A/N: Thanks so much for the reviews/alerts/faves. It means a lot to me!
Big thanks to my fic BFF's - Windgirl810, Littlecat358, Michelle0526 and Tennesseelamb for reading, correcting, making suggestions. Love you all. :)
Thanks for reading!
"All right, sweetie," Sue says, tying up the third huge, black trash bag. "I think that's it."
Sighing heavily, I wipe my forearm across my damp brow. For the last four hours, my stepmom and I have been mopping up the water that was standing, practically wall-to-wall, in part of my apartment when I got home. A cracked pipe in my upstairs neighbor's kitchen – which he didn't know was leaking when he left for work this morning – allowed water to pour out all day. His kitchen is ruined. My kitchen, bathroom and part of my living room are ruined. Thankfully, the water didn't get to my bedroom, so at least I have a place to sleep and clothes to wear.
"Thank you so much for coming over, Sue. For helping me," I say, turning away to wring out the mop in the sink. "I don't know what I would have done without you."
"I'm happy to help, Bella. You know that," she replies, dragging the heavy trash bags over to the door. "I'll take all these wet towels home and wash them. You sure you don't want to come with me? You know our guestroom is always open for you."
"I appreciate the offer," I respond, turning to lean against the counter. "But I'm so exhausted that I just want to fall into bed. I have to get up in six hours."
"Your hair dryer is working?" she asks. Yawning, I nod. "Don't use it in the bathroom."
"I won't," I answer. The building maintenance guys have been in and out of here all night and pronounced my plumbing okay, but told me not to use the electrical outlets anywhere except my bedroom until they do a more thorough check tomorrow.
I help Sue lug the bags of heavy, wet towels to her car and make her promise to have my dad carry them inside their house. Before she gets in, I hug her goodbye.
"You're the best," I say quietly. "I love you."
"I love you, too," she replies, squeezing me more tightly for a second.
After I change into pajamas and wash my face, I unpack my fancy, new coffee maker. Chuckling to myself, I load it up for the morning and plug it in beside my bed. Tomorrow I won't even have to get up to get my caffeine fix. This is the most genius thing ever. Why didn't I think of it earlier?
It's not until I'm settled in bed a few minutes later that I realize I never did any real research on Cullen for tomorrow's show. For several seconds, I entertain the notion of digging out my laptop to read up a little on him. But it's past eleven o'clock, and I'm too sleepy to stay awake any longer.
Dammit. I really hate feeling unprepared… flying by the seat of my pants. Oh, well. Maybe it will make tomorrow's show interesting.
Rolling to my right, I flip my pillow over and rest my cheek against the cool side. With one last yawn, I let my eyes slide closed and drift off to sleep.
Tuesday morning, I try to play nice with Newton. I wear dark jeans, a black v-neck t-shirt and red peep toe wedges. I straighten my hair, wear makeup and even accessorize with a necklace and earrings. See? Nice. Especially given the fact that I have to get up a little after four o'clock to accomplish all this and be at the station in time for the pre-production meeting.
When I walk in, Newton nods his approval. I drink crappy coffee from the machine in the lounge and plot ways to inflict corporal punishment on him and the stupid webcam. After I catch him staring at my chest – again – while I'm talking, most of the plans involve him being publicly humiliated, too.
The first hour of the show flies by. Emmett and I talk about the Mariners, and then college football. There's not much Seahawks news to discuss since yesterday's practice was closed to the media. No new pictures or footage to analyze. So it's probably not evident that I didn't do my homework on Cullen. Score one for Bella.
A little after seven, we take some listener calls. A regular morning show caller who nicknamed himself Sports Fan Dan is first. Obviously not believing that a woman could possibly know and love sports as much as a man, he insists on quizzing my sports knowledge.
"Okay, Dan, ask away," I invite, turning to roll my eyes at Emmett. "I will warn you, though, that I was raised by my father, who was first a college football scout in Arizona, and then an NFL scout for the Cardinals. When I was fourteen, he became a Seahawks coach. I've grown up not just watching sports, but hanging out with athletes, coaches, and sports journalists. I absorbed a lot of information. Go ahead and try to stump me though."
Dan asks me five questions, of which I answer four correctly. I only miss the really obscure baseball question. Baseball stats and trivia are my weakness. I know the past thirty-five years pretty well, but before that, I only know the biggies.
