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Falling Hard by C.M. Lally (1)

Chapter 1


Oh great. The parking lot adjoining the sports arena is blocked by orange construction fencing. Now I’ve got to park farther away and walk through a den of vipers disguised as hot, half-naked construction workers to get to my interview. Had I known I’d have to walk a few blocks, I would have worn different shoes; these heels are already slowing me down.

My steps falter as I approach the construction zone and get a better view of the workers. Glistening sweat rolls off their tanned shoulders and trickles down bulging biceps flexing in the late fall heat. I swallow, suddenly parched. Keep walking Aran. Giving into temptation will not get you a job.

It’s not that I’m a feminist or anything. Men can cat call and wolf whistle all they want. I soak it up like a sponge. There can’t possibly be any greater feeling than desire. Desire. There’s a long lost friend, but lately, she’s not been enough. I want a deeper connection. I want actions over words. My college boyfriends were all words—false words. I want a man that doesn’t hide from himself, and can share with me. Unfortunately, my looks don’t attract that kind of man.

I’m a redheaded, tall, curvy, hot-blooded American woman. I’m young. I’ve been told I’m beautiful. And hot. And sexy as fuck. I love men, but I’m not stupid. I chose a profession in a world dominated by men. A girl’s gotta use all of her resources to get what she wants; my resources just happen to include my looks.

I’m a sports photographer, or at least that’s what my diploma says. I just need some assignments to support that title. Action shots are my specialty—especially football and soccer shots. I just graduated from the San Francisco Academy of Art and I’m hungry to get out there and show ‘em what I can do.

I’ve spent the last two summers in Washington interning at Seattle Reign, FC, a professional women’s soccer team. I consider it a high honor to have captured some of their best moments last year when they won their division championship. Unfortunately, everyone I know in this industry is in Seattle. That doesn’t help me now; I need to build a network here in Oakland.

Returning here is like coming home. I grew up close by in the small town of Knightsen where my brother Nick was a local football star. He was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and I kind of got my start taking pictures of him while he was playing. When I caught some of his best moments, I decided I wanted to do it professionally.

After a career-ending injury four years ago, Nick became a sports commentator for ESPN. He and his wife Jenna live close by and are expecting their first baby—the first grandchild in the Bailey family. My Mom died shortly after Nick was hurt, so I want to be close to home so I can help them out if needed. I want to be a great sister to both my brother and Jenna, and I look forward to being the “fun” aunt to their new baby.

I make it into UC Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion with a few minutes to spare. “Home of the Golden Bears” is embossed across the gleaming floor, the homage to the home team that I’ve encountered in every sports arena I’ve entered. Mr. Wembley, the Athletic Director, asked me to meet him in the gymnasium, and to bring my camera. I’m not sure what he has in mind, but I brought my portfolio as well. A girl should never be unprepared, no matter the task.

My interview is at 2 pm. I’m a little nervous. This will be my first professional contract bid. I really don’t know what to expect, but I fully intend to promote myself to the best of my ability…and if that gets out my of control, I’ll simply wing-it with my charm. Yeah, that’s my master plan; my Plan A. I’m a confident person. My education and co-operative training have been top-notch, and my experience and talent speak for themselves within my portfolio. I can’t change anything at this point, so if I’m not the choice, then this contract isn’t what I need in my life. But it sure would be nice to have a j-o-b after college.

Plan B is on a very low flame on the backburner. Which basically means it’s not developed at all. And by not developed, I mean, it only has the title of Plan B. That’s how confident I am that Plan A is going to work. Plan A has been in the making for a few years now, and I’m more than excited to see it finally get started. Plan A has lots of contingency plans built in already. But I’m a realistic girl. Not everything is meant for everyone. I am open to Plan A, version 2.0 if this doesn’t work out. It’s my life and I get to be captain of my ship, right?

I stroll down to the end of the hallway where the massive GYMNASIUM sign points to a row of blue double doors. The sound of sneakers squeaking and balls thumping on hard wood echoes through the metal doors. Oh please, don’t let me open these doors and embarrass myself by walking right onto the gym floor. I give myself a mental shake and gather my confidence. C’mon Aran. You’re tough. Just push a handle and walk on through.

