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This book was amazinggg.
A little slow in the beginning, but the build up of the romance was epic.
The Epilogue was a bit disappointing though. I guess I needed more.
A little slow in the beginning, but the build up of the romance was epic.
The Epilogue was a bit disappointing though. I guess I needed more.
17 June 2021 (21:19)
LOVED IT the beginning was definitely slow in terms of them talking and stuff haha but once it got going IT GOT GOING the tension and them hanging out was amazing and cute def recommend 1000/10
09 July 2021 (02:47)
GOD I LOVE MARIANA ZAPATA, SUCH A PAGE TURNER, QUEEN OF SLOW BURNSSS
10 September 2021 (15:48)
5/5, a great book (灬♥ω♥灬)
13 September 2021 (15:17)
Super sweet, I’m so jealous of their relationship even tho it’s all fiction
14 September 2021 (14:38)
This books is lifeline. No one will regret reading this. Absolutely perfect. Is it slow than other novels? Yes. Is it better than the others? YES! I'm in love with this. 10/10
15 September 2021 (11:45)
I read the wall of Winnipeg and Me and I couldn't have enough of it so someone recommended this one too for me. I hope I love this one too.
24 September 2021 (11:06)
Mariana is a queen omg I love kulti
03 October 2021 (06:47)
I don’t want to know what the content is …. Mariana books are hooking, down to earth and the best???
17 October 2021 (17:36)
Marianna Zapata's books make me so happy istg!! If anyone wanna talk about books and stuff @bookhooks101
28 October 2021 (19:27)
this is just amazing, truly. i would say this is my favorite book so far out of Mariana Zapata’s books. 10/10 would recommend
31 October 2021 (07:48)
I loved it, cute story
02 November 2021 (17:41)
I loved it, tge slowburn was killing me but it's so worth it in the end. I loved the MC so much and the LI even more. Such a good book!!!!
19 November 2021 (18:59)
Definitely a 10/10. I liked the book because it wasn't fast-paced and instead took its time. The plot was very excellent, and the ending was really satisfying. Mariana Zapata has written another excellent book, and I encourage that you read all of her works. I adored it. The beginning was really slow in terms and the tension and them hanging out was wonderful
21 November 2021 (17:17)
I loved this book. Thank u tiktok for recommending this book to me. I really love slow burn kind of thing.
23 November 2021 (17:17)
Build up was worth it. Love the German nicknames,they are soooo cuteee.Get yourself a pumpernickel
25 November 2021 (17:27)
KULTI Mariana Zapata Contents Copyright Dedication Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Epilogue Thank You Acknowledgments About the Author Also by Mariana Zapata Kulti © 2015 Mariana Zapata All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights. This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2015 Mariana Zapata Book Cover Design by Jasmine Green Interior Formatting by Indie Formatting Services To my dad. My friend, my playmate, my champion, my co-conspirator, and my backup any and every time I’ve ever needed you. Any father I try to write would be a poor replica of you. I love you, dude. (So stop driving like a maniac, I need you around for a long time.) Chapter One I blinked. Then, I blinked some more. “What did you just say?” The man sitting across the desk from me repeated himself. Still, I stared at him. I heard him correctly the first time. He was loud and clear. No problems. But my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the sentence that had come out of his mouth. I understood all the individual words in the sentence, but putting them together in that moment was the equivalent of telling a; blind person you wanted them to see something real quick. Basically, it wasn’t going to happen. “I need you, Sal,” Coach Gardner, the man who was asking the impossible of me, insisted. I sat back against the chair in his office and took in the silvering hair on his head, his smooth, unlined face and the Houston Pipers polo shirt he had on. For being in his late forties, he was still a looker. Demented and out-of-his-freaking mind, but handsome nonetheless. Then again, Jeffrey Dahmer had been attractive, so good looks weren’t exactly the best scale of measurement for an individual’s mental health. Calm down, take a deep breath, and get it together, Sal. Focus. I needed to focus on something else to relax. I chose his office walls. A neat line of diplomas hung to his right. On either side were pictures with his son and a few framed photographs of the Pipers on the field over the years—my favorite was a shot of the team last year when we’d won the Women’s Professional League championship. He was in the middle of the group with the league trophy, this three-foot monstrosity, held high above his head. I was right next to him holding the game soccer ball under one arm with my other around Jenny, our team’s goalie. I had the same picture in my apartment, a constant reminder of twenty years’ worth of hard work paying off. Plus, it was my motivation on the mornings when I sat on the edge of my bed looking and feeling more dead than alive, to get up and go on my daily five-mile run. “Sal,” the head coach of the team said my name again. “You’ve never let me down before. Come on,” he chastised me in a low, playful voice that gave the impression he was giving me a choice. He wasn’t. Just thinking about what he wanted me to do sent my heart pounding. My nervous system had slowed the minute he said the words ‘you’ and ‘press conference’ in the same sentence just a minute before. Then, when he said the word ‘today,’ my brain wished me good luck and shut down. I didn’t know what to do besides stare at him blankly. Me. Press conference. Today. I would rather get a root canal, donate my kidney and be constipated. Seriously. I hadn’t given much thought into Gardner calling me the night before. I didn’t think twice when he asked me to come to his office at the Pipers headquarters because there was something he wanted to talk about in person. I should have pleaded a case of food poisoning or bad cramps to get out of it, but obviously it was too late now. I’d walked right into his trap, physically and emotionally. Cameras. So many cameras. Oh God, I was going to puke just thinking about it. My initial thought was: No. Please, no. Some people were scared of heights, the dark, clowns, spiders, snakes… I never made fun of anyone when they were scared of things. But this horrible fear I had of speaking in front of a camera with a group of people watching had gotten me called a wimp at least a hundred times, mostly by my brother, but that still counts. “You’re going to tell me you can’t do it?” Coach Gardner raised an eyebrow, cementing the fact that he wasn’t giving me a choice, while also baiting me with words he knew I wouldn’t back down from. I was in his office at ten in the morning because he wanted me to be, not anyone else. Son of a bitch. If I were a lesser person, my lower lip would have started trembling. I might have even blinked and batted my eyes so that I wouldn’t cry because we were both well aware of the fact I couldn’t tell him no. I wouldn’t tell him no. Even if it killed me, I’d do what he wanted. He was banking on it, too. Because I was that idiot that didn’t back down from a taunt. A broken arm after someone said I couldn’t climb up this massive tree when I was eleven, should have taught me that backing down every once in a while was the right thing to do, but it didn’t. I mentally stepped into my Big Girl Socks—the equivalent I’d been given as a kid instead of Big Girl Panties because my dad thought that was a creepy expression. “I’ll do it.” I grimaced, more than likely looking like I was getting an enema. “But… G, why isn’t Grace doing it? Or Jenny? You know they usually do all of the interviews and stuff.” Because I sure as hell avoided them, at least the ones in front of a camera. “I didn’t ask Grace because I think it’d be a good idea for you to do it,” he explained, referring to the team’s veteran captain. “And Jenny isn’t arriving until Sunday.” I blinked some more at him, on the verge of puking and shitting myself at the same time. My leg had already begun shaking and I palmed it, trying to get it to stop. Gardner smiled tenderly, leaning across his big glass desk, hands clasped. “You haven’t even asked me what the conference is for.” Like I freaking cared. It could have been because someone had found a cure for cancer, and it wouldn’t matter. I’d be trying not to lose it all the same. My heart just started beating faster at the mention of the ‘c’ word, but I forced myself to look like I wasn’t fighting back a panic attack. “All right, what’s it for?” I asked slowly. Our soccer team’s preseason training started in a week and a half, so I guess I’d subconsciously assumed that was it. But the question had barely left the head coach’s mouth when he started smiling, his brown eyes wide. He leaned forward and said something that was just as bad, if not worse, than asking me to do a press conference. Sixteen words that I hadn’t been braced to hear. Sixteen words that I had no clue were about to change my life. “We just got confirmation that Reiner Kulti is taking the team’s assistant coach position this season,” Gardner explained, his tone implying ‘this is the best thing to ever happen.’ My face said ‘no, it’s freaking not.’ It took a minute for his smile to fall and a confused look to take over, but it happened. It fell like a Jenga tower, slowly and surely. He gave me a look. “Why are you making that face?” * * * I was seven years old the first time I saw Reiner Kulti on television. I can remember the exact moment he came on the screen. It was the semi-final for the Altus Cup—the tournament that happened every three years and included every national soccer team in the world eliminating each other left and right over qualifying rounds. It was the most highly televised sporting event in the world. Why wouldn’t it be? Soccer, also known as the ‘real’ football or futbol, was the most widely played sport across the inhabited continents. It didn’t discriminate. You could be tall, short, skinny, poor or rich. All you needed was a ball that was at least sort of inflated, and something to make a goal, which could be anything. Coffee cans. Coke cans. Trash cans. Anything. You could be a girl or a boy. Have a uniform, not have a uniform. And as my dad said, you didn’t even need shoes if you really wanted to get technical. Because my brother played it and loved it—and for some reason back then I thought my brother was the coolest person ever—I made my parents put me on a team when I was around six. My mom on the other hand, was slightly horrified and enrolled me in karate and swimming as well. But a small part of me had always known I liked soccer more than I liked anything else. On my dad’s side, I came from a long line of soccer fanatics. The Casillas didn’t play much, but they were big fans. With the exception of my older brother, who had supposedly showed an interest and a talent for it from the moment he was old enough to walk, everyone else just watched. But as I remember, and from the hundred times Dad retold the story, my brother and my father had been talking about whether Spain was going to wipe the floor with Germany or not, before the game started. A little after halftime, most of the players on the German team had to be substituted because of one injury or another. Eric, my brother, had already said, “Germany’s done,” and my dad had argued there was still time left for either team to score a point. Clear as day, I can visualize in my head the fresh-faced, nineteen-year-old who made his way onto the field. He was the last player on the team that could possibly be put in, the guy’s first time playing on the international scene. With light brown hair that seemed even lighter because of our static-y old television, a face that was hairless and a body that was long and thin… oh man, he’d been the cutest, youngest player I’d ever seen on the Altus Cup so far. Truthfully, Germany should have been done. The odds were against them. Hell, their own fans were probably against them by that point. Yet, no one had seemed to have given the team the message. At some point between the forty-five-minute marker that started the second half of the game, and the ninety-minute mark that ended normal regulation time, that skinny boy with the cute face who couldn’t have been that much older than me, but he was, managed to steal the ball from a Spanish forward attacking the German goal and ran. He ran, and ran, and ran and by some miracle avoided every opposing player that went after him. He scored the most beautiful, ruthless goal in the top right corner of the net. The ball seemed to sail through the air with a one-way ticket to the record books. My dad screamed. Eric yelled. The freaking stadium and the