Rough Contact by Beth Bolden

 

Prologue

February 2021

It was the shortest field goal of Neal Fisher’s life, and also the longest.

His breath came in choppy, uneven pants as he jogged onto the field with the rest of the kicking unit. He couldn’t calm himself, no matter how much he tried to slow both his breath and the uncooperative heart thundering away in his chest.

He’d kicked this distance a thousand times, probably more, but he’d never done it under these circumstances—even though the Los Angeles Riptide had won plenty of games on his leg alone before. But they’d never won a Super Bowl when he was the one responsible for the three extra points that would put them on top.

Last year when they’d won, it had been all Sam Crawford and Chase Riley. They’d done their best this time around, too, hoping they might do what very few teams in the modern era of professional football had done—repeat Super Bowl wins—but it hadn’t been quite enough, and Sam and Chase had come up short. “It’s okay, it’s good,” Sam had chanted when he’d returned to the sideline, “Fisher’s gonna get it done for us.”

Almost always when Neal kicked, the world retreated into a fuzzy approximation of reality, but maybe there was just way too much fucking reality happening today, because right now, he couldn’t get back into his own head again. The noise of the crowd was deafening, a loud cacophony ringing in his ears, reminding him of every single person who was watching here, at the stadium, and also of all those millions watching on their televisions.

The hardest people to forget were his team, all braced on the sideline, relegated and resigned to the act of observation. All of them, counting on him to do the job for which he was paid very well—to kick a ball dead straight for forty-four yards. That was all. Piece of fucking cake.

He could make this kick a hundred times in a row in practice. A thousand. But in front of millions, with the whole game riding on him? That was why he was one of the highest paid kickers in football. Still, it was hard not to sweat, not to feel the pressure begin to press in on him.

Neal thought he caught a flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye. Sam must have taken his helmet off, and kneeled, as he often did, when their games came down to one of Neal’s kicks.

Right now the announcers would be analyzing the distance of the kick—forty-four yards—the angle—pretty much dead center—and the wind—a slight breeze but nothing Neal was particularly worried about—and they’d be putting up stats on the bottom of the screen, talking about how he’d never missed a kick in a big-time situation. Of course, he’d never kicked to win a Super Bowl, but he’d kicked and won them a playoff game, once, three years ago. In their Super Bowl run last year, he’d been merely incidental, only being called on to kick the extra points as Sam threw the touchdowns that had led to their victory.

“You good?” Jon, the long snapper, nudged him with an elbow. Aware, as they always had to be, that not only were their actions observed by everyone, but there were some crazed weirdos out there that tried to read their lips, too. Nothing was secret on a football field. Especially not this football field.

“I’m good,” Neal said, and meant it. Maybe he hadn’t been in this exact situation before, but he wasn’t going to let the pressure get to him. He was going to make the kick. He could already feel his foot hit the ball just right, could already see it soaring through the uprights. Could feel the way Sam would smack right into him, in some approximation of a bear hug.

It was already all there. It existed somewhere, in some version of some reality. Neal just had to make it happen in this one.

The referee indicated it was time, and since the Miami Piranhas, the opposing team, didn’t even have a time out left, there was nothing to do but to watch—they couldn’t even “ice” him, or force him to make the kick a second time by calling a timeout at the last second.

Jon got set, and Neal nodded down at the holder—who was also their punter, Ian. He was set too. Everyone was set. Neal tamped down the sudden nerves that swamped him. It was just another day, just another kick.

Kicks always went so fast. Jon snapped the ball flawlessly, Ian caught it and then suddenly he was kicking it, right where he needed to, right as he’d intended. The moment it left his foot, it felt perfect, just like he’d wanted it to, just like it had felt a hundred times before, a thousand.

Except, then, suddenly the ball veered off to the right, then hit the crossbar, and Neal stared disbelievingly as it fell forward.

His first thought was, that’s a mistake. Then he realized, a half second later, as the Miami Piranhas poured joyously on the field, that was my mistake. I missed it. The single biggest kick of my entire career, and I just fucking blew it.