I hoist my camera bag strap higher onto my shoulder; grip my portfolio tight, take a deep breath, and push. The door swings wide and I sigh in relief. I’m standing at the top of the bleachers and not directly on the gym floor as I’d feared. Practice is going on and I spot Mr. Wembley on the floor, about thirty rows below me. Shit. What a hike in four-inch heels.

The clickety-clack of my Louboutins echoes with each step down the bleachers. I skim my hand over the railing, ready to catch myself if I tumble, but I make it. No harm, no foul. No one even notices me at first, and then suddenly basketballs stop thumping the wood and a chorus of whistles bounces off the high ceilings. All eyes are on me. Great! I’m many things, but attention-seeking isn’t one of them. I don’t mind being admired, but I don’t go out of my way to have all eyes on my, especially when I’m working.

Mr. Wembley approaches me and holds out his hand, introducing himself. “You must be Aran Bailey. I’m Matt Wembley, the Athletic Director for the Golden Bears. I’m sorry to have to do this to you, but I’m a free-spirit and I find the best way to interview people is to watch them in action. That usually means putting them on the spot.” He eyes me up and down. “I see you aren’t dressed for ‘on-the-spot’, but I would really like to see what you can do under pressure. Thank you for bringing your camera.”

“Yes, I’m Aran,” I say, shaking his hand with a firm grip. “Photography by nature is catching unexpected moments, so I always try to have my camera ready. It’s no problem, as long as you don’t mind if I take off my heels and go barefoot?”

“Absolutely. Practice just started, so you’ve got plenty of time. If I’m called away, just meet me back in my office to review the pictures. May I look at your portfolio while you shoot?”

“Yes, please,” I reply, handing it to him. “I would be honored, Mr. Wembley.”

“Matt, please call me Matt.”

I ease my way down to the gym floor with my camera bag, while he evaluates my portfolio. Sliding off my shoes, I get comfortable and survey the current lighting. I set my lens into focus, adjust the shutter speed, take a deep breath, and step out onto the hard wood in bare feet, red toes and all. Ready. Set. Shoot.

The players are running shooting drills. I angle around closer to the net, waiting for the ball to swish in, and after a succession of misses, one finally breaks the golden circle and drops through the net. I didn’t catch who the lucky player was though. Cheers and whistles reverberate through the room, but I also miss my chance at a celebration photo as more balls fly toward the hoop.

I zoom in specifically to catch the players’ faces and see a bunch of smug winks and dimple-flashing when they realize my laser-focus is on them. Most of the faces are determined, though, and ignore me. Some show frustration from the coach yelling about missed opportunities, and a few are smiling. I think I’ve gotten some great shots. Out of a hundred photos taken, only a handful of them will be worth using, but that’s standard.

After an hour or so, practice ends. They all move in and stand at half-court in a circle around the coach. I raise my camera to get the whole team, coaxing my zoom in and out for different views, looking for that money shot that I know is there. While I’m scanning them through my lens, I notice honey-brown eyes staring at me. I raise my face away from the viewfinder and there he is. His piercing gaze is boring a hole through me, infusing me with a heat I have never felt before.

He doesn’t smile or show any emotion; he simply stares. Is he actually looking at me, or just toward me, lost in thought? He certainly isn’t paying attention to the coach. The heat in his gaze makes me feel naked and exposed even though I’m standing here fully clothed. I snap a picture of his face; he’s beautiful. Those eyes are expressive, tinged with sadness. I focus my lens on the mystery man again and capture his jersey number and last name. Daniels, 0. The circle breaks and he wanders off to the far corner of the court, dribbling the ball and never looking back at me.

I head back over to my camera bag and start to shut it down, when someone taps impatiently on my elbow from behind and clears her throat. Her cloying, lilac-scented perfume weighs down the air. My only thought is, Please don’t let it be some jealous girlfriend. My life always seems to attract them.

I don’t even turn around before a sharp female voice asks, “What are you doing taking pictures of Kyle?”