announcers lost it. This guy who had never played on such a platform had done what no one expected of him. It was one of those moments that lifts a person’s spirit up. Sure, it wasn’t you that did anything special, but it made you feel like you had. It gave you the impression that you could do anything because this other person did. It reminded you that anything was possible. I know that I stood there screaming right along with my dad because he was yelling and it seemed the most appropriate thing to do. But mostly, I know I thought that this Kulti, this number eight on the German national team who looked barely old enough to drive, was the most amazing player in the world that year. To do what no one believed you could do… Jesus. Now, as an adult, I can look back and understand why he had such an effect on me. It makes total sense. People still talk about that goal when they bring up the best moments in Altus Cup history. What was the turning point when I decided to follow this dream of turf, two goals, and a single, checkered white and black ball? That moment. That goal changed everything. It was the moment I decided I wanted to be like that guy—the hero. I dedicated my life, my time and my body to the sport all because of the player I would grow to follow and support and love with all my little heart, my patron saint of soccer—Reiner Kulti. For him, it was the moment that changed his career. He became Germany’s savior, their star. Over the next twenty years of his career, he became the best, the most popular and the most hated. Then there was the whole, I-had-posters-of-him-all-over-my-walls until I was seventeen, and the whole me-telling-everyone-I-was-going-to-marry-him thing. Before the posters and the marriage announcements, there had been the letters I remembered writing him as a kid. ‘I’m your #1 fan,’ written on construction paper with markers and crayons. They never got a response. But I kept that crap to myself. Plus, it had been ten years since I’d torn down the posters in a fit of rage, when the man who had grown to become known as Reiner ‘The King’ Kulti by his fans for being one of the most explosive and creative players in the sport, got married. I mean, hadn’t he known we were supposed to get married and have soccer-playing-super-babies together? That he was supposed to sit next to me on an airplane one day and instantly fall in love with me? Yeah, apparently he hadn’t gotten the memo, and he married some actress with boobs that seemed to defy gravity. And then less than a year later, he did other things that I couldn’t forgive. Gardner had no idea about any of this. * * * I sat up straight in the chair across from the same head coach I’d been working with for the last four years and shrugged. Why was I looking like that? Like I wasn’t excited at all? “G, you know what happened between him and my brother, right?” At that point, I guess I was expecting him to not know, because he’d been way too excited to tell me about Reiner Kulti getting hired. But Gardner nodded and shrugged, his face still a canvas of confusion. “Of course I know. That’s why you’re the perfect person to do this conference, Sal. Besides Jenny and Grace, you’re the most well-known and well-liked player on the team. What do they call you, ‘the home-state sweetheart?’” Home-state sweetheart. Gross. It made me feel like I was back in high school running for homecoming queen instead of the kid that skipped every homecoming because she usually had a game. “Kulti broke—“ “I know what he did. PR already brought up what happened with Kulti and Eric during our meeting last night when they told us he was hired. No one wants this season to be a soap opera. You going on camera and smiling and giving everyone that Sal-smile is exactly what the team needs. This isn’t a big deal, and everyone needs to get on board so that the focus is on the team and not drama from years ago. It’ll be ten, maybe twenty minutes, maximum. You, me and him. You’ll answer a few questions and that’s it. I won’t put you through this again, I swear.” My initial thought was simple: this was all Eric’s tibia and fibula’s fault. I wanted to bang my head against the desk that separated me from Gardner, but I managed not to. Instead, dread pooled a bloody lake in my belly. It made me cramp, and I had to press a hand over it like that would help ease my suffering. Then I sighed again and accepted the reality behind Gardner’s words. The league was all about family values, morals and everything wholesome. I learned that lesson the hard way, and the last thing I needed to do was ignore what had to be done to uphold that façade. Realistically, there were girls out there who would slit my throat for my position. And maybe meeting Kulti right before a press conference was exactly what I needed. Just get it done, get it over with and move on with my life. I hadn’t really followed his career in the last decade, and he’d retired from the European League two years ago. Since then, he’d fallen off the celebrity wagon he’d been adopted into with all of his endorsements. At one point, you couldn’t go to the mall without seeing his face on an ad for something. “I get it,” I moaned and dropped my head back to stare at the ceiling. “I’ll do it.” “That’s my girl.” I only just barely won the fight to not call him a sadistic asshole for making me do something that almost made me break out in hives. “I can’t promise that I won’t stutter my way through the entire interview or throw up on the first row, but I’ll do my best.” Then I was going to punch Eric in the fucking kidney the first chance I got, damn it. * * * You can do this, Sal. You can do it. When I was a little and my dad would ask me to do something I didn’t want to, which usually only happened if it was something I was horrified by—example, trying to kill those gigantic flying roaches that snuck into our house—he’d point his finger at me and tell me in Spanish, “Si puedes!” You can. Then, even if I cried as I went into the room housing the creature from the bowels of hell with a shoe as a weapon, I did whatever it was that I didn’t want to. ‘I can and I will,’ had been the motto I held closest to my heart at all times. I didn’t like people telling me I couldn’t do something, even if I didn’t want to do it. This was how Coach Gardner had gotten me to say I’d do the interview. I could do it. I could be in the same room as Reiner Kulti. Sit a couple seats down from him for the first time ever in front of several television networks. No biggie. On the inside, I crumpled into a ball like a dead spider and asked myself to please dissolve into dust sooner than later. This terror, this phobia of mine, was that unreasonable. No one ever says that fear is logical, because it isn’t. It’s stupid and irrational and on a scale of one to ten it sucked about a fifty. “You ready?” Coach Gardner asked as we waited for the beginning of the press conference. The journalists and reporters were so loud in the other room it was making me sick. How the hell had this even happened? I was usually third down the chain of players that got requested for these publicity events, and that was for a reason. I could play in front of thousands of people, but the instant cameras got within ten feet of me, I just shut down. I was like the Ricky Bobby of the WPL. I was sure there was a video of me making awful hand gestures throughout an interview somewhere. The three S’s came down to make me look like an idiot—stuttering, sweating and shaking. All at once. My hands felt like I’d just rubbed them all over my lower back after a long run, my armpits were sweaty… and my leg was shaking. Both my legs were shaking. I knew shit was about to get real when my leg shook. But instead of admitting that I was nervous, I stuck my hands in my pockets, thanked the lord above that the sweat pants I’d put on that morning were baggy enough so that no one could tell my legs had a mind of their own, and forced a smile on my face. “Ready,” I lied through my teeth. And unfortunately, he knew me well enough to recognize the fact I was lying out of my ass because Gardner laughed loud. A hand came down on my shoulder and he gave me a shake. “You’re a wreck. It’ll be fine.” One of the public relations people for the organization peeped around the corner of the hallway and frowned for a second before disappearing again. I couldn’t do this. I could do this. One hacking cough later, I told myself: I could do this. I really could. My leg only shook harder as someone came over a microphone in the other room, “We need a minute, please.” Oh God. “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little,” I muttered more to myself than to Gardner. “It’ll be fine,” he assured me with a sympathetic smile. I cleared my throat and nodded at him, begging myself to calm down. I took a couple of quick inhales and exhales before sucking in one deep breath and holding it, like I did when I was too amped up before a game. Yeah, it didn’t help. My stomach swelled with nausea and I had to swallow back bile. “Where is he, anyway?” I asked. Gardner actually looked around like the question surprised him. “You know, I have no clue. I guess they put him in a different room?” We got our answer a second later when the same PR rep who had just made an appearance was back, the corners of her mouth twisted downward. “We have a problem.” Chapter Two “Sal, no.” “Yes.” “Sal, I’m not kidding. Not even a little bit. Please. Please. Tell me you’re joking.” I laid my head back against the headboard and closed my eyes, giving myself a grim smile of defeat. All was lost. This afternoon had been real, and there was no escaping it. So I told Jenny the truth, “Oh, it happened.” She groaned. Jenny was a true friend, like one that felt the worst of your pain for you, suffering right along with you; she let out a groan that I could feel from over a thousand miles away. My humiliation was her humiliation. Jenny Milton and I had been friends from the moment we met each other at camp for the United States national team—the ‘best’ players in the country—five years ago. “No,” she groaned, she choked. “No.” Oh, yes. I sighed and relived the twenty minutes in front of the cameras that afternoon. I wanted to die. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, but it was definitely one of those few moments that I wished I could go back and redo differently. Or at least go all Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and pretend they never happened. “I’m going to dye my hair, change my name and go live in Brazil,” I told her evenly. What did she do? She laughed. She laughed and then snorted, and then laughed a little more. The fact that she didn’t try to tell me everything was okay meant that I wasn’t overreacting to the events that had transpired hours before. “What do you think my chances are that no one ever sees the entire thing?” Jenny made a noise that gave the impression she was actually putting some thought behind the question. “I would say you’re out of luck. I’m sorry.” My head hung and my chest puffed out in a suffering laugh-slash-dry cry. “On a scale of one to ten, how screwed?” There wasn’t a response until there was, and it was sharp and tight. A high laugh that let me know Jenny was feeling it down to her toes. She was laughing like she did every other time I’d done something incredibly embarrassing. Like waving back at a stranger that I thought had been waving at me—he wasn’t, there’d been someone behind me. Or the time I skid across a freshly mopped floor and busted my ass. I shouldn’t expect any different. “Sal, did you really…?’ “Yes.” “In front of everyone?” I grunted. I could barely think about it without tossing my cookies and wanting to find myself a cave and hibernate forever. It was over and life would go on. Ten years from now no one would remember, but… I would. I’d remember. And Jenny, Jenny would remember especially if she ever found the footage. And she would, I knew she would. She was probably already trolling websites looking for Sal Casillas’s entry into those video compilations people did for Fail of the Week. “Would you stop laughing?” I snapped into the receiver when she couldn’t stop cracking up. She laughed even harder. “One day!” “I’m hanging up on you now, bitch.” There was a loud snicker, followed by another, and then one more piercing gut-laugh. “Give… me… a… minute,” she wheezed. “You know, I called you because you’re the nicest person I know. I thought who isn’t going to give me shit? Jenny, Jenny won’t. Thanks a lot.” She gasped, and then she laughed even more. There was no doubt in my mind she was reliving the events of my day in her head and finally enjoying the humor in them—the humor anyone could have when it wasn’t them that had embarrassed themselves in front of the media. I pulled my phone away from my face and held my finger over the red button, imagining myself hanging up the call. “Okay, okay. I’m fine now.” She did these weird breathing exercises to calm down before finally getting it together. “Okay, okay.” A weird wheezing noise came out of her nose, but it only lasted a split second. “Okay. So, he didn’t show up? Did they say why?” Kulti. The entire afternoon had been his fault. All right, that was a lie. It’d been my fault. “No. They said he had some travelling issues or something. That’s why they made Gardner and I do the conference by ourselves.” Cue my imaginary sob. “That sounds pretty fishy,” Jenny noted, almost sounding normal. Almost. I could already envision her pinching her nose and holding the phone away from her face as she cracked up. Asshole. “I bet he was eating brunch and looking at ads of himself online.” “Or looking up old footage and criticizing himself.” “Counting his collection of watches—“ He’d had a watch endorsement for as long as I could remember. “He was probably sitting in a hyperbaric chamber reading about himself.” “That’s a good one,” I laughed, stopping only when the phone clicked twice. A long digit number with fifty-two at the beginning flashed across the display and it only took a second for me to realize who was calling. “Hey, I need to let you go, but I’ll see you at practice on Monday; your best friend is calling.” Jenny laughed. “Okay, tell him I said hi.” “I will.” “Bye, Sal.” I rolled my eyes and smiled. “See ya. Have a safe trip,” I said, right before clicking over to answer the incoming call. I didn’t even get a chance to say a word before the male voice on the other line said “Salomé.” Oh God. He was being serious. It was the way he said it, more choked rather than enunciated, all Salo-meh, instead of his usual “Sal!” that burst out of his mouth like I’d broken something irreplaceable. No one ever called me by my first name, much less my dad. I think the only times he ever had were when he meant business… as in the business of him trying to kick my ass when my mom thought I did something spectacularly dumb and wanted him to do something about it. There was the time I got into a fight during a game when I was fifteen and got thrown out. He never actually went through with any sort of real punishment. His idea of discipline was chores—lots and lots of chores as he secretly praised my jab when my mom wasn’t around. So when Dad continued by saying, “Is this a dream? Am I dreaming?” I couldn’t help but laugh. I pulled the covers down and away from my face to speak with him. The first thing I said to him was, “No. You’re just crazy.” He was crazy. Crazy in love, Mom joked. As a total soccer snob, my dad was like most foreigners—he wasn’t a fan of U.S. soccer if it didn’t have me or my brother in the equation. Or Reiner Kulti, also branded as ‘The King’ by his fans and ‘the Führer’ by those that hated his guts. Dad liked to say he couldn’t help liking him. Kulti was too good, too talented, and he’d played on my dad’s favorite team for most of his career, with the exception of a two-year stint he had with the Chicago Tigers at one point. So there was that, too. The man owned four different types of jerseys: the Mexican national team jersey, each club or team Eric had played for, mine, and Kulti’s. It went without saying he wore Kulti’s way more often than someone with two kids who played professional soccer should, but I didn’t take it too personally. The three of us—my mom and little sister excluded—had spent hours on top of hours watching all of Kulti’s games. We’d record the ones we couldn’t watch in person on the VCR and later on, through DVR. I’d been young enough for the six-foot-two German national to make the biggest impact possible on my life. Sure, Eric had been playing soccer for as long as I could remember, but Kulti’s influence had been different. It had been this magnetic force that drew me to the field day after day, making me tag along with Eric every chance I got because he was the best player I knew. It just happened that Dad had gone along on the ride with me, fueling my hero worship. “I was sitting here eating, when your cousin runs into the house,” my parents were visiting my aunt in Mexico, “and tells me to turn on the news.” It was coming… “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I couldn’t! We couldn’t tell anyone until it was official, and I found out right before they made me do the press conference.” There was a pause, a choke on his end. He said something that sounded like Dios mio under his breath. In a low whisper he asked, “You did a press conference?” He couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t seen it. Thank you, Jesus. “It went just as bad as you’re imagining it did,” I warned him. Dad paused again, absorbing and analyzing what I was telling him. Apparently he decided to let the news of my stupidity in front of the camera go for the time being before asking, “It’s true? He’s your new coach?” He asked the question so hesitantly, so slow, if it was possible for me to love my dad even more—it wasn’t, that was a fact—I would have. For some strange reason I had the mental flashback of having Kulti’s late-twenties face on my sophomore math binder. Bah. “Yeah, it’s true. He’s going to be our new assistant since Marcy left.” In a weird rattling exhale, my dad muttered, “I’m going to faint.” I burst out laughing even harder at the same time a yawn tried to climb out of me. I’d stayed up watching a Netflix marathon of British comedies until I found the mental strength to call Jenny with my story. I knew it was close to midnight, which was way past my usual old-lady bedtime of ten, or eleven if I was feeling really crazy. But I knew she was still in Iowa for two more days and she’d be up. “You’re such a drama queen.” “Your sister’s the drama queen,” he griped. He had me there. “You’re not lying?” He kept speaking in Spanish, and by speaking, I really meant he was more like panting at that point. I groaned, shoving the sheets further down my waist. “No, Dad. Jeez. It’s true. Mr. Cordero—our general manager, that idiot I told you about—sent out an email to the team right afterward,” I explained. Dad was quiet for a moment; the only sound coming through the speaker was his breathing. I was dying a little bit inside at his reaction. I mean, I wasn’t surprised he was having his own version of a shit attack. I’d think there was something wrong with him if he wasn’t acting like this might be one of the single greatest moments of his life. “I feel light-headed—“ This man was ridiculous. There was a pause, and in a tiny voice that was so at odds with the man that could usually be heard screaming GGGGGGGGGOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLL down the block, my dad croaked, “My hands—my hands are shaking—“ he switched back to English, his voice choppy. My entire body was shaking with laughter. “Quit it.” “Sal.“ His tone turned thin, too thin for a man whose voice only had two volumes: loud and louder. “Voy a llorar. You’re going to be on the same field as him.” I had to let it go. My stomach started cramping from how hard my dad was making me laugh. I didn’t bring up Eric, it wasn’t like any of us would forget his experience, but that was true love for you—blind and unconditional. “Dad, stop.” I couldn’t quit laughing because knowing him, he was being totally honest. He wasn’t much of a crier. He’d cried when I’d been called to the U-17 team, the national team for girls under seventeen, and again when I moved up to the U-20 team. The only other time I could remember seeing him with tears in his eyes was the day his father died. By the time I got drafted into the professional league, he’d just beamed, more comfortable in my position than I was. I’m pretty sure I was so nervous I had sweat stains on my butt. “He’s going to be your coach,” he squeaked, and I mean really squeaked. “I know.” I laughed that time. “I’ve gotten like ten emails from people I know asking me to confirm. You’re all insane.” Dad simply repeated himself, “He’s going to be your coach.” That time, I pinched the bridge of my nose to keep from making a sound. “I’ll tell you when the open practice will be so you can meet him.” Then he did it, he crossed the line again. “Sal—Sal, don’t tell anyone, but you’re my favorite.” Oh my God. “Dad—“ There was a shout in the background that sounded suspiciously like my younger sister and was followed by what I could only assume was Dad holding the phone away from his face as he yelled back, “I was joking!...You told me you hated me yesterday, te acuerdas? Why are you going to be my favorite when you say you wish I wasn’t your dad?” Then he started yelling some more. Eventually he came back on the line with a resigned sigh. “That girl, mija. I don’t know what to do with her.” “I’m sorry.” I was, at least partially. I couldn’t imagine how hard it was for my little sister to be so different from Eric and I. She didn’t like the same things we did—sports—but mostly, she didn’t seem to really like anything. My parents had tried putting her in different activities, but she never lasted and never put in any effort. Like I’d told my parents, she needed to figure things out for herself. “Ay. I guess I can’t complain too much. Hold on a second—Ceci, que quieres?” And then he was off, yelling at my sister a little more. I just sat there with the phone still to my face, lying in my bed two hundred miles away from where I’d grown up, soaking in the idea that Reiner Kulti—the Reiner Kulti— was going to be my coach. I swallowed the nerves and anticipation down. No big deal. Right. What I needed to do was get it together and focus on making it through preseason training to ensure my spot as a starter. I’d have to fuck up royally to not start the season, but sometimes the unexpected was known to happen. I didn’t like to play around with chance anyway. And with that thought, I finished up my conversation with my dad, lay in bed, and talked myself out of going for a late, last-minute, five-mile run. My body needed the rest. It only took me ten minutes of staring off blankly at the wall, to really decide I could save a run for the morning and it would be fine. One of my favorite coaches when I was younger would always say when motivating us to practice: To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace. There’d be no peace in my life if I didn’t do well when practices began, with or without The King being there. Chapter Three “The meeting is on the fifth floor today, Sal, conference room 3C.” The guard winked at me as he slid my visitor’s pass across the granite desk. “Thanks. See you later.” I flashed him a big grin and nodded, eyeing the huge mural on the wall behind him. It was a mixed media piece, multicolored and vibrant, with dozens of snapshots of Pipers players and Wreckers, the Houston men’s professional club. We were their expansion team, created and managed by the same ownership group. Or as I fondly thought of it, we were the adopted kids, the ones that had come years after a successful track record for the men while the owners had hopes and dreams in their eyes for our potential. Why they named the team the Pipers, I had no idea. It was probably the worst name I’d ever heard, all it made me think of was a boner for some reason. One of the players in the piece was me, right in the middle, my arms thrown over my head after I’d scored a goal two seasons ago. I’d have to tell my dad about the mural, I told myself, taking in the new artwork they’d added to the lobby since I hadn’t really been paying attention when I’d come to see Coach Gardner days before. Headquarters for the Wreckers and Pipers was an impressive building, only a couple years old and located in a developing neighborhood just outside of the downtown area. It’d been three days since the press conference, and so far I hadn’t heard anything from a single person regarding the huge idiot I made of myself. Nothing. Not a phone call or a text or an email from anyone telling me they saw what happened. I was used to being the butt end of a joke, or being teased for the things I liked or the way I dressed, so I was prepared for it. But still. I dreaded the day the video would leak, but I shoved the worry to the back of my head for another time. Priorities. I had priorities, like today. The staff and the team were scheduled for an introductory meeting before practices began. It was mainly to get the new people acquainted with schedules, rules and a whole bunch of other details that usually went in one ear and out the other. The conference room was easy to find. There were only a few people already waiting, and I took a seat halfway into the room after waving to and greeting the girls closest to me. I watched a couple of the other assistant coaches and Coach Gardner, who had given me a hug after the press conference as he tried hard not to laugh, talked in one corner of the room. Someone squealed. “Sal!” It was