Early Friday afternoon after Dante had tortured me and he was in a fine mood because of it, I said, “So the cheerleading team tryouts at U of M. You have access to that this weekend?”
“You mean am I helping out? No. If you mean do I have access to the training center? The answer is yes. Why?”
“I wanted to check it out. See Rowan Michaels in action, educate myself, given I was such a tool about who she is and what she does.”
Dante leveled his death stare on me. “Really. That’s how you’re playing this, Rocket? Taking an ‘academic’”—the asshole even made air quotes—“interest in what Rowan’s job entails at the U of M?”
“Given the fact that she cheered for me my freshman and sophomore year, I think I owe it to her to see why I hadn’t paid attention.” That sounded plausible. Hopefully he bought my ain’t-no-big-thing attitude, when in truth, Rowan interested me far more than any woman I’d met since before my injury last year.
“You owe it to her,” Dante repeated. “That better not be Jensen-speak for wanting a piece of her, because I have a major problem with that.”
For the first time I gauged him as competition. Good-looking guy with dark hair and olive skin that indicated his Italian ancestry. Dude was a total bro, built like a freight train with the smarts to back up his ambition. But he was a player, so it annoyed me that he thought he had the right to warn me off. “Something going on between you and Rowan?”
He snorted. “I’ve known her since her senior year in college. She’s like my little sister so naturally I’m gonna warn off a guy like you.”
A guy like me who’d lived like a freakin’ monk the past year. After I returned home from the hospital, several of my hookups vied for a chance to “help me out.” But they started to equate—confuse?—my need for a quick bout of sex with a long-term commitment, so I put a halt to all of it. No dating. No clubs. No team parties. While a small part of me missed the rush of locking eyes with a woman, knowing I could have her on her knees or on her back with just a sexy smile, the truth was random sexual encounters weren’t enough. In my lonely self-reflection, I realized I wanted more.
“Got nothin’ to say to that, Rocket?”
I shook off my melancholy. “Give me some credit. She violates all three of my rules.”
He tried—and failed—to intimidate me with silence. Finally he sighed. “Fine. I’ll get you in. But all you’d have to do is give your name at the door and you’d be golden.”
“Except I don’t want anyone to know I’m there.”
Dante’s eyes widened. “Not cashing in on your celebrity? You are serious about the educational-pursuit angle. I thought The Rocket loved being mobbed.”
I used to. Now I avoided it whenever possible. “Just get me in and I’ll blend.”
He clapped me on the back. “Buddy, you’re six foot five, built like the pro football player you are and your ugly mug has been in the news since you were sixteen years old—you don’t know how to blend.”
I flashed my teeth at him. “Watch me.”
• • •
An older sister with a love of theater had served me well. Not only did I rock Halloween costumes, I’d learned that a couple of adjustments could change my appearance—or at least other people’s perception. I left the dark blond scruff on my face, tucked my hair up in an old U of M ball cap and slipped on a pair of glasses with clear lenses that I kept around to go incognito.
I wore a stained pair of black sweatpants, the elastic bottoms pulled up below my knees, and a pair of white tube socks shoved down to the tops of my hiking boots. My teammate Devonte had left a size 6XXL quilted flannel shirt here a few weeks back. Defensive ends were massive so the shirt was oversized even for a guy my size. Shuffling with my shoulders hunched and my head down, I appeared a few inches shorter.
When I squinted in the foggy bathroom mirror, I felt confident no one—not even my own mother—would recognize me in this getup.
I climbed into my Hummer. Halfway to the campus MOM popped up on my digital screen. She’d keep calling if I didn’t answer, so I accepted the call. “What did I do wrong that warrants a phone call from my beautiful mother on a Friday afternoon?”
“Why do you assume you are in error?”
“Because I’ve been home a few days and haven’t seen you?” She’d ignored the flattery, which wasn’t a good sign.
“I suppose I should be happy that you made time for your brothers.”
“You and Dad are welcome to work out with us at five in the morning,” I offered.
“When you are up with the hens, there is so very much of the day left to contact people, yah?”
That had backfired on me. I didn’t even point out that she’d mixed up hens with roosters.
“You need a personal assistant to organize things. Then when my youngest son doesn’t have time in his busy schedule for his mama, I can blame her and not feel like meddlesome botherer.”
Once my mother got past slathering on the guilt, she was sweet, funny and thoughtful. “I’m sorry. What can I do to make it up to you?”
“Help me with two things. First, attend the Lund family brunch on Sunday. Bring a date if you wish.”
I deflected on the date. “I’ll be there.”
“Second, you’ve considered my proposition for your Lund Cares Community Outreach project this year, yah?”
“Your suggestion is not a good fit for me. I told you that.”
“Since when is football not a good fit for you, Jensen Bernard Lund, tight end for the Minnesota Vikings?” she demanded.
My hands tightened around the steering wheel. “Since I’m on the injured reserve list and if I damage myself in an activity that is not directly related to football practice or training with my coaches’ approval, I’m in violation of my contract.”
“Oh pigwash. Tiny boys in peewee football can’t hurt big offensive player like you.”