I sigh. Suspicions confirmed. I slide my heels back on, increasing my height, before turning around to face a very pretty blonde who is glaring at me with her arms crossed. Her heart-shaped face suggests rainbows and sunshine, but the attitude screams raving, jealous bitch.

“I’m sorry. Who?” I shoot back at her, keeping my tone even and cool.

“Kyle Daniels,” she snaps. “Ugh. Number 0.” Rolling her eyes, she looks at me like I’m an idiot for not knowing who he is.

She’s not the first jealous beast I’ve encountered, and definitely not the scariest. “I’m just here to take pictures and finish my interview. I don’t personally know any of the players. Sorry,” I smile sweetly, shrugging my shoulders and dismissing her. Zipping my camera bag closed, I secure it onto my shoulder and look around for Matt, who is nowhere in sight. I trudge back up the stairs in search of the AD office and leave Blondie behind.

Damn. So that’s Kyle Daniels, their star power forward and the current Oscar Robertson trophy recipient. I’ll have to check him out later. Right now, the only thing I know is that he has a girlfriend, and she isn’t photographer-friendly, or at least female photographer-friendly.

The athletic office is bustling with people when I enter. The main desk is manned by a friendly, perky young woman who beams a contagious smile as I approach. “May I help you?”

I ask for Mr. Wembley, explaining that we are in the middle of an interview. She points down the hall. “Third office on your left. Good luck.”

The door is wide open and deep voices carry down the corridor to me. I knock on the door frame hesitantly and both men stop talking and stand. Matt waves me in. “Aran, this is Scott Hackerman; he’s the head Basketball coach. He’s going to be sitting in with us while we finish up this interview. Is that okay?”

“Absolutely,” I say, as I take the seat he offers to me and pull my camera into my lap. “Mr. Wembley—or Matt, I mean—would you like to see the shots I took downstairs?” He nods and I hand my camera across the desk to him.

Mr. Hackerman hands me back my portfolio, smiling. “Aran, there are some amazing photos in there. Do you prefer soccer over other sports? I did see a few football shots as well, but nothing for basketball.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hackerman. I don’t actually prefer any sport over another. The soccer stills are from my summer internship in college. The football photos are of my brother. I like to capture action in the moment, no matter where it’s happening.”

Matt hands my camera over to Mr. Hackerman. “She’s got a great eye, Scott. I think she’s what we’re looking for. Check out those last shots of Daniels. She nailed him.”

“I love them. All of them, actually. You have great instincts for predicting movement,” Mr.Hackerman says as he finishes flipping through the pictures.

“Thank you, Mr. Hackerman,” I say, taking my camera from him and setting it down on the desk.

“Scott, please. We won’t be interacting that often, but please call me Scott when we do. ‘Mr. Hackerman’ makes me sound old.”

“So, Aran. Here’s what we need and you tell us if you are interested. Kyle Daniels won the Oscar Robertson Trophy last year as a junior. That’s quite an honor for a college basketball player. We have high hopes for him winning it again this year as a senior, but we need to get him nominated first. We need someone who can capture the essence of his playing time so that we can promote it and promote the basketball program for the school. We would like to assign you to the team for all home game and practice photos, but even moreso to Kyle specifically.”

“Great. I can do that. Will he know I am focusing on him, specifically, as you say? He didn’t seem too thrilled that I was taking his picture during practice. He scowled at me in every shot.”

“Don’t worry. He’ll be advised. I’ll personally make sure of it,” Matt promises, tapping his finger on the desk for emphasis. “Now for business purposes, just send over your business contract and we’ll get the attorneys working on it so we can start. Okay?”

“Yes. I’ll have it to you by tomorrow morning. Thank you,” I say, shaking both of their hands and gathering my things to leave.

I float on cloud nine all the way out the door of the pavilion. I don’t even feel my aching feet. Securing my very first job all by myself feels amazing; I could happy dance right now, but instead, I strut right past the construction zone and let out a few wolf-whistles to the construction workers. I lower my sunglasses and throw a saucy wink and my brightest smile at a sweaty, but gorgeous man hammering something. Today is a glorious day.



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