Jenny, my favorite goalkeeper in the world. She was half-Japanese, half a bunch of other European nationalities, had the best skin I’d ever seen, was tall, pretty and had a great attitude. I used to hate her guts—in a friendly way—because she’d blocked way too many of my shots when we were on opposing teams. It was sort of horseshit in the world of fairness when someone was good at everything, and then smart and pretty on top of it. But she was such a nice, kind person that my hatred had lasted about twenty seconds. “Jen-Jen.” I waved at her. She pointed at the chair right next to her and urged me forward. I waved at a few of the other players nearby that I knew, most were looking around suspiciously. Oh lord. I took another quick glance at the coaches to make sure Kulti wasn’t hiding between them. He wasn’t. Stop it, Sal. Focus. Jenny sat up straight to give me a hug. “I’m so happy to see you,” she said. Most of the players didn’t live in Houston year-round and she was one of them, heading back to her home state of Iowa when the season was over. This would be our third year on the team together. Though I wasn’t exactly far from my parents—it was only a three-hour drive more or less to San Antonio—I didn’t mind living in Houston, despite the humidity. Everyone in the conference room seemed to be buzzing around. The players were all keeping an eye out, an air of expectancy saturating everything. I had to remind myself a couple more times to quit doing it too. I caught Jenny glancing around as she dug in her purse for a tube of lipstick, and she blushed when she noticed that I saw what she was doing. “I really don’t think this is that big of a deal,” she said, and I believed her. “But… you know, I’m half-expecting him to come here with Hermes wings on his shoes and a halo over his head since everyone thinks he’s some kind of god.” Jenny paused for a moment before quickly adding, “On the soccer field, I mean.” I winked and nodded. Adding, “Uh-huh, whatever you say,” just to mess with her. I was familiar with her type and it wasn’t brown-haired men who played soccer. Her boyfriend of two years was a six-foot-two beast, a sprinter who had won a bronze and a silver medal at the last Olympics and had quads the size of my ribcage. Show-off. Jenny frowned. “Don’t make me bring up those pictures I saw.” Damn it. She had me, and from the smirk on her face, she knew it. My mom had busted out the pictures of me in my younger days during a visit Jenny had taken back home with me. In several of them, my Kulti obsession was well-documented. I think it was the three birthday cakes in a row with his face on them that really sealed the deal. “Hi, Jenny,” a familiar voice said from above my head. Almost immediately, two hands grabbed my face from behind and squished my cheeks together. Then two brown eyes appeared over the top of my head. “Hi, Sally.” I poked at the space between the two brown eyes. Her dark blonde hair was trimmed short like always, in a style that would be called a pixie-cut on any other person in the world but her. “Harlow, I missed you,” I told the best defender in the country. Harlow Williams really was the best and for good reason. She was a little scary. Incredibly nice off the field, but on it, those ancient survival instincts every being is born with begged you to run the other away when she was barreling toward you. We called her The Beast for a reason. Her reply was in the form of pinching my nostrils together with one hand, cutting off my air supply. “I missed your face too. You got any food on you?” she asked, still peeping over the top of my head. Of course I had food on me. I pulled three Kind bars out of my purse and handed her the peanut butter one, her favorite. “That’s why I always have your back,” she said with a satisfied sigh. “Thanks, Sal. I’ll harass you later so you can tell me what you’ve been up to.” “You got it.” Harlow patted the top of my head a little too hard before taking her seat down the side of the table. She leaned over the edge and waggled her fingers at us as she bit into the bar. Jenny and I made faces at each other. The three of us had played on the national team together back when I was still on it, so more than anyone else we knew each other the best. “She’s a nut.” Jenny nodded. “Yeah, she is. Remember that time she clotheslined you during practice?” My shoulder throbbed thinking about it. It was Harlow’s fault I had chronic pain in it. “I couldn’t play for three weeks afterward. Of course I remember.” She’d dislocated it when I tried to sneak a ball around her. Never again. While I didn’t usually run from an aggressive player, Harlow was in a league of her own. Coach Gardner clapped his hands once everyone had shown up and welcomed us all to preparation for this season’s training. Nearly everyone in the room looked around, surprised that he was starting when someone was so obviously missing. Either Coach Gardner didn’t realize no one was really paying attention or he didn’t care, because he jumped right into it. If anyone else thought it was strange that the man who had played through games with the flu and fractured bones wasn’t around for our first team meeting, no one said a thing. His attendance record had always been impeccable. It would have taken a force of nature to keep him off the field. “Coach Marcy took a position with the University of Mobile this summer, so upper management reached out to a few different people to fill in the assistant position she left us open with. We were lucky enough to get a commitment a few days ago. Reiner Kulti—who we all know needs no introduction—will be taking over assistant coach duties.” There was a small collective of sucked-in breaths before Gardner continued. Were these people not checking their emails or at least watching some television? “Although I know you ladies are all professionals, I’m going to say it anyway: this is Coach Kulti. Not Reiner, not King, and if I hear any of you calling him Führer, you’re out of here. Understood? Sheena from PR will be in here to talk about what you can and can’t post on social media a little later, but please exercise sound judgment.” I’d never call Kulti Führer to begin with, but with that threat, I didn’t even want to think about him just to be on the safe side. From the awkward silence that came over the group for the remaining speech, it was obvious everyone felt the same way. We were professionals. I’d never met a group of more competitive people in my life other than when I’d played on the national team. It was like we were a class of kindergarteners, all sitting there staring absently and nodding as Gardner warned us of our possible demise. Getting benched? For the season? Or even traded? Yeah, no. That sure as hell wasn’t happening. I caught the tail end of his spiel as he pointed out the six newest additions to the team and then stated his expectations for what he hoped to accomplish—to find a winning combination of talent to take the team to the top for another year in a row. Something about access to the local college’s gym and a list of expectations when we were off the field were passed around. It was the same talk I’d heard every other time a new season started. Except I’d never been threatened with getting kicked off a team for talking badly about a coach who made more money in a year that most of us would make in our entire lives. I’d worked too hard and too long to let something so dumb ruin my career for me. No, thank you and fuck that. Gardner went on for a little while longer about what they would be focusing on during the six weeks between the start of training and the beginning of the season. He introduced the rest of the staff and eventually Sheena, the public relations person who had stood by while I made an ass of myself, took over. It was all Kulti, Kulti and more Kulti. “…presence is going to bring more attention to the team. We need to use the momentum of the press and public’s excitement to turn it around and focus in on our organization. It’s positive and it’s a valuable tool to keep the league growing…” I knew it! I’d known they’d brought him in mainly for the publicity. “…if you’re approached, turn it around and bring attention to the team or the league. Be excited…” Be excited? “…Mr. Kulti should be here tomorrow…” Jenny kicked me beneath the table. * * * They weren’t kidding when they said the team would be getting more attention because of the retired German player. What was usually a quiet low-key event with players getting dropped off in minivans, was now an event saturated by rental cars and a few news vans. Freaking news vans. A small group of people were scattered through the lot as I pulled in. I recognized some of the girls as players, but the rest were strangers: journalists, reporters, bloggers and possibly even Kulti fans. At least I hoped it was more fans, but I wasn’t optimistic. This wasn’t even the start of practice; it was our yearly fitness assessment before real training began just to see how everyone was doing. No big deal, yet there were so many people… Anxiety seared my stomach, and I took a deep breath to make the feeling go away. It didn’t really work. One more deep breath, then another and by the third, I was parked. Thankfully my nerves had settled enough for me to get out of the car without looking like I was battling morning sickness. About five seconds after I got my bag out of the trunk, I heard it. “Casillas!” Fuck my life. “Sal Casillas! You got a minute for me?” the masculine voice called out. I slung the bag over my shoulder and glanced around to find a man breaking away from the group of strangers. He waved, and I felt my stomach sink even as I plastered a smile on my face and waved back. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that I got all awkward and anxious in front of a video camera. “Sure,” I answered convincingly. Our assessment didn’t start for another twenty minutes, but I still had to get ready. “How you doin’? Steven Cooper with Sports Daily,” the man greeted me with a handshake. “I just have a few questions if that’s fine.” I nodded. “Shoot.” “I’ll be recording this for documentation purposes.” Showing me the recording device in his hand, he hit the button to start. “What are you looking forward to the most this season?” he asked. “I’m really looking forward to just starting it. We have some new players and staff on the team, and I’m excited to see how well we all do together.” The fact I sounded like a well-adjusted human being instead of one that was about to shit her pants made me proud. “How do you feel about Reiner Kulti being hired as the Pipers’ assistant coach?” It was the same exact question I’d answered during the press conference from hell days before. “It’s still pretty surreal. I’m excited. I think it’s great that we’re having someone with so much experience coming in to help us out.” “He’s an unlikely choice for a coach, don’t you think?” I shoved my hands in my pockets when I felt them start to get clammy. Most of the time these things were fine, but every once in a while they turned into ticking time bombs. I’d put my foot in my mouth more times than I could count, which didn’t help my fear with doing these interviews. “It’s different but there’s nothing wrong with it. He’s been named World Player of the Year more times than anyone else for a reason. He knows what it takes to be the best, and that’s something every player strives for. Plus, I think it’s unfair to discredit him before we even give him a chance to prove himself,” I told him. He gave me a disbelieving look, like he thought I was full of shit, but he didn’t argue with me about it. “All right. What’s your prediction for this season? Are the Pipers going to the finals again?” “That’s the plan.” I smiled at him. “I need to get going, unless you have one more question?” “Okay. One more: do you have any plans on joining the national team again soon?” I opened my mouth and left it open for a second before closing it. I rocked forward on my heels as I rubbed my palms down the front of my shorts. “I’m not planning on it anytime soon. I want to focus on our regular season for now.” I swallowed hard and thrust my hand out for him. A second later, I was marching toward the field, watching a few of the other girls get corralled into conversations with other reporters. Two other journalists called out for me, but I declined with an apology. I had to warm up before our assessment began. Today pretty much consisted of running sprints for an hour, upper body endurance in the form of a push-up-palooza, and endless squats from the third circle of hell, among other forms of torture that the old biddy fitness coach developed recently. Some people really dreaded it, but I wasn’t totally opposed to our fitness stuff. Was it fun? No. But I worked out a lot, hard, all year so that I wouldn’t be the one huffing and puffing during the