Somehow, Neal got pushed to the sideline, though he wasn’t even sure how he’d made it from the center of the field to the Riptide’s side. He couldn’t force his head up because he might be forced to see the wrenching disappointment in everyone’s faces. He thought Sam came up, the flash of blond hair too distinctive, and felt, for a brief second, the press of a hand on his shoulder pad. “It’s alright, dude,” Sam might have said. Or it might have been a, “Fuck you.” Neal wasn’t sure he could distinguish, not right now, not when suddenly, inexplicably, he’d gone from the most important person on the team to the least.

He’d known then that things were going to change. But he’d never guess that a single missed kick would alter his whole life.

———

“I’m glad you could come by today.” Michael Turner, the Assistant Director of Player Personnel for the Los Angeles Riptide, propped a hip on the corner of his desk.

Every single time Neal faced his boyfriend across the expanse of office carpeting, done in gaudy shades of teal and aqua, he found it awkward. He’d known it would be when they’d started to date, but even though he’d learned to tamp most of his reaction down, he still felt the echoes of it.

But today? The awkwardness was back in spades, and it had been from the moment Neal had missed that stupid fucking kick less than a week earlier.

Everything had changed in a second, and in the five days since. It hung there, unspoken, when Neal had gone to clean out his locker. When he’d done a few workouts in the player facilities. When he’d been in the steam room after a particularly brutal set of reps, and a few of the defensive players had come in and taken one look at him and hadn’t said a goddamn word. It had been there, ugly and pervasive, between him and Michael. Like Michael couldn’t quite look at him, not in the eye. Neal couldn’t even blame him, because he couldn’t look at his own self in the mirror. Not anymore.

There was a rumor that one of the Piranhas had tipped the kick, but Neal hadn’t been able to bring himself to watch the footage to see for himself. He’d rather walk barefoot over hot lava.

“Yeah,” Neal said shortly. What was he supposed to say? No, I’m not coming? I know what you’re going to do and I can avoid it forever if I avoid coming here?

“You’re a valuable member of this organization,” Michael said kindly. Lied kindly.

Neal had been a valuable member of his organization, signed right out of college when the Riptide had been an expansion team. He’d played for Los Angeles for his entire career. He’d been rock solid, never missing when he needed to make it. He might not be able to routinely kick the sixty-yard field goals that were the new norm, but he could reliably kick in the high fifties, and there weren’t a lot of kickers out there who could say that.

But all it took was one miss. And a miss in front of millions? It erased every good thing he’d ever done. Neal felt empty inside, as Michael smiled, full of cold sympathy. “I told them I wanted to do it, because it’d be easier coming from me.”

Neal hadn’t ever come out officially, but he and Michael, who was out, who’d been one of the first gay executives in professional football, were an open secret. When they’d started to date, Michael had made lots of promises, both to his boss, and to Neal. We’ll never let our personal and professional relationship intersect, he’d vowed, and Neal had agreed because that was something he’d wanted, too.

Except now, they weren’t separate at all. They were intertwined, staring at him in the corner, the ugly elephant in the room.

“Is that really what you think?” Neal asked. He’d told himself when he’d dressed this morning for this meeting that he’d take the punishment. But that was when he thought he’d be meeting with Michael’s boss.

“That it doesn’t have to be hard? Of course it doesn’t. You can just turn around and walk away, and things will go back to the way they were before.”

Except Neal already knew that couldn’t happen. He could see it in Michael’s eyes, which had gone inexplicably cold.

It was salt in the wound that it was going to be the man he loved, who he’d thought loved him, who was going to be the one to tell him that his services were no longer required by the Riptide. The only team he’d ever known. Before this moment, he’d even stupidly believed they were like a family.

But family didn’t come and go. Family didn’t judge. Family accepted you, even when you fucked up. Even when you fucked up at the worst time imaginable.