“You mean hogwash?”
“Yah. Whatever. You stand there to clap and yell encouragement. Maybe you wipe a few noses, clean off dirt, patch up scrapes—all just standing on the offside.”
“Snot, blood and mud is supposed to sell me on this idea, Mom? Sorry, but no.” I paused. “And offside is a penalty, not a place. You meant standing on the sideline.” Which she well knew.
“See! You know all the important terms and rules. Naturally you are teacher.”
I could not win with her. So I did what any desperate son does: I lied my ass off. “Helping with football camps, even through a charitable and respected organization like LCCO, is prohibited because it is in direct competition with the local and national athletic programs set up by the NFL. So I’ve done research on other options for my annual LCCO project. I’ll let you know as soon as I have a solid idea, okay?”
“Do not delay or Priscilla will bring up that bachelor auction idea again since Ash hasn’t committed to his annual LCCO project either.”
“Bachelor auction.” I snorted. “Wasn’t that popular in like 2000? Isn’t the idea of that laughable now?”
“Yes. I think Priscilla is in midlife crisis. She keeps bringing up the auction because she wants to stare at young, beautiful, built men and pretend it’s for a good cause.”
“Mom. That is way too much information.”
She laughed. “With that . . . my work is done. Have fun with whatever you are doing that you do not wish to tell me about. Love you. See you Sunday.”
• • •
Since I’d spent four years on the U of M campus, finding the training facility wasn’t a problem. The football team hadn’t trained in this building, and that was just another reminder of how segregated we’d been from the other student athletes.
The flannel shirt roasted me, but I had to keep it on. I shuffled up to the registration table and two college girls, one blonde, one brunette, stopped gossiping long enough to acknowledge me.
The blonde wrinkled her nose at me. The brunette kept a bland expression when she said, “You need a pass to get in here.”
“There should be a pass left for me by Dante DeLillo.”
The brunette sighed and pawed through the D section. “Are you Richard Head?”
Richard Head? Aka . . . Dick Head? Seriously? I’d expected something more creative. “That’s me.”
She all but threw the lanyard. “That pass is only good for the bleachers section.”
“But I can sit anywhere I want in the bleachers?”
“Gee, do ya think?” the blonde retorted. “Just don’t talk too loud or bother anyone or we’ll ask you to leave.”
“Okay.” To further annoy them, I said, “Are you both cheerleaders?”
“Duh. Why else would we be here?”
In my experience that snotty attitude was a prerequisite to becoming a pompom waver. I walked away but still heard them snicker behind my back. But then all sound faded. The room darkened. All I could see was her, as if she’d been pinpointed in a spotlight.
Rowan moved with grace and style that set her apart from every other athlete on the mat. Smooth transitions with her body as she precisely executed arm motions and the smile on her beautiful face never faded. She’d pulled her red hair back into a stubby ponytail, and she wore maroon-colored yoga pants with a mustard-yellow athletic tank top, both pieces sporting the U of M logo.
Holy shit did the woman have a hot body—toned, muscled and yet curved in all the right places.
Clapping her hands, she stepped out, raising her arms above her head, mirroring her upper and lower body in a V shape. Then she did a hip-hop dance move, bringing her legs together for a moment before she threw herself back, executing a somersault in the air. Pivoting, she performed a cartwheel/back handspring combo, landing facing forward in the splits with her arms above her head, still smiling.
I started to applaud until I noticed no one else was clapping. Definitely didn’t need to draw attention to myself. Turning away, I scaled the bleacher seats, choosing to sit in the center. I scanned the area. There weren’t many people watching the tryouts—maybe thirty. But the sections where the competitors waited were completely full.
I’d just settled in when the music started—a mash-up of the peppiest parts of various songs—and once again Rowan was demonstrating, but she had a partner.
No. Way. Her partner was my cousin Dallas—who’d graduated from college last spring. In tandem they performed the same series of movements that Rowan had done solo.
I attempted to keep an objective eye. Dallas was a damn good cheerleader. She just wasn’t as good as Rowan. Rowan had that extra . . . sparkle, for lack of a better description.
I wondered if she was still cheering because she craved the spotlight.
Maybe you should stop making assumptions. Isn’t trying to change your preconceived ideas the reason you’re here?
It was. But watching Rowan Michaels sauntering around in skintight clothes, bending her incredible body this way and that . . . total bonus.
Then a voice boomed over the sound system. “Listen up, competitors. Now you’ve seen the routine all the way to the end. This is the only group practice, so pay attention to what’s going on in front of you and behind you. Know your own space. Flight one, take the floor. Cue the music from the beginning.”
Two dozen girls spread out on the mat. Dallas stood at the front, leading the group, while Rowan and another woman walked along opposite sides of the competitors, holding clipboards.
The entire routine lasted a little over two minutes. It surprised me to see how well the competitors synced with each other, given their random number assignments. According to the signage I’d seen, they weren’t allowed to try out with a predetermined group, for either the choreographed numbers or the stunting portion. When they performed a move I didn’t know the official name for, I Googled it. I didn’t want to come across like an idiot not knowing anything about cheerleading.