first half of a game, and I liked being the fastest. So sue me. I worked harder than just about anyone for a reason. I was fast, but I wasn’t getting any younger, and my bad ankle wasn’t getting any better either. Then there was my knee, which had been a problem for the last decade. You had to make up for stuff like that by never getting soft, putting your well-being first, and not taking things for granted. I’d just finished dropping my things on the side of the field when it finally happened. It was the “Oh. My. Godddd” out of one of the girls I wasn’t familiar with that suddenly snapped me into paying attention. I spotted him. He was there. There. Oh hell. I was dead. All six-feet-arguably-two inches of brown hair, five-time World Player of the Year, was right there talking to the team’s fitness coach, a mean old woman who had no pity on anyone. Oh snap. I reached up to make sure my hair hadn’t frizzed up in the five minutes I’d been out of my car and then stopped. What the hell was I doing? I dropped my hands immediately. I’d never cared what I looked like when I was playing. Well, I rarely cared what I looked like period. As long as my hair wasn’t in my face and my armpits and legs were shaved, I was good. I plucked my eyebrows a couple times a week and I had an addiction to homemade face masks, but that was usually as much effort as I put into myself. People asked me why I was dressing up if I wore jeans, it was that bad. I’d worn lip balm and a headband on my last date, and here I was fixing my hair. Sheesh. For the record and for the sake of my pride, I don’t think I’d ever fan-girled outwardly in my life. There were a few soccer players I think I’d gotten a little red-faced over and there was that one time when I was fourteen at a JT concert, he’d touched my hand and I’d swooned a little bit… but that was the extent of it. But seeing the master of ball control standing out on the side of the soccer field in a blue and white soccer training jersey and track pants was just… too much. Way. Too. Much. Reiner Kulti nodded at something the old, sadistic demon said, and I felt… weird. To my absolute horror, my inner thirteen-year-old, the one that had planned on marrying this guy and having soccer-playing super-babies with him, peeked in and reminded me she’d been around once. I’d swear on my life that my heart clenched up and my armpits started sweating simultaneously. The best term to describe what was going on with me: star struck. Totally star struck. Because… Reiner Kulti. The King. The best player to come out of Europe in… All right. This wasn’t going to work, not at all, not even a little bit. Rationally, I knew that mooning over him was stupid. I was too old for this crap, and I’d gotten over my crush on him a decade ago when I said ‘screw you’ to the man who had married someone else, and then nearly ended my brother’s career right after it started. Kulti was just a man. I closed my eyes and thought of the first thing that could get me out of my holyshitit’sKultistandingrightthere. Poop. He poops. He poops. Right. That was all I needed to snap out of it. I pictured an image of him sitting on the porcelain throne to remind me he was just a normal man with needs like everyone. I knew this—I’d known this for the longest. He was just a man with parents that pooped and peed and slept like the rest of us. Poop, poop, poop, poop, poop. Right. I was good. I was really fine. Until Jenny tapped her elbow against my lower ribs unexpectedly, her face getting up in mine while she did these huge goofy eyes, barely tipping her head in Kulti’s direction. It was the universal friend sign for there’s that guy you like. Do you see him? This bitch. I made my own eyes go wide and mouthed ‘shut the hell up’ to her, moving my lips the least amount possible. Like any good friend, she didn’t do what was asked. She kept elbowing me and giving me that crazy, stupid look and strained head-tipping, trying to be inconspicuous and failing miserably. I didn’t look at him for very long, just that first initial glance from more than fifty feet away, and then another quick look right afterward. Poop. Remember: poop. Right. The silence on the field said more than enough about what everyone was thinking but couldn’t actually say out loud. But dumb Jenny knocked her foot against mine while we put on sunscreen, grinning when she caught my eye, which I was purposely trying to ignore because she made me laugh. I knew in my gut that I was never going to hear the end of this. Never. I’d gotten over my crush-slash-infatuation when I was seventeen, when I finally accepted the fact that I didn’t have a single shot of ever playing against him—obviously—and… there was no chance in hell that he’d ever be interested in me, the Argentinian-Mexican-American tomboy thirteen years younger than him. There wouldn’t be a marriage in my future or soccer-playing super-babies. It was the worst non-break-up ever in the history of imaginary relationships with a man who didn’t even know I existed. My poor, innocent heart hadn’t been able to handle the only love I’d ever known marrying someone else—Reiner Kulti hadn’t known he was supposed to fall head over heels in love with me one day. But like every unrequited first love, I got over it. Life moved on. And then all the shit with Eric happened shortly after that, and the posters on my wall had turned into an even bigger betrayal to the guy in my life who had always let me tag along for impromptu soccer games with his friends. “Keep it up, bitch,” I whispered to Jenny while we she rubbed sunscreen on the parts of my back I couldn’t reach. She snorted and hip-bumped me as we walked toward our designated stretching area. There was already a small group waiting, their voices still a lot lower than they would be normally. Sure enough, Kulti was standing nearby with Coach Gardner and Grace, our team captain and a veteran defender who had been playing professionally since I was still in middle school. She’d been with the Pipers four years at the beginning of this season, just like me. “He’s taller than I’d thought he’d be,” Jen muttered just loud enough for me to hear. I looked out of the corner of my eye at where the coaches and Grace were standing without being completely obvious. With only twenty feet of distance between us, we were closer than I ever could have expected, and I nodded because she was right. He was spectacularly tall compared to a lot of the male forwards—also called strikers by some, or in the way my sister described the position: ‘the people that hung out by the other team’s goal and tried to score.’ The best forwards tended to be a lot shorter, not six-two or six-three depending on what analyst or know-it-all you asked. Considering how unparalleled his footwork was, it was a— Stop. Stop, Sal. Right. Poop. I could look at him without fan-girling, I could be unbiased. So I tried my best to do just that. He looked bulkier than he’d been a couple of years ago when he’d stepped out of the spotlight. Like most players, he’d been muscular but extra lean and long from all the endless running. Now, he looked a bit heavier, his face was more filled out, his neck looked a little thicker and his arms— Poop. Fart. Peeing in a urinal. Right. All right. The guy was more muscular. A hint of his tattoo peeked out from beneath the sleeve of his shirt and he still had that even flawless skin tone that was somewhere between a creamy white and a perfect light tan. His hair was that same perfect brown as it’d always been and if it hadn’t been for the touches of gray at his temples, that familiar aspect would have been the same. Basically, it was obvious he’d gotten older and he wasn’t on his feet as much as he’d been for the largest chunk of his life. His build had become more gym-rat than swimmer, and there was not a single thing wrong with that. But when I zeroed in his face, something just seemed… off. He’d always been good-looking, really good-looking, in his own untraditional way. Kulti didn’t have the symmetrical high-boned features that companies usually looked for when they endorsed athletes. His facial structure was more raw, smart-assedness oozing from the fullness of his mouth and from the bright color of his eyes. He was such a supreme athlete it had never mattered during his career that he didn’t have a patrician face. His confidence was blinding. Clean-shaven for once, the sharp bones of his jaw and cheeks that made his profile so masculine were on all-out display. A few more lines creased out from the corners of his hazel-green eyes than had been there before. I forgot he was turning forty this year. The puzzle pieces were all there, but it was like they weren’t put together properly. I knew it wasn’t anything different outward about him. Being in stealth mode, I couldn’t figure out what it was, and it bothered me. My gut recognized a difference in him, but my eyes couldn’t. What was it? “Will someone pass me a band?” a girl nearby asked, snapping me out of the human Rubik’s cube I was playing. Realizing I was the closest person to the mini-bands we used for stretching, I grabbed one and passed it to my teammate. “Everyone circle around!” Gardner called us, like a shepherd calling his sheep. Which I don’t think any of us really appreciated but all right. Like zombies, the group flocked to him silently, hesitantly. We were bugs being called to the bug zapper, the shiny bright thing that could potentially kill us, only with a man as the attraction. Gardner and Kulti stood together along with the fitness coach and a few other staff members shaking hands and greeting each other. I fought the urge to swallow because I knew one of the idiots around me would see, and I didn’t need to give Jenny any more room to give me shit about my former Kulti obsession. “Ladies, I’m pleased to introduce your new assistant coach for the season, Reiner Kulti. Let’s break the ice real quick before we start. If you could go around and introduce yourselves and tell him what position you’re playing…” Gardner trailed off with an eyebrow that dared us all to tell him how stupid and elementary school this was. I hated it then and I wasn’t a fan now. Without missing a beat, one of the girls closest to Gardner started off the circle of introductions. I watched him, his face and his reactions. He blinked and tipped his head down each time a player finished talking. One after another, half the group went, and I realized I was near the middle of the semi-circle when Jenny piped in. “I’m Jenny Milton,” she grinned in that way that always had me grinning back no matter what kind of mood I was in. “Goalkeeper. Nice to meet you.” I didn’t miss the way his cheek hiked up a millimeter more in reaction to her greeting. You’d have to be the freaking Grinch to not appreciate Jenny. She was one of those people who woke up in an excellent mood and went to sleep with a smile on her face. But when she was mad, I wouldn’t hold murder past her. Then it was my turn and when those light-colored eyes landed on my face expectantly, I thought poop. Lots of poop. Clog-the-toilet amount of poop. Like a pro, I amazed myself by not squeaking or stuttering. Those green-brown orbs that were said to be the windows of a person’s soul were right on me. “Hi, I’m Sal Casillas. I’m a forward.” More like a winger, but what was the point in being specific? “Sal did your press conference,” Sheena, the public relations employee, commented. I cringed on the inside, and I didn’t miss the tiny snort that escaped Jenny. I ignored it. Bitch. By the time I looked back at where he was I’d been dismissed. His attention had gone right on to the girl next to me without a moment to spare. Well. Okay. I guess I should have been glad I cancelled our wedding preparations years ago. I gave Jenny a look out of the corner of my eye. “Shut up.” She waited until the next player stopped talking before replying. “I didn’t say a word.” “You were thinking about it.” “I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” she admitted in a whisper that was way too close to a laugh. My eye twitched on its own. Neither had I. * * * I had just laid down on my bed after dinner when my phone rang. My legs ached after my morning run, our fitness test and then the landscaping job I helped Marc with most of the afternoon. Considering it was eight at night and I had a tiny number of friends that actually called me occasionally, I had a pretty good idea of who it was. Sure enough, a foreign area code and number showed up on the screen. “Hi, Dad,” I answered, sliding my cell into the crook between my shoulder and ear. The man didn’t even beat around the bush. In a quick rush he blurted out, “How was it?” How was it? How could I tell my dad, a die-hard Kulti fan despite the fact that he had no business still calling himself a fan, that the day had been one big whooping disappointment? A disappointment. I