It was his own goddamn mistake, Neal realized, he’d forgotten what it was that ran this league. Money. And he’d just lost the Riptide a whole fuckton of money.

“Well, not exactly how it was before,” Michael added, still painfully sympathetic, but at least he was being more honest now. In the two years since they’d begun dating, his blond hair had started to gray at the temples, and trying to marshal his temper, Neal focused on those silvering strands. Because he knew what Michael meant. Knew that it wasn’t just his job he was losing.

He'd known because Michael couldn’t even look at him anymore. How could you have a relationship with someone who blamed you every single moment of every single day?

“I didn’t think so,” Neal growled.

“At the time, it was a good fit,” Michael said. “But now . . .”

Neal stood abruptly. He was a grown man, but he felt like a goddamn child, anger flaring through him, burning through all his self-control, unleashing things that he’d only thought about in the dark of night, when he couldn’t sleep. “Is that what I was to you? An accurate, reliable convenience?”

“You were a valuable member of the Riptide organization . . .” Michael said smoothly, then stopped abruptly, in the middle of his fucking platitude, no doubt realizing what he’d just said.

Were.

“Yeah, I thought so.” Neal shoved his hands into the pockets of his khakis. “I fucking thought so.”

Michael’s handsome face didn’t flinch. “Now, there’s no need to get angry. You know . . .you know we can’t keep you on this team. Not after . . .” He couldn’t even say it out loud. After you lost us our place in history, the only modern team to repeat Super Bowl wins. “After what happened,” Michael finished awkwardly.

“After I missed the kick?” Neal ground out. “You can say it, it’s not going to kill you.”

Just me. It’s only gonna end up killing me. Everyone else will go on, move on, focus on next year, but I’ll be stuck there forever, in that moment.

“There’s plenty of teams that are going to want you, Neal,” Michael said.

Neal wondered if he’d written down a whole list of painful platitudes to recite ahead of time. Wondered if he’d made Gavin, his assistant, put them on notecards, and he’d memorized them that way.

That seemed like exactly the kind of shitty, heartless thing that Michael would do. At some point, Neal had found it amusing, the bloodless way he went about his job, how he was all cool, clear-cut logic. But that was before Michael had turned all that logic onto him, and Neal discovered that he didn’t give a shit if it cut him and left him a bloody fucking mess.

It was like seeing him for the first time; and realizing that maybe he’d loved something that had never really existed at all.

“But not you,” Neal countered.

“The Riptide are going in a different direction next season,” he said. His face softened, just a little, but it felt so calculating, and the veil had been lifted from Neal’s eyes—he’d never be able to see Michael again, with those gorgeous blue eyes, and be able to see them as anything other than painfully cold.

“And you?”

“Me?” Michael had the nerve to sound surprised, like he couldn’t believe that Neal was dragging their relationship into this. Like he hadn’t just fucked Neal into the mattress and dried his tears only a few days ago. Like he hadn’t seen how destroyed Neal was after the game. Like he didn’t know just how much Neal wanted to forget and had done his best to help him.

“You,” Neal retorted. “That’s what we’re talking about, right? Because every single fucking sports reporter, when they’re not covering Colin O’Connor’s victorious retirement, is predicting how fast the Riptide is going to release me.”

“We talked about this,” his boyfriend said carefully, “that we wouldn’t let our relationship intrude into Riptide business.”

He had. He’d promised. And then when the time came to let Neal go, to put the final nail in his coffin, he’d volunteered to hold the hammer.

It was impossible not to take that personally. Michael could say all he wanted to that he thought it’d be easier if he delivered the blow himself, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew Neal. Almost better than anybody else, which was particularly galling in this horrible moment.

“Yeah,” Neal said shortly. “Exactly.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I’m trying to say, you sure didn’t waste any time twisting the knife you just shoved in my back,” Neal sneered.

“That’s not . . .” Michael stopped abruptly. “Maybe it’s better this way, anyway. I was going to give you some time to adjust, but yes, maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s better to just kill two birds with one stone.”

