, my gut ties itself in knots. It knows it’s not the path for me. It tells me in no uncertain terms that I’m not going to be happy.
Mom will be, though. Maybe her happiness will be big enough and bright enough to keep me happy, too. I don’t know.
I do know that if I have to talk to mom for another second, I am going to fling myself down the nearest elevator shaft.
Gotta run, I type. Call you later.
Good luck studying. Can’t wait to see those grades!
I slam my laptop shut. Shut my eyes, too, against the sudden sting behind my lids. I swallow, hard, and take a deep breath.
Today is a really great day. I’m not going to let mom ruin it for me. How often do I get to rub elbows with some of the best physical therapy professionals on the planet? I’ll worry about my summer plans—and my future—later.
I decided when I arrived in Spain that this would be my semester of YOLO. And so far, I’ve done a pretty great job of living in the moment.
This tour will be no exception. I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it. After that—who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and enjoy the hell out of Fred, too.
My heart is pounding as the driver—Fred sent a guy in a ridiculous giant black Mercedes to pick me up from school—glides through security at the gate to the football club’s training facility. I wasn’t kidding when I said the place is guarded like the Pentagon; there are fences and cameras everywhere; there’s a guardhouse, even a couple security officers patrolling the perimeter. I knew Fred’s team was a big deal in Spain, but it’s hitting me just how huge this whole operation is.
And how famous. A couple minutes ago, we turned off the highway and took an unmarked, one lane road that wound through a mile or two of arid countryside before the giant training facility came into view like a spaceship that landed in the middle of nowhere. My driver explained that the facility “must remain hidden” so that fans and the media, and even rival football clubs, can’t get a glimpse of the players as they train. It’s like their tactics are a closely guarded national secret or something.
I shiver. This is wild—the fact that I’m here.
Wild, and really exciting.
The driver makes his way through an orderly parking lot packed with brand new Range Rovers and sports cars with blacked out windows. I wonder which one is Fred’s. I don’t know him, not well, but I get the feeling he wouldn’t drive anything quite so flashy. Just doesn’t feel like Fred—he’s more understated than that.
Finally the driver pulls up to the medical facility, all glass and gleaming angles, and hurries to open my door.
Thanking him, I make my way to the entrance. I catch a glimpse of one of several practice pitches just off to the side of the building. It’s a cold day, a little before three o’clock; the sky is clear but already darkening, the blue tinged with purple. A couple guys are out on the field, running some pretty brutal looking drills. I can faintly make out shouts, a bark of laughter. I look for Fred’s tall, well-muscled figure, but I don’t see him.
My heart falls. He didn’t say if he’d be here or not today, but I secretly hoped he would be.
I hope he’s here. I really do. He still has my coozie, for one thing, and for another, I’d like to thank him—with dinner, maybe? a drink?—for putting this whole thing together. He doesn’t know me, and he didn’t have to help me out. But he did, and I want to show my appreciation.
I’d also like to make out with him, pretty badly. It could be totally one-sided, but the attraction I felt between us practically sizzled. I’m getting tingles just thinking about it.
I head inside the training facility, and I’m immediately greeted by a cute woman, forty, maybe forty-five, in a snazzy Madrid tracksuit. Her name is Valentina, and she is the first team physiotherapist—meaning she works with the best players on the team to prevent and rehabilitate injuries.
Valentina doesn’t speak great English, so I get to practice my Spanish as she gives me a tour. She’s warm, friendly, and very funny; she answers all my idiot questions patiently. I have a lot of them. Like, a lot. Probably because I’m so enthralled by everything I see and everything she says I can hardly stand it.
We start in the training facility’s main building, a gargantuan complex that is as big as a mall. Maybe even bigger. It’s sick. Not only is there an Olympic-sized pool; there are actual treadmills and stationary bikes in the water. We pass through an enormous gym, an indoor running track, two weight rooms, massage therapy rooms, saunas and steam rooms, and a mod, chic-looking cafeteria. Everything is new and clean and state of the art.
My head is on a swivel.
Players greet Valentina as they pass us. She asks one guy about his knee; she promises to help another with his hamstrings. She turns to me, eyes lit up, and for the next twenty minutes tells me all about hamstrings and how to rehabilitate them and how to keep from hurting them and how they work. Her delight is infectious; as her smile grows, so does mine, even though I don’t understand half of what she’s saying.
How different she is from my grim-faced mother, who wears the weight of the world on her shoulders as she charges down the halls of her hospital.
We head into one of a dozen physiotherapy treatment rooms, where Valentina introduces me to Dr. Jimenez, the club doctor, and Sebastián, the player whose ankle Dr. Jimenez repaired after Seb took a nasty spill a few months back. They let me watch as Dr. Jimenez checks everything out; after, Valentina and Seb put together a list of exercises and stretches, cracking dirty jokes in Spanish as they go.
After that, Valentina and I pore over her schedule in her office—she’s filling me in on what her typical day looks like. It seems she’s got a pretty great work-life balance; she seems to have time for both work and play. She says with two kids and a husband who also works that it’s not easy, and some days are absolute hell. But for the most part, she enjoys her time at the facility and at home. Her job is interesting and challenging. She knows she is part of something bigger, something important.
I don’t know Valentina well, but I can just tell she’s a happy person. It radiates from her. She is patient and kind. She lights up when she talks about her kids, her work, her husband.
This—finding this kind of life—this is what I want. My own version of this kind of contentment. Of balance.
If I could just find the courage to go after it, instead of towing the line and doing what mom wants me to do.
I’m asking Valentina about her post-graduate path when a familiar voice sounds at the door.
“Enjoying yourselves, ladies?”
I start, my pulse leaping as I look up. Fred.
He fills the doorway, leaning a hip against the jamb. He’s still in his practice clothes—black compression tights underneath shorts, a sweatshirt, gloves, cleats covered in grass—sweaty and huge and smiling.
It’s like a bullet straight to the chest. I grab onto the edge of Valentina’s desk, hoping my legs don’t buckle as I meet his eyes. I can smell him from here. Soap, something simple but clean, cut with an edge of sandalwood.
Heaven help me.
I am attracted to Fred. Very, very attracted.
“Hello, Fred,” Valentina says in heavily accented English before switching to Spanish. I am having fun showing Rachel around. I can tell she likes it here.
“Hey,” I manage.
“You came,” he says, his eyes getting all squinty with pleasure.
“This place—it’s pretty incredible, Fred,” I say. “Thank you. Seriously. I can’t thank you enough.”
“My pleasure.” I love his weird little accent, his words flavored with a bit of German, a bit of British, too.
He glances at Valentina. “Are you done with Rachel yet? I don’t want to rush you…”
“She is very much yours now, yes?” Valentina says with a knowing grin. She kisses my cheeks.
Come back anytime, Rachel, she says in Spanish. If you’re interested, we have a formal internship program you can apply to for the spring. It is very competitive, but also a fantastic opportunity. You are always welcome here. Mostly because I’ve never seen Fred smile like that.
Color creeps into Fred’s face as he laughs. Man he’s cute. Hot. Huge. He is all those things, and it is all I can do not to stare.
He tilts his head. “Come on, then, Rachel. There’s something I’d like to show you.”