could only blame myself. No one had ever given me the impression that Reiner Kulti was going to blow our minds with tricks and tips we hadn’t even thought of—especially not during a day set aside for fitness tests—also known as cardio-all-day-until-you-were-on-the-verge-of-puking. Or maybe I’d anticipated that that infamous temper that had gotten him red-carded—ejected out of games—more times than necessary, would come out? There was a reason he’d been called the Führer back when he played, and it was part of the reason why people both liked him and disliked him so much. Today though, he hadn’t been an asshole or greedy or condescending. All the characteristics I’d ever heard of from people who had played with him were nonexistent. This was the same person that had gotten suspended from ten games for head-butting the hell out of another player during a friendly game—a game that didn’t even count for anything. Then there was the time he’d gotten into an altercation with a player who had blatantly tried to kick him in the back of the knee. He was the train wreck you wanted to watch happen and keep happening… at least he had been. Instead, he’d just stood there while we introduced ourselves and then afterward, watched us when he wasn’t talking to Coach Gardner. I don’t even think he touched a ball. Not that I was looking that much. The single thing that I’m pretty sure any of us had heard him say had been “Good morning.” Good morning. This simple greeting from the same man that had gotten in trouble for bellowing “Fuck you!” during an Altus Cup on major television. What the hell was wrong with me that I’d be complaining about Kulti being so distant? So nice? Yeah, there was something wrong with me. I coughed into the phone. “It was fine. He didn’t really talk to us or anything.” And by ‘didn’t really’ I really meant ‘at all’. I wasn’t going to tell Dad that though. “Oh.” His disappointment was evident in the way he dropped the consonant so harshly. Well I felt like an asshole. “I’m sure he’s just trying to warm up to us.” Maybe. Right? “Alomejor.” Maybe, Dad said in that same sort of tone he used when I was a kid and I’d ask him for something he knew damn well he wasn’t going to give me. “Nothing happened, then?” I didn’t even need to close my eyes and think back on what had happened that day. Not a single thing. Kulti had just stood back and watched us run around executing a variety of exercises to make sure we were all in shape. He hadn’t even rolled his eyes, much less call us a group of incompetent idiots—another thing he’d been known to call his teammates when they weren’t playing to the level he expected. “Nothing,” and that was the truth. Maybe he’d gotten shy over the years? Yeah, not likely, but I could tell myself that. Or at least tell Dad that so that he wouldn’t sound so disheartened after he’d been so over-the-moon when he’d first found out Kulti would be our coach. “But hey, I had the best times during each sprint,” I added. His laugh was soft and possibly a little disappointed. “That’s my girl. Running every morning?” “Every morning and I’ve been swimming more.” I stopped talking when I heard a voice in the background. All I heard was my dad mumbling, “It’s Sal… you wanna talk to her?... Okay… Sal, your mom says hi.” “Tell her I said hi back.” “My daughter says hi… no, she’s mine. The other one is yours… Ha! No!... Sal are you mine or your mom’s?” he asked me. “I’m the milkman’s.” “I knew it!” He finally laughed with a deep pleased sigh. I was smiling like a total fool. “I love you too, old man.” “I know you do, but I love you more,” he chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. Call me tomorrow? I’m pretty tired, and I want to ice my foot for a little bit.” A ragged sigh came out from him, but I knew he wouldn’t say anything. His sigh said it all and more; it was a gentle wordless reminder that I needed to take care of myself. We’d gone over this a hundred times in person. Dad and I understood each other in a different way. If it had been my brother saying something about needing ice, I probably would have asked him if he thought he’d live and Dad would have told him to suck it up. It was the beauty of being my father’s daughter, I guess. Well it was the beauty of being me and not my baby sister, who he constantly fought with. “Okay, tomorrow. Sleep good, mija.” “You too, Dad. Night.” He bid me another goodbye and we hung up. Sitting up on my bed in the garage apartment that I’d been renting for the last two years, I let myself think of Kulti and how he’d just stood there like a golden gargoyle, watching, watching and watching. It was then that I reminded myself about him pooping again. Chapter Four The next few days went by uneventfully and yet as eventful as they normally were. We had to get our physicals for the team one day and the next day we got measured for our uniforms. After each small chunk of a morning, I’d go to work afterward where I’d be harassed by Marc about whether I’d gotten Kulti’s autograph for him yet. Then each evening, I’d practice yoga or go swimming or do some weight training, depending on how tired I was. Then I’d get home and talk to my dad or watch television. Everyone wanted to know what Reiner Kulti was like, and I had nothing to give them. He showed up to whatever we were doing and stood in whatever corner was available, and watched. He didn’t really talk or interact with anyone. He didn’t do anything. So… that was kind of disappointing for everyone who asked. A small part of me was surprised the vultures hadn’t descended on his unmoving ass. If he ever needed the money, he could work as one of those living statues that painted their bodies in metallic colors and hung out in Times Square, letting people pay them tips to take pictures with them. His apathy was that bad. But no one said anything about the press conference from hell, or brought up stuff about Eric and Kulti, and there weren’t any more questions about me rejoining the national team. Overall, there was nothing really for me to complain about. I could act like a normal human being with some dignity, not a stuttering idiot that a decade ago had a crush on the man that everyone was talking about. So really, what was there to complain about? * * * On the morning of our individual photo shoots, I should have known how the interview was going to go when the first thing out of the journalist’s mouth was a mispronounced “Salome!” Suh-lome. Then even after I corrected him he still said it the wrong way. Which wasn’t a big deal; I was used to having someone butcher it. It happened all the time. Suh-lome. Saah-lome. Sah-lowmee. Salami. Salamander. Salmon. Sal-men. Saul. Sally. Samantha. Or, in the case of my brother: Stupid. In the case of my little sister: Bitch. Regardless, when someone continuously messes up your name even after you correct them… it’s a sign. In this case, it was a sign that I should have known this guy was a moron. I had tried to get away from him. Usually I tried to sneak away, but lately there were so many of them, it was impossible. The minute I spotted the group of television reporters and journalists by the field where the photographs were set to be taken, my gut churned. I didn’t have a problem walking around in my sports bra in front of everyone and anyone. I could play games just fine in front of thousands of people, but the instant a camera came around when I wasn’t doing those things… No. No, no, no. So as soon as I spotted them, I started to circle my way as far from their location as possible. Let them get the other girls first. The furthest group from the entrance stopped Grace, the captain and veteran on the team. Thank you, Jesus. Then I saw another group swoop in on Harlow, and I felt a bolt of relief go through my stomach. Fifteen more feet to go. Fifteen more feet and I’d be clear. My heart started beating that much faster and I made sure to keep my eyes forward. No eye contact. Ten feet. Baby Jesus, please— “Salome!” Fuck. I looked over and breathed a sigh of relief when the reporter shouting didn’t have a camera or a cameraman with him. He was a blogger. I could have kissed him. The first few questions were normal. How my off-season had gone. How training was going. Who I thought were going to be our biggest competitors. It was right around the time that I was finishing his last question, preparing myself to tell him that I needed to go, when I heard the reporters I’d bypassed start chattering loudly. Again it was no big deal. The journalist’s eyes started darting to the area behind me even as I spoke, watching and waiting for his next victim. There weren’t usually reporters or journalists waiting around before practice unless it was playoff time. At least that’s what it had been like before the former German superstar showed up. Now apparently, they all had bottle vision whenever he was nearby. And from the look on the journalist’s face when he saw his next subject, I knew who had caught his attention. Two eyes swung from whatever the journalist was looking at behind me… to me and then back again. A strain of dread-like anger saturated my belly when Kulti walked by, waving off the three media people that were trying to get his attention by asking questions and shoving their cameras and recording devices in his face. He could get away with being antisocial, but I couldn’t? “Isn’t your brother a pro too?” the journalist asked slowly. I swallowed and forced myself to hope that this wasn’t going the way it seemed to be. And yet, I knew it was. “Yeah. He’s a center back,” or as I called him, a center bitch. “He plays for Sacramento normally, but he’s on loan to a team in Europe right now.” This was the only reason I was sure he hadn’t called me to complain about Kulti yet. Did he know? He had to. But he was cheap and wasn’t going to call until our standing phone-date every other Sunday. The man’s eyes swung back over to me, so low-lidded I knew I was screwed. “Wasn’t his leg broken years ago?” It was his left tibia and fibula to be exact. Just thinking about it made my own shins hurt, but I settled for a nod in reply. The less I spoke, the smaller my chances were of incriminating myself by saying something stupid. “Ten years ago.” “Did it happen during a game?” he was asking, but we both well aware he knew the answer. Asshole. Did I look that dumb? I wasn’t about to let him steer me into looking like an idiot. When I was in college, they made athletes for every sport take a class in public speaking. Sure I’d barely passed, but they had taught me one thing I hadn’t forgotten: how important it was for you to keep the interview under control. “Yep. Ten years ago, he went in for a loose ball during a game against the Tigers and was hit in the leg by an opposing player.” The journalist’s eyes twitched. “He was out for six months.” “The player got yellow-carded, didn’t he?” And… there it was. Since when were sports bloggers sneaky little shits looking for drama when it was uncalled for? I plastered a smile on my face, giving him this look that said yeah, I know exactly what you’re doing, dingle-berry. “Yes, but he’s perfectly fine now. It wasn’t a big deal.” Well that was a lie, but whatever. My smile grew even wider and I took a step back. Being an asshole didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t about to roll onto my back and show someone my belly. Coach Gardner had already made it painfully clear to me that I needed to keep attention on the team and not Kulti, especially not Eric and Kulti. “I need to get going. You have anything else you need to ask about training, though?” The reporter’s eyes slid over in the direction Kulti and his followers had gone. “We’re all done. Thanks.” “Anytime.” Not. I took another step back, snatched my bag off the ground and started walking in the direction of the field. I still had to collect the uniform they wanted us to wear for our profile shots and put it on. Someone with the organization had set up two tents on the outskirt of the field, one with long flaps to provide some modesty for changing, and the other more basic, without flaps, where the uniforms could be found. “Sal! Come get your stuff!” someone yelled from beneath the smaller tent. I made my way over there, looking around to see who had survived the gauntlet, aka the media, and waved at the players and staff members who made eye contact with me. There were only a few people under the uniform tent where we needed to go before our player photos—two management employees handing out uniforms, two players and three staff members. One of the staff members was Kulti. Poop. Okay, I was fine. “Good morning,” I said as I came up to the group in the tent, rubbing my hands down the front of my pants. Poop, poop, poop, poop, poop. A chorus of “good morning” greetings came back to me, even from the ancient demoness known as our fitness coach who was yet again