Emmett rushes to defend me, and even Newton agrees that almost no one would have known the answer to that question. It's a moot point. Sports Fan Dan has decided I passed anyway. Then he asks if we'll have the webcam on every day so he can see me. I turn to glare at Newton through the glass, laughing when he turns and runs out of the control room like the scared little boy he is. Emmett and I make fun of him all through the next commercial break until his angry voice comes through our earpieces – reminding us he can hear everything we say. That makes us laugh all over again.
During the eight o'clock half hour, two Seahawks offensive linemen are in-studio with us. Tyler Crowley and Garrett Stevens talk about the team and the upcoming season. They share a couple of funny training camp stories. And they heap praise on the new quarterback, telling us that Tuesday is their contractual day off, but Cullen was still at the stadium for a voluntary workout before six o'clock this morning.
As we approach the bottom-of-the-hour break, I find that I'm thoroughly enchanted with these guys. Tyler's cute and a little bit of a clown. He's sitting in the chair next to me, and he sings to me during every break, making me laugh out loud several times. Garrett seems sweet, and his light brown eyes shine with mischief when he tells me about a joke the team played on my dad last year.
At the end of the half hour, Emmett unexpectedly asks them to stay for the last few segments of the show, causing me to turn and look quizzically at him since we hadn't discussed that. But he's engrossed in something on his monitor and doesn't even glance at me.
Mindful of the two seconds of dead air, I speak into the mic. "Yeah, that would be great. Can you two stick around?"
"Sure," Tyler replies, smiling widely at me when our eyes meet.
Emmett comes to life then, taking over as we lead into the break, but still ignoring me despite the fact that I'm looking at him again. Irritated, I swivel my chair and shift my stare to Newton, whose eyes are glued to the sound board. I see the muscle in his cheek twitch, but he doesn't lift his eyes. I guess he realizes I'm pissed at him. He's probably afraid to look at me, I reason, letting my lips curl into a smug smile. He must have only talked in Emmett's earpiece about asking Tyler and Garrett to stay. What a jackwagon.
After we go to commercial, Emmett jumps up and announces he'll get coffee from the lounge for us. When I offer to help, he rushes to the door, insisting he can carry all the cups himself and instructing me to entertain our guests. Puzzled by his nervous behavior, I raise one eyebrow at him, but in his haste to get out of the room, he doesn't even notice. I shake my head in amusement and briefly wonder what's up with him before rolling my chair closer to Tyler.
"Emmett and I are going to emcee the Seahawks pep rally a week from Friday – before the first regular season game. Are you guys going to be there?" I ask, looking first at Tyler, and then across the table at Garrett.
They both say yes, and we talk for a minute about which other players are attending. Tyler nudges my arm and says he doesn't stay out late during the season, but he'll buy me a drink in the bar after the rally.
Emmett comes back through the door carefully balancing four cardboard cups on a flimsy, plastic tray. Once I have my coffee, I scoot back to my place, letting him take over the conversation while I study the paper Newton gave me during the pre-show meeting. I read through the list to make sure I talked about everything I was supposed to during the show. See? Playing nice again.
As I'm perusing, the guys are gathered at the opposite end of the table, speaking in hushed tones. I don't pay them much attention until I overhear a quiet comment from Tyler.
"She's a nice girl, Emmett. I kind of feel bad."
My head snaps up and I glance toward them, my eyes narrowed. "What's going on, boys?" I ask suspiciously.
"Don't worry about it," Emmett answers, winking at me.
Consequently, I do nothing but worry about it for the remainder of the break.
As soon as we're back on-air, Emmett immediately asks if the guys ever listen to this show in the mornings.
"Yeah, we do. In fact, somebody turned it on over the speaker system yesterday morning. I think everyone was in the locker room getting dressed while it was on…just before eight-thirty." Tyler says, looking over at me. Crap. He's looking at me sympathetically.
"We had a lot of fun with some of the stuff Bella said," Garrett adds, not meeting my eyes.
"What did I say?" I ask, frowning and trying to keep the panic out of my voice even though my stomach is somersaulting nervously. Jesus. That was twenty-four hours ago, early on in the day that turned into a nightmare. I can't remember what I said… I can't even remember what I ate for dinner last night. Actually, I don't know if I ate dinner last night.