For the next hour, I watched twelve flights enact the same routine. A few competitors stood out, but I hadn’t seen anyone on par with Dallas and especially not close to Rowan’s performance level. I’d stuck around to see the stunt groups, but the people behind me said those tryouts weren’t until tomorrow.
Before I could bail, a dark-haired sprite bounded up the bleacher steps.
“Fancy meeting you here, JB.” She plopped down next to me. “And FFR? You can’t pull off Walker’s lumbersexual look.”
“Nice to see you too, baby cuz. What the hell is FFR?”
“For future reference.” She bumped me with her shoulder. “Dude, keep up with the current lingo. Totes ages you when you have to ask for an explanation.”
“Gimme a break. You totes make up your own lingo,” I pointed out. “Besides, I’m sure my aura registered confusion so you should’ve known. Or did you miss that reading, Miss Woo-Woo?”
She snorted. “Woo-woo. One of these days I’ll take offense to that. But for now, I’m chalking it up to your unenlightened attitude. So what brings you here? In disguise, no less?”
“I’m here for enlightenment. I’m avoiding being recognized so not to detract from the competition Rowan is running.” Not an egotistical statement, just fact. Pro football players were treated like celebrities—regardless of whether we deserved it.
“Rowan?” she repeated. “You mean Coach Michaels?”
“What’s going on between you two?” Dallas demanded. “How do you even know her?”
“She and her son are subleasing Martin’s apartment.”
“Oh. Right. Now I remember that Axl’s former neighbor was her brother. He stopped by practice a few times to pick up Calder.”
I looked at her. “You know Calder?”
Dallas said, “Yep. I used to babysit him once in a while when Coach’s regular sitters had a conflict. Sweet kid.”
“I’m surprised to see you here on campus. You swore you were done with all of this after graduation.”
“I was. I mean, I am.” She started fiddling with the bracelets lining her forearm. “You probably don’t remember, but I quit the cheer team for a while last year.”
“Of course I remember. That was when you were involved with Iron Man.”
Her gaze met mine. “Quitting the team had nothing to do with me doing a hot Russian hockey dude. Back then I’d had some other issues. Rather than create more problems for myself, I quit the team.”
Why hadn’t I heard of any of the other issues?
Maybe you had heard about it, you just chose to ignore it. Or you figured someone else in the family would take care of it.
“Coach Michaels let me sit out for the rest of the football season,” she continued. “When I told her I still wanted to quit the squad when basketball season started, she refused to accept my resignation.” She paused. “She understood I needed a focal point. And she was right. It was the only thing that got me through it. So when I heard she needed help with cheer camp, I volunteered.”
I inhaled a deep breath. “Does anyone in the family know . . . ?”
“No. I’m already seen as the baby. Plus, everyone thinks I’m a freakazoid from being born with secondary perceptions. ‘Oh, Dallas, honey, you’re probably making things seem worse than they are.’ Last year was mass chaos with the Lund Collective. Jax quit drinking. You were injured. Annika was in a secret relationship. Walker and Brady were trying to figure out how to balance their careers with being newly married. Nolan was picking up the slack at LI. Then my world collapsed when Ig—” She shook her head. “Then there’s my brother.”
“What’s going on with Ash?” I said sharply. Of all my cousins, Ash always held it together.
“He’s joyless. He has pulled so far into his shell that I can’t even see his aura let alone read it.” Dallas violated my space to warn, “Don’t you dare tell anyone what I said about Ash, JB. I’m not kidding. You asked why I didn’t confide in the Lund Collective, and there’s your answer.”
“Fine.” I lightly flicked her nose, knowing she hated it. But we needed some levity.
“Don’t do that, jerkwad.” She harrumphed when she tried to shove me and I didn’t budge.
“Maybe I didn’t know any of this before, but I know it now. If your aura starts closing in on you and you need to talk, call me, okay?”
“Dude. Your aura can’t close in on you like a cloak of doom . . .” She frowned. “Although, when I think about it, that is kind of what it feels like. Suffocating darkness.”
“See? I’m not totally clueless with the woo-woo stuff.”
“But you are avoiding my question on what’s going on between you and Coach Michaels.”
“Nothing. We’re neighbors. I’m here supporting her since her brother is on vacay.”
“Uh-huh. It has nothing to do with her bein’ totes adorbs, right?”
Jesus. Totes adorbs? Who seriously says that? And besides, totes adorbs didn’t accurately describe the hot and sexy and so very, very . . . limber Coach Michaels.
Dallas bumped me with her shoulder. “It’s okay to crush on her, JB.”
“It’s not like that.”
That earned me an exaggerated wink. “Whatever you say.” She leapt to her feet. “Gotta go. Coach is giving me the stink-eye.”
I noticed Rowan staring at me.
So I gave her a double thumbs-up and a stupid, goofy grin. Not something Jensen Lund would do.
I decided to stick around a little longer and see what shook out. I snickered to myself . . . and wished I’d come up with that pompom pun in time to share it with Dallas.