standing by the former German superstar. It was the same German super-athlete who was now only about five feet away. I went to the Louvre once years ago, and I remember looking at the Mona Lisa after standing outside of the famous museum for hours trying to get in and being disappointed. The painting was smaller than I’d thought it would be. Honestly, it was just a painting. There was nothing about it that made it so much better than any other painting ever at least to my untrained eye. It was famous and it was old, and that was it. Simply standing mere feet away from the man that had led his teams to championship after championship… seemed weird. It was like this was a dream, a very weird dream. It was a dream with a man who looked better than any thirty-nine-year-old ever should. “Casillas? It’s your turn, honey. I got your uniform right here,” one of the women working behind the tables called out to me with a smile. I blinked and then smiled back at her, embarrassed that she caught me daydreaming. “Sorry.” Walking around the coaches, I took the plastic-wrapped bundle she handed me. “Need me to sign anything?” She handed me a clipboard with a shake of her head. “What size shoe do you wear? I can’t read whether it’s an eight or a nine.” “Eight,” I said, signing the area to the side of my name. “Give me a second to find your socks.” She turned her back to me and started rifling through an organized container behind her. “Mr. Kulti, I have you down for a medium shirt and large bottoms, does that sound right?” the other employee who wasn’t busy asked, her voice sounding a little high, a little breathless. Her hands were folded and pressed to her chest, her eyes only just barely holding that glint of nervous excitement in them. “Yes,” was the simple answer that rumbled out deeply; his enunciation was sharp with just the slightest hint of an accent that had been watered down from living in so many different countries over the years. I felt his tone right between my shoulder blades. I could remember hearing him talk about whatever game he’d just finished playing dozens of times. Poop, fart, hemorrhoids. Sal. Get it together. I swallowed hard, unable to get over how different he looked. Back when I’d been a fan, he’d gone through every hair style from dyed tips to a mohawk. Now standing there, his hair was shaved short and his arms were loose at his sides, his spine rigid. A hint of his cross pattée tattoo—a cross with arms that narrowed toward the center—appeared beneath the hem of his T-shirt sleeve. It wasn’t huge from what I remembered, maybe five inches high and five across and he’d had it for a long time. When I was younger, I thought it was kind of neat. Now… meh. I liked tattoos on men, but I liked big pieces, not a collection of random little ones. But whatever, it wasn’t like anyone was asking me for my opinion. “Here you go, Sal, I got ‘em,” the staff member said, hanging me another sealed packet out of the corner of my eye. “We’ll have the rest of your gear later.” “All right. Thanks, Shelly.” Holding the uniform under one arm, I took another glance at Kulti, who was steadfast keeping his attention forward and fought the anticipation that pooled in my chest. My feet wouldn’t move, and my stupid eyes wouldn’t move either. At no point in my childhood had I ever really expected to be so close to this man. Never. Not once. But after a second of standing there awkwardly, hoping for a look or possibly a word? I realized he wasn’t going to give me either. He was making a point to keep his eyes forward, lost in his own thoughts; maybe he wanted to be left alone, or might have purposely not wanted to waste his time speaking to me. That thought went like a mortal blow straight to my chest. I felt like a preteen girl that wanted the older guy to pay attention to her when he didn’t even know she existed. The hope, the expectancy and the following disappointment sucked. It just sucked. He wasn’t going to acknowledge me. That much was clear. All righty, then. While I wasn’t exactly a Jenny who made friends with everyone, I liked being friendly with people. Obviously this guy wasn’t going to win a Mr. Congeniality award anytime soon, since he wouldn’t even bother looking at me standing there two feet away. So… that didn’t sting at all. My heart didn’t feel funny either. Then I remembered the crap with the journalist outside and the effect that kind of attention could have on me. I tried my best to keep under the radar. I just wanted to play soccer, that was it. With another quick glance at the man who was standing, oblivious to everything around him, I took my crap and went to change. I didn’t need Reiner Kulti to talk to me. I hadn’t needed him before and I wouldn’t need him in the future. * * * If I thought for a second that things would get less hectic as the days passed and Kulti’s presence slowly became old news, I would have been sorely mistaken. It didn’t. Everyday there were at least half a dozen reporters outside of the field or headquarters. Wherever we’d be that day, they would be there. I’d scratched the skin on my neck nearly raw from how much I was scratching at it on my walks toward wherever we were meeting. I tried to stay as far away from them as I could. It was just like I tried to stay away from the team’s new coach. To be fair, he made it easy. The German stayed in the corner of the universe he had dug out for himself—a lonely little corner that included him and him only. Apparently only Gardner, the mean bat known as the fitness coach and Grace got invitations every so often. He stood and watched; then he moved a little to the side and kept right on watching. “I feel like we’re in the lion exhibit at the zoo,” Jenny whispered to me when we were taking a break during our last meeting. We were in that bathroom alone after having just sat through two hours of scheduling details, and I was on the verge of wanting to stab myself in the eye with my pen. I was restless sitting in the chair doing nothing. My prayers had been answered when they gave us ten minutes to use the bathroom and get a drink. I looked at her in the reflection of the bathroom mirror and made my eyes go big. I guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the wordless man who went through the meeting with his back against the wall and his arms crossed over his chest. “It does feel like that, huh?” She nodded like she was glum about it. “He hasn’t said anything, Sal. I mean, isn’t that weird? Even Phyllis,” the mean old fitness coach, “talks every once in a while.” She hunched her shoulders up high. “Weird.” “Very weird,” I agreed with her. “But we can’t say—“ The door opened, and three of the newer girls on the team walked in, joking around with each other. Jenny shot me a look in the mirror’s reflection because what was more obvious than immediately stopping a conversation when other people walked by? I might as well have the word guilty tattooed on my forehead. So I spouted out the first thing that came to mind, “—that you didn’t ask for onions on your burger without sounding like an asshole…” One of the girls smiled at me before going into the stall, the other two ignored us. Jenny visibly bit her lip as the newcomers went into the bathroom stalls. “Yeah, you can’t complain about that…?” She mouthed, ‘what was that’ the second they were in. ‘It was the first thing I thought of!’ I mouthed back to her with a shrug. Jenny pinched her nostrils together as her face went red. “I know, right?” I held my arms out at my sides in a ‘what was I supposed to say’ gesture even though she was too busy trying not to burst out laughing, to see me in the mirror. God, she was no help in our made-up conversation. “I clearly asked for no onions but whatever. I guess. It’s not like I’m allergic to them.” By that point, Jenny had her forehead to the bathroom counter and her back was arching with repressed laughs. I kicked her in the back of the knee lightly just as one of the toilets flushed. She looked up and I mouthed ‘stop it’ to her. Did she? No. Not even close. Yeah, she was too far gone to keep going with the charade. One look and the other girls would see Jenny losing it over onions. God, I really was a horrible liar. I shoved her out of the bathroom just as one of the latches turned. * * * “There’s a rumor going around that you’re going to be rejoining the national team soon, any word on that?” It was the first official day of practice and my feet were itching. After nearly six months of playing soccer with friends and family, while training and conditioning on my own, I was ready. And of course I’d gotten waved down by a writer for Training, Inc., a popular e-magazine. So far, two questions in, it was going fine. That still didn’t mean that I was going to open my big mouth up and tell him all my deepest secrets. Vague, Sal. Don’t ever confirm or deny anything. “I don’t think so. My ankle still isn’t back to where it needs to be, and I’m busy with other priorities.” Okay, that wasn’t too bad. “Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Like what?” “I’m working with youth camps.” I left out the other small parts of my life, the parts that weren’t glamorous and had nothing to do with soccer. No one wanted to hear about our miserable paychecks and how most of us had to supplement our incomes by getting second jobs. That didn’t go with the image most people had of professional players in any sport. And no one especially wanted to hear that I did landscaping when I wasn’t busy with the Pipers. It didn’t embarrass me, not at all. I liked doing it, and I had a degree in Landscape Architecture. It wasn’t glossy or pretty, but I’d be damned if I ever let anyone give what I did a bad name. My dad had supported our family being the ‘the lawn guy’ or ‘the gardener’ and any and all other things that could put food on our table. There was no shame in hard work, he and my mom had taught me from a very early age when I had cared what other people thought. People would laugh and crack jokes when Dad would pick me up from school with a lawnmower and other tools in the back of his beat-up truck, with his goofy hat and sweat-stained clothes that had seen better decades. But how could I ever give my dad a hard time about picking me up from school so he could take me to soccer practice? Or he’d pick me up, take me to a job or two with him, and then he’d take me to practice. He loved us and he sacrificed so that Eric and I could be on those teams with their expensive fees and uniforms. We got where we were today, because he worked his ass off. As I got older, people just found more things to pick on me about and laugh. I’d been called a priss, stuck-up, a bitch, a lesbian and a dyke more times than I could count. All because I loved playing soccer and took it seriously. Eventually one of my U-20 coaches pulled me aside after some of my teammates had gotten an attitude with me. I’d declined an invitation to go out so I could go home and get some rest. He’d said, “people are going to judge you regardless of what you do, Sal. Don’t listen to what they have to say because at the end of the day, you’re the one that has to live with your choices and where they take you. No one else is going to live your life for you.” Most times it was easier said than done, but here I was. I’d gotten what I had worked so hard for, so it hadn’t been in vain. There were going to be a hundred parties I could go to when I was older and past my athletic prime, but I only had the first half of my life to do what I loved for a living. I’d been fortunate enough to find something that I enjoyed and that I could work toward. I wasn’t going to blow this chance I’d been given. Sometimes though I didn’t feel like having to defend what I liked doing, or why I made sure to sleep so much, or why I didn’t eat that greasy meal that would give me indigestion on a run later or why I didn’t like to hang around smokers. This guy was one of those people I’d rather save my breath on. So I didn’t elaborate. The blogger’s eyebrows went up to nearly his hairline. “How are your soccer camps going?” “Great.” “How do you feel about critics saying that the Pipers should have gotten a coach with better qualifications than Reiner Kulti?” I knew exactly how the little sister on the Brady Bunch felt. Kulti, Kulti, Kulti. Holy shit. Honestly, part of me was surprised I wasn’t dreaming about him. But could I ever say that? Absolutely not. “I’ve been told I was too short to be a good soccer player. You can do anything you want to do as long as you care enough.” Maybe that was a bad thing to say when Kulti didn’t actually seem to care a little bit about us, but the words were already out of my mouth and I couldn’t take them back. So… “Kulti’s notorious for being a one-man show,” he stated, matter-of-factly. I just looked at him but didn’t say a word. If there was a way for me to answer that, I didn’t know