The sudden shift in his tone—resolute and resigned, like he’d always planned it would happen this way—was like an ugly kaleidoscope, further revealing what he was really capable of. How had Neal never seen it before? He didn’t know, but he was furious now. Furious that he’d opened himself up to someone who had turned out not to give a single shit.

Someone who could sit there while he cried and plan how to further ruin his life.

“It sure fucking is better this way,” Neal spat out. “I can’t fucking believe that I ever thought you cared about me. Not when . . .not when . . .” He found he couldn’t finish the thought, that voicing how much he’d thought Michael cared about him but never had, hurt like fucking hell.

He’d thought missing that forty-four yard field goal in the Super Bowl was the most humiliating experience of his entire life, but no, it was this.

Realizing that the man he’d thought he loved was a dead-eyed stranger, who couldn’t wait to briskly dismiss him, like he’d meant nothing to him or to the team he’d loved.

“It’s over,” Michael said, and Neal knew he meant everything.

Neal’s gaze fell on the framed photo on his desk. The one he’d given him for his last birthday, or was it their anniversary? He couldn’t remember, and suddenly, even seeing it, their arms wrapped around each other, celebrating the first LA Riptide Super Bowl win, rings flashing on their fingers, was too much. He grabbed it, the wooden edges digging into his palm.

“What are you doing?” Michael asked, voice guarded. And yeah, Neal thought with vicious victory, he actually sounded worried now. “Do I need to call security?”

Neal stared at him. “You gonna kick me out?”

“If you’re going to make a scene, yes.” Michael’s hand strayed towards the phone on his desk, and Neal knew he’d do it no matter what, because not only was their relationship an open secret, he wouldn’t be surprised if every single person in this whole facility thought he should be punished for his crime.

What could be more of a punishment than dragging him, disgraced and alone, out of his ex-boyfriend’s office?

“I’m taking this,” Neal said.

“You can’t, because that’s mine,” Michael said, extending his hand.

He didn’t know how they’d ended up here, fighting over a picture in a ten dollar frame. Just a week ago, before the game that had changed everything, they’d exchanged “I love you’s,” like they had hundreds of times before. Michael had told him that he believed in him. But had he really? Neal thought of his older sister Ella, and how she’d never really warmed to Michael. How he’d never really understood her lack of acceptance and her reticence. And now, it all made sense. She’d seen it, long before he ever did.

“Actually, it’s mine,” Neal said. “It was mine before, and it’s still mine.” It was so stupid to fight over this stupid goddamned picture, but there wasn’t much left of his shredded, tattered pride and he was going to own whatever still existed.

“Neal.” Michael uttered it warningly, and suddenly there was a discreet knock on the door and then it opened and Terry, the head of security for the Riptide, walked in.

“Everything alright?” he asked, glancing from Neal to Michael.

“Neal was just leaving,” Michael said smoothly, like he fired his boyfriends all the time. “And he’s leaving that behind.” He pointed, indicating the picture in his hands.

Neal’s grip on the frame tightened. Was he really going to make a point of this? After everything?

Terry reached out and with an apologetic look, tried to pluck it from his fingers. Neal didn’t really blame him; after all, Michael was kind of his boss, too.

“Come on, Neal, don’t be childish,” Michael said patronizingly.

Childish?” Neal spit out. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Take the fucking picture.” He was a kicker for a living—not a pitcher—but he prided himself on being in excellent shape. He flung the picture, just to the left of Michael’s stupidly handsome face, and fucking finally, felt somethingthat wasn’t resignation or anger or disappointment. A savage sense of satisfaction swept through him as his ex flinched, and the picture crashed into the wall in a shower of wood and glass splinters.

Michael gaped first at him, and then at the shattered remnants of the frame. His expression hardened and then he pointed to Terry. “Get him out of here,” he said, and that was how Neal Fisher ended up not only being let go from the Los Angeles Riptide, but escorted off the property.