"About Cullen," Garrett says, finally looking over at me, amusement obvious in his eyes.
"I distinctly remember saying I think he has potential," I assert, mentally running through what else I said on-air after Emmett and I watched the video of him. "I said his presence in the pocket and his throwing motion are solid."
"And you said he has a so-so backside," Tyler chirps, starting to laugh. Apparently, he's past feeling sorry for me.
"Oh, right," I admit, feeling my face flush as the guys all laugh. "That. Well, in my defense – and Cullen's – I didn't really check out his derrière when I watched the video."
"Maybe you can get a good look at it today, Swan," Emmett snorts, fighting to keep a straight face.
"Yeah. We brought you a surprise, Bella," Garrett adds.
"Oh… no," I say quietly. My pulse begins to race, the heavy beat of it thundering in my ears.
"Oh, yes. Tyler and Garrett brought a friend with them today. Newton, send him in," Emmett laughs, not bothering to hide his delight anymore.
The studio door opens and the third guest backs into the room….blue helmet, gray t-shirt, but no tight white pants. It doesn't matter. Even under the broken-in jeans he's wearing, I can see that I have clearly under-assessed his, um, assets. The ass beneath the distressed denim is superior.
The guys are all talking, thank God, so I don't have to say anything yet. When they finally get around to asking me if I'd like to change my answer, I want to scream "Fuck, yeah!"
Instead, aware that I'm being watched, I shrug as I reply. "He's not wearing the right pants for me to accurately judge, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt."
Following my pronouncement, Cullen turns around, still wearing his helmet. I can't really see what he looks like between the bars of the face mask; all I see are bright green eyes and white teeth.
Luckily, Emmett lets me off the hook after my answer. He shifts his focus to Cullen, inviting him to stay for the rest of the show. I can't tear my eyes away from him as he takes a seat and pulls off his helmet. Oh, hell. The lady who called in yesterday to tell me how good-looking Cullen is was clearly mistaken. He's not merely good-looking. He's beautiful. The face surrounding his vivid, green eyes is ruggedly handsome. His strong jawline is covered in stubble as if he hasn't shaved in a couple of days. His hair is short and groomed on the sides and back, and longer and sticking up wildly on top.
Emmett points to the headphones hanging from the microphone in front of Cullen, and he quickly puts them on. Then he smiles at me before he begins talking, probably amused by the way my voice no longer seems to work. Neither does my face. I'm pretty sure that I'm staring open-mouthed at him while his deep voice flows smoothly into the mic, chuckling as he tells us how memorable we made his first day in Seattle. He's a good sport about it, especially considering how much shit he probably got during the course of the day.
Eventually, I regain my ability to speak and point out that I thought his football mechanics were sound, and that's what matters to Seattle sports fans.
When Tyler chimes in to say that Cullen's jersey is already the best-seller on the Seahawks website, Cullen quickly turns red, embarrassed by the comment. His obvious humility, coupled with the blush, makes him seem even more attractive and I feel my lips curve up – way up – into a wide smile. I try not to sigh like a love-struck fool into the microphone, but I think one might slip through.
"What's your jersey number?" I ask… I have no idea why.
He looks directly at me as he answers. "Seven."
Oh, crap. Another deadly combination: his eyes and his voice. I feel a spark zip right up my spine and am grateful when Emmett steers the discussion back toward the team. Emmett looks at me out of the corner of his eye, but gives no other indication that he notices I've turned into a babbling, thirteen year-old girl. Hoping to regain my composure, I pick up my lukewarm coffee and take a big drink. It works. The coffee is so terrible that I make a face, and the bitterness jolts me right back to reality.
Tyler relays a few more stories about how they welcomed Cullen to the team, and Cullen pulls his eyes away from me to focus on them, disputing a few of the facts. The chemistry and camaraderie developing between the three players is apparent, and they turn out to be entertaining guests.
When Emmett and I sign off for the day, the hosts of the next show are waiting in the hallway to take our seats. Eager to get away from Cullen's mesmerizing presence, I pull out my earpiece and unhook the battery pack. I offer to take Emmett's, too, as I head for the control room. In return, he says he'll carry my laptop to the lounge. After thanking him, I pause to wave goodbye to our guests, and then book it out of the studio.
I linger in the control room longer than necessary, talking to Seth to waste time. Then, assuming Newton wants a post-show meeting in the lounge to gloat, I walk that way. I take two steps into the room before I realize that Emmett is inside, still chatting with the players.