how. “He also broke your brother’s leg.” At least this guy wasn’t pretending to have amnesia when bringing up Eric, unlike the last guy I’d talked to. “It happens.” I shrugged because it was the truth. “Harlow Williams dislocated my shoulder once. Another friend of mine broke my arm when I was a teenager. It’s not unheard of for stuff like that to happen.” And then there were the dozen other injuries my brother had caused me over the years. Was I full of shit? Only about half. While it was true that Harlow had dislocated my shoulder and that a teammate had hit me so hard during a scrimmage game that I got a hairline fracture, they had been accidents. What happened between Eric and Kulti… not so much, and that was the problem. Kulti had played dirty—real dirty—and all he got was a yellow card. A yellow card in that situation was pretty much a warning after you’d hit someone with your car, backed up to hit them a second time and driven off afterward. It was insulting. He had almost ruined my brother’s career, and all he got was a miserable yellow card. It was the biggest bullshit call of the last century. People had gone nuts over it, claiming that he’d been forgiven because of his status and popularity. It wasn’t the first time a superstar had gotten away with something, and it wouldn’t be the last. But could I say that on record? Nope. “I really need to start warming up,” I said carefully before he had a chance to ask anything else. “Thanks for your time.” The writer for Training, Inc. smiled as he extended his hand out for me to shake. “No problem. Have a nice day.” This guy had done enough in my life. * * * “What’s going on with you?” Jenny asked me while we were off to the sidelines, waiting for the rest of the team to finish their ball-touch drills. I pulled my shirt up to use the bottom to wipe my upper lip and mouth off. The temperatures and humidity were out of this world in Houston—no surprise. The tension headache I’d been rocking all morning didn’t help any either; the conversation with the reporter kept picking at my nerves. “I’m fine,” I told her before snatching a bottle of water off the floor. She raised a single eyebrow, her cheeks puffing out as a disbelieving smirk crossed her face. Who was I trying to fool? Regardless of whether we’d been friends for five years or fifteen, she still knew me better than almost anyone. “You know you can talk to me about anything.” She gave the worst guilt trips because she was so nice about it, but still. Sometimes I didn’t want to talk about things. “I’m fine.” “You’re not fine.” “I’m fine.” “Sal, you’re not fine.” I squeezed another mouthful of water out as a few more players made their way around to wait where we were. “I really am all right,” I insisted in a lower voice so only she could hear me. She didn’t believe me and for good reason. I was a little bit pissed and a little bit annoyed. I wanted to play, not have people digging up stuff from the past. I didn’t want the world. The most I’d ever gotten out of playing was a deal with a major athletic clothing company that basically just took pictures of me playing and paid me for it. But that was it. Kulti’s presence could potentially put me at risk when the past wasn’t even my fault. He’d hurt my brother seriously and that was that. I could learn to put it behind me for the time being, especially when he didn’t seem to either know or care about who I was related to. With that thought I accidentally looked over to where Mr.-Silent-Superstar stood, arms crossed over his impressively sized chest, looking at the players on the field with a plain expression. It was the same unemotional demeanor he’d been portraying since he arrived. He annoyed me, but I was also annoyed with myself for letting his attitude bother me. All I needed was to focus on getting through preseason training. I wasn’t totally surprised when Jenny blinked slowly. “You’re bitch-facing out there. You only bitch-face when someone pisses you off during a game.” She had a point. I could feel myself bitch-facing. Smiling and smirking were two expressions my facial muscles were used to. Scowling was newer territory. I took a deep breath and tried to relax my face by stretching my jaw and mouth. Sure enough tension eased its way out of those small muscles, going even all the way up above my eyebrows. “Told you so.” Jenny smiled gently at me. “You looked like you had during the Cleveland game last year, remember that?” How could I forget? A defender on Cleveland had twisted the hell out of my nipple when I’d landed on top of her after a play and hadn’t gotten caught. That bitch. I didn’t get her back during that first half, but I sure as hell did in the second when I scored two goals on her team. I couldn’t wear a bra for a week without being in pain, but at least we won. “My nip still hurts,” I said to Jenny with a small worn-out smile on my face. She raised an eyebrow. “Is your ankle bothering you?” she asked, looking around once more to make sure other players weren’t around. Injuries were like shark bait. On one hand we were all teammates with the same objective, but I didn’t for a second think someone wouldn’t try to exploit an injury for their own benefit. Competitive people were like that. I wiped at my face again and took another sip of water. “A little bit,” I told her honestly because it was true, just not the whole truth. Jenny grimaced. “Sal, you need to be careful.” This was the difference between venting to Harlow and venting to Jenny. Harlow would have slapped me on the back and told me to walk it off. Jenny worried, she stressed. From now on she’d keep an eye on me, and that was part of the reason why I cared about her so much. I scrubbed at my face with the back of my hand. “I’m all right.” She eyed me a little critically before asking, “What else is up?” Jenny wasn’t going to leave me alone about it. I scratched at the tip of my nose and made sure no one was close enough to hear me. “This morning some writer brought up the Kulti-Eric thing.” Frustration bubbled in my throat. “I’m a little worried about it.” My friend let out a low whistle, completely aware of the situation. “Yeah,” I agreed to her wince. “Why? That’s old news.” I shrugged. Yeah, it was. “I know, right?” She nodded in agreement. “I’m just a little grumpy about it, I guess.” “Take a breather,” she demanded easily. “We’re only allowed one person to have looking like a serial killer on the field.” At the same time our eyes swung around to search out Harlow. When we looked back at each other, we smirked. Harlow was awesome but… she really did look like a murderer. I could have easily imagined her as a Viking princess, raiding villages and mounting people’s heads on spikes. “Who’s ready for some three-on-three drills?” Coach Gardner yelled. High-intensity drills, my favorite. I must have smiled or something because I heard Jenny clearly murmur, “You’re a monster,” under her breath. I pushed my ankle, The King and Eric out of my head, and smacked Jenny on the butt cheek right before I took off toward the coaches. “You coming?” She sighed and shook her head before taking off behind me. We arranged three different mini-fields for our games. I went into the first group to play a five-minute game. The game finished a blink of an eye later and the groups switched places, the girls off the field replacing the ones who just played. I spotted Harlow walking toward the sidelines and started to make my way toward her, bypassing Kulti and Coach Gardner standing together. The other man held out his fist for me to bump the side of mine against. “Have you been working on your left foot?” I grinned at him. I’d worked on it a lot. A lot. It was the result of hours and hours spent running with the ball during our offseason. It had always been pretty good, but I wanted it to be better. “I have. Thanks, G.” I bumped my fist against his once more and honestly, I’m not positive why I paused afterward. What was I expecting? Maybe a compliment from The King or at least a look, a tiny fraction of acknowledgment? Any of the above would be nice. But it was just a blip of a second too long, long enough to be noticeable, for Gardner to glance at the German out of the corner of his eye like he was expecting him to say something too. But he didn’t. Those almost-hazel eyes, like a murky pond, didn’t even look at me. Embarrassment bled through my insides, my belly and my throat specifically. What could have been acid or just overactive nerves in my cheeks made them feel weird as I forced an easygoing smile on my face that told Gardner it was fine that I’d just been ignored. But really, I was seething and dying a little inside. I knew better. Damn it, I knew better. Hadn’t he done the same thing to me before? I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had just looked right past me like I didn’t fucking exist, and I didn’t mean that in some vain pretentious way. Most people I met were friendly, and if they were shy at least they’d look me in the eye before looking away. Most assholes were at least dismissive after a quick glance. But this ass-wipe hadn’t even spared the calories he could have burned turning his neck in my direction. Nothing, he’d done nothing. I smiled at Gardner a little tighter and gave him another quick nod before striding toward Harlow, this ugly feeling clenching my gut. “What’s wrong, Sally?” Har asked me in a concerned voice the minute I made it to where she was waiting. Was I that obvious? I guess so. Chapter Five Two weeks went by in the blink of an eye, just like I knew they would. Days became a repetition of each other. They were a steady, reliable daily battle that had to be perfectly planned. 6:15 a.m. – A run. 7:00 a.m. – Breakfast. 7:20 a.m. – Make lunch. 7:45 a.m. – Attempt to dodge the media / if I failed: talk for ten minutes 8 a.m. – Pipers practice followed by a protein shake. 11:30 a.m. – Lunch in the car. 12 p.m. – Wait for Marc to pick me up so we could go to an afternoon appointment(s) 6 p.m. – Yoga / weightlifting / gardening / maybe a swim / anything else. 7 p.m. – Dinner. 8 p.m. – A shower. 8:30 p.m. – A snack / television / reading time. 10 p.m. – Bedtime. If you really wanted to get down to specifics during practice, you could add: make sure I won daily sprints, fart around with Harlow, have Jenny mother me, help out the younger girls and stare at the mute that stood in the corner every once in a while. I mean, every once in a while. No one had time to do it all practice, every practice. I mean, come on. Then off to burn under the sun, despite wearing shirts and a hat with designed to protect against UV rays. The one shower a night was probably the reason I was still single, but what was the point in showering twice if I knew I was just going to get sweaty from practice and work? Nothing said sexy like long jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and work boots. During work, Marc would harass me about Kulti and if I had any gossip to share with him. Needless to say, he was disappointed I didn’t have anything to complain about. The man everyone was so curious about hadn’t said a single word to me. Whomp, whomp, whomp. In between all of the ways The King had saturated my life, was the annoying conversation I finally had with Eric, my brother, that went along the lines of “blah, blah, blah, that guy is a fucking asshole, blah, blah, blah, don’t listen to a goddamn thing he has to say to you—“ I didn’t even get a chance to tell him that Kulti had forgotten how to speak “—blah, blah, blah, no one here can believe he decided to coach for the WPL. Someone told me he got offered an eight-figure contract to coach for one of the Spanish teams—“ more blah and a little more wah. On top of everything else I didn’t get to tell him, he didn’t find out during that biweekly conversation that I’d begun getting passive-aggressive messages from Kulti fans… all because of him and his damn leg. * * * “…an idiot.” I looked up at Gardner and noted, “He is an idiot. I’m not going to argue that.” Then I continued reading the email I’d gotten the night before. “Casillas had it coming to him. I’m tired of Kulti getting blamed when he was doing what he needed to be doing. You seem like a sensible lady, so I really hope for your sake you don’t start talking a bunch of shit about The King and learn to regret it.” Gardner sat back in his chair with a shake of his head. “Jesus, Sal. I’m sorry.” He blinked a few times. “Let’s get someone in here so we can come up with a strategy to get this crap figured out because I’m really over my head here.” “I’m sorry too, G. I hate to bother you with this crap, but I don’t know if there’s something I should do, or if I should keep ignoring the messages.” He waved me off with one hand, already dialing numbers on the conference phone on his desk. ”Don’t think twice about it… Sheena? Can you come down to my office? I have Sal Casi