My eyes land on Cullen's for a split-second before I slide them away as I veer toward the refrigerator in the back of the room. Knowing I can't be rude, I take a deep, calming breath and load my arms with bottled water for all of us. When I push the fridge door shut with my knee and turn around, Cullen is standing right behind me.
"Jesus!" I exclaim, startled enough to send my heart racing. I exhale loudly and lean back against the refrigerator. "You're pretty stealthy for such a big guy."
"Sorry, Bella. Didn't mean to scare you," he says smoothly. "I just wanted to say thanks for being a good sport. When the guys asked me to come along this morning, I was afraid it would be awkward, but it wasn't. It was fun."
His words register, but I'm having trouble concentrating with him standing so close to me. He smells good. He looks really good. His green eyes are almost too bright when they're only inches in front of me. They stand out; so beautiful in an already-stunning face.
Knowing that I need to pull myself together, I push those thoughts away and put my radio personality on again.
"Yeah, it was fun. I shouldn't have said what I did yesterday though. I owe you an apology. First for objectifying you, and secondly for misjudging your ass…..ets," I say, smirking up at him.
He laughs then, a deep rumble that seems to vibrate through my chest, too.
"Thanks," he says, taking the bottle of water I hold toward him and twisting off the lid. "Apology accepted. So, will you be at the game Thursday night?"
I shrug. "Don't know. I don't usually go to preseason games. Oh, shit! No offense," I say, cringing as I realize I've probably just insulted him again since, until this year, most of the NFL games he's played in have been preseason.
"It's all right. I know they're not the most exciting to watch," he allows. "But I'm grateful that we'll have this final preseason game to get our shit together as a team. This is a whole new experience for me."
I can't help smiling back when he grins at me. He's nice and cute... what's not to smile about?
"What about next week? The home opener – will you be at that one?" he asks.
I tilt my head indecisively side-to-side. "Probably. The station gets some press passes and I can usually wrangle one. Or my dad can get me in, but I hate asking him," I say.
"Charlie's your dad, right?" he asks. I nod. "I like him. I met with him yesterday, but he didn't tell me that it was his daughter who caused all the trouble for me. They played your comments about my ass on a loop in the locker room after practice."
"Oh, God. I'm really so sorry, Cullen," I say, closing my eyes as I apologize again. I try to hold the laughter in, but a couple of rogue chuckles escape. My eyes snap open and I roll my lips together to contain the rest of my giggles.
"Yeah, I can tell how sorry you are by the way you're laughing about it," he nods, studying my face. He looks amused as he answers, and I'm struck once again by how cool he's been about all this. I've known enough players through the years to know that some of them get pretty nasty if commentators criticize them on the air.
"I promise to say only good things about you next week, even if you suck." I vow teasingly.
He shakes his head. "No. Be honest about my performance. I can take it. If you ever have any praise for me, I expect to have earned it," he says, still smiling slightly at me. "But if you want to make it up to me, you could have dinner with me this week. Friday?"
My eyebrows involuntarily shoot upward. I wasn't expecting him to say that. "Bad idea, Cullen. You don't want to get mixed up with crazy media people on your second full day in Seattle," I quip. I'm trying to look aloof, but inside I'm panicking. Panicking. He's part of the one group of men I've never tried dating… the one group I swore I never would try dating: Pro athletes.
"Too late. You should see all the media training and interviews they have me scheduled for during the next two weeks," he groans. "I hate talking about myself, but no one just wants to talk football with me."
Suddenly aware that my hands are freezing, I call a heads-up to Em and fire three bottles at him in rapid succession.
"Nice arm, Swan," Cullen remarks.
I open my water and take a sip before I reply. "Thanks." Then, because I am an idiot, I brag. "I can catch, too. I've caught passes from some pretty famous hotshots."
"Really? Who've you caught passes from?" he asks interestedly. He lifts his water bottle to his mouth, distracting me as I watch his cheekbones become even more prominent as he drinks.
"Um, Peyton and Eli," I reply, now preoccupied by the movement of his Adam's apple as he swallows.
He lowers his water bottle and looks down at me skeptically. "Manning? You have not," he says indignantly.
I raise one eyebrow at him, on purpose this time, as I answer. "Are you calling me a liar? Pretty judgmental considering I've only known you for forty-five minutes, Cullen. And, yes, I have. My dad played for two seasons with the Saints when their dad was QB. We were all at some big awards thing about five years ago, and they didn't believe me when I said I could run a deep route. I proved them wrong."
He nods, but doesn't look convinced that I'm being honest. "Who else?"
"Phil Simms, Dan Marino," I say. He arches an eyebrow at me this time. "That was at the combine one year when my dad made me go with him. I was grounded for the rest of my life and not allowed to stay home alone even though I was almost eighteen. They were covering the event for ESPN or Fox or someone and my dad told them I was a decent receiver… as long as there's no defense." I laugh. Cullen's not laughing – or even smiling.
"Grounded for the rest of your life?" he asks, frowning.
"My dad's favorite punishment. He usually meant two weeks," I explain.
"Any other notches on your goal post?" he asks. His eyes are searching mine…still not quite trusting that I'm being truthful.
"Well, Quil of course," I say hesitantly, hating that this has begun to sound like Julio Iglesias bragging about all the girls he's screwed before."And Elway threw to me once, but I missed it. I was in middle school then and was faster. I over-ran, or he under-threw."
"Probably him," he nods.
"Yeah, I should definitely blame the Hall of Fame QB and not the fourteen year-old," I say, shrugging as I take a sip of my water.
"So, about dinner," he begins again. I'm going to have to shut this down.
"Sorry, Cullen," I answer.
"Edward," he corrects.
"Sorry, Edward. It's just not a good idea. If someone recognizes us, the news will be all over the city. Destroys my credibility…and probably your reputation," I reason. Then, to try and get out of this conversation gracefully, I tease him. "You know, quarterbacks are only supposed to eat dinner with skinny models who don't actually eat at all."
"I eat dinner with lots of people who aren't models," he argues belligerently. "In fact, I don't think I've ever eaten with a model. As for being spotted? We could eat in. My place. I won't keep you out too late, I promise." His eyes bore into mine.
Shit. It's going to be difficult to say no to the nice, beautiful man with the fantastic ass. But I have to. I do not want the distinction of being his flavor of the week before he moves on to someone taller, prettier, stupider. Not that all tall, beautiful women are necessarily stupid. It just makes me feel better to think of them that way.
"Edward, really, you seem like a good guy, but I just….can't," I say. He nods and takes another drink of his water, nodding again when I suggest that we rejoin the rest of the group. We've already been talking too long on our own. And now there's nothing left to say.
They leave a few minutes later, and then Emmett corners me.
"So?" he prods, wiggling his eyebrows at me.
"So what?" I ask snottily, making my best annoyed face at him.
"What were you and Cullen talking about for so long?"
I roll my eyes. "His ass... my ass," I say flippantly.
"I'm serious, Bella. What the hell did he want?"
"Nothing," I answer insistently. "I apologized a couple of times. He bitched about how many interviews he has to do this week. I bragged about how many other quarterbacks I know. End of conversation."
"Uh uh. I think he has a crush on you. He kept staring at you during the show," he says knowingly. "Or maybe you're the first Seattle babe he's seen."
I force myself not to react, thereby denying Emmett of his goal – which is to needle me into an outburst during which I reveal way too much. Instead, I huff out a disbelieving breath. "Whatever. Are we posting or not?"
"Yeah. I think Newton wants to talk to us. He reiterated the no more talking about players' asses edict. Like we've ever listened to him," Emmett laughs. Then he lowers his voice to a hoarse whisper. "I think he's wearing a mirdle today."
"A what?" I ask, perplexed. I lift my water bottle to my lips.
"A mirdle. A man girdle," he explains. When I laugh, the water goes down the wrong way and I end up bent over, choking through my laughter as Emmett whacks me on the back. He should have saved that for during the show tomorrow. He could have won the game. Finally, I straighten up, wiping the tears from the corners of my eyes. Emmett looks at me seriously. "Sorry about sandbagging you there... with Cullen. But it was a good show today."
He slings his arm around my shoulders as we walk toward the table in the lounge.
"I know. It was a good show," I agree, trying to ignore the thoughts of Cullen still hanging around in my head. Trying to ignore the nagging feeling that I've just tossed away the chance of a lifetime.
Chapter 3 will post by next Saturday. Thanks and please review!