My knee hurt more than it should.
I was more than eight weeks post-surgery for a torn ACL, and it shouldn’t have been this sore. Instead of wandering around the VIP room at Bleu Martini—a favorite club among my teammates in Philly—I was chilling in a plush booth with my leg propped up.
The dim lights cast a bluish tint over the room. I could still hear the club music bumping through the walls, but our private party had mellowed. The smooth R&B sounded like Rex’s patented sex playlist. Judging by the way my teammate had his latest groupie backed up against a wall, it probably was his sex playlist.
I adjusted my leg, trying not to visibly wince. I should probably have been home icing it. But Rex had threatened to drive to my place and drag me out tonight if I didn’t come. And I hadn’t exactly admitted how bad it was.
I’d talked to my agent already. And my coach. My teammates, however, hadn’t heard the news. My career as a pro football player was officially over.
In some ways, it was devastating. Football was the only thing I really knew. I’d been playing since I was five.
But from the moment I’d gone down on the field, my knee screaming with pain, I’d known. It was my second ACL tear in five years. I’d come back from the first one. You didn’t come back from two. Not when they were the same knee, and you were a thirty-two-year-old receiver. Despite the way everyone—from doctors to my agent—had tried to make the best of it, I’d known. It was a career ender. No amount of PT was going to save me.
So when my doctor had given me the final verdict a few days ago, I hadn’t been surprised. Wasn’t happy about it. But not surprised, either.
“Sup, GT.” Deacon Phillips, defensive player of the year, five-time all-pro linebacker. He was getting up there in years, just like me. But he’d managed to get through the season without any injuries.
I leaned back, like I wasn’t elevating my knee, just relaxing in the club. Like I was too cool to make any effort. “Taking in the scenery.”
“Bullshit.” He set his beer down on the table and slid into the booth. “Don’t mess with me, man. You coming back?”
I looked away. The guys weren’t going to like this. I knew they were all holding out hope. They’d made it to the playoffs without me, but lost the first game. A bitterly disappointing end to what had begun as a perfect season. We’d all been hoping I’d pull through and we’d have another shot next year.
“No, man. I’m not coming back from this one.”
“Shit,” Deacon said under his breath. He shook his head. “Can’t they give you a bionic leg now or something? Jesus. This is it for you? Really?”
I nodded, letting it sink in as I said it aloud. “Yep. I’m done. No more football.”
“I had a feeling it was coming, but this is brutal, bro. I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t give me any pity crap. I had a good run. Y’all are gonna be fine without me.”
He shook his head, like he didn’t believe me.
I took a deep breath, glancing around the room, at a dozen or so of the guys I’d played with for the last few years. The worst part was the feeling that I was letting them down. Not to mention the coaches and staff. They’d pinned a lot of their hopes on me—me and these magic hands. Sticky as my hands were, they didn’t do me any good without legs to run on. Without my wheels, I was just another tall guy with big hands.
“Anyone else know?” Deacon asked.
“The organization knows. It’s official. I need to start telling the rest of the guys, though.”
“Yeah.” There wasn’t much more to say.
He glanced over his shoulder, and I knew exactly who he was looking at. MacKenzie Lyons. My on-again-off-again—currently off-again—girlfriend. She’d arrived about ten minutes ago, and so far, she seemed to be pretending to avoid me. I wondered if she’d known I’d be here. I’d never figured out how so many women seemed to find where my teammates and I were hanging out. No one ever took credit for inviting them, yet there were always women around.
Wasn’t sure how I felt about seeing MacKenzie tonight. This wasn’t exactly a high point for me. Kind of a low, really. Did I want her here to witness the end of my career?
Maybe I’d call it an early night and bail now.
As if she could see how close I was to getting up and leaving, MacKenzie broke off from the conversation she was having with a woman I didn’t know, set her eyes on me, and walked to my table. Even I had to admit, she looked hot in that tight black dress and heels.
“Trust me, dude,” Deacon said as he got up. “Hit that while you still can.”
“Deacon,” MacKenzie said, and he tipped his chin to her before walking away.
I gestured for her to sit. She gracefully lowered herself down next to me.
“How’s the knee?”
“It’s great,” I lied.
“Yeah?” Her face brightened. “I’ve been worried about you.”
We’d broken up—again—at the beginning of last season. To her credit, she’d called to see if I needed anything after my surgery. Considering we weren’t together, she hadn’t needed to do that, so I’d appreciated the gesture.
“You know me, I’ll be fine. I always bounce back.”
“Yeah, you do.” She gently nudged me and nibbled on her bottom lip.
I’d have been lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. Her expression—flirtatious and suggestive—told me she was a sure thing tonight. I could slide my hands up those supple thighs. Lean in and brush my lips across the sensitive skin at the base of her neck. Get her hot for me. Take her back to my place.
Nothing wrong with some good sex. Sounded nice right about now.
But then would come the complications. The questions. I wasn’t really a one-night-stand guy, and she knew it. Would she want to get back together? What would she want from me if we did?
I knew the answer to that question and it was enough to stay my hand. Keep me from reaching out to caress the obscene amount of thigh showing beneath her short skirt. She’d want expensive dinners. Gifts, preferably of the designer variety. Vacations. Exclusive locales, first class, five-star hotels. It was why MacKenzie dated athletes. Why she’d dated me.
I’d dated worse before her—women who were brazen and unapologetic in their pursuit of the elusive pro-athlete boyfriend. MacKenzie had at least attempted to give me access to her feelings. To care about more than what I could buy her, or the status dating me afforded her. But it hadn’t been enough. There was still the expectation of more. More money, more gifts, more luxury.
A lot of the guys I played with were fine with that. Happy to shower their girlfriends with diamonds and designer purses. Pay for their luxury apartments and expensive cars. To them, it was a business transaction. They provided a certain lifestyle, while the women provided certain comforts. A hot date to be seen with. Kinky sex behind closed doors—or sometimes in front of them.
That wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more. I wanted feelings. Something real. The guys gave me shit about my supposedly high standards, but to me it wasn’t that the groupies and wannabe starlets weren’t hot enough. The problem was, those women wanted me for all the wrong reasons. They wanted GT Thompson, all-pro receiver. They didn’t want me.
I’d thought MacKenzie might be different. Thought it twice now, and twice I’d been wrong. I wasn’t going down that path again, regardless of how insane she looked in that curve hugging black dress.
“What’s wrong?” she cooed. She was laying it on thick tonight. Made me wonder what her game was. She reached out to draw her fingernails lightly up my shin, over my pants. “Lonely?”
“Nah, I’m good,” I lied. Second time tonight. “Just keeping it mellow.”
She kept her fingers on my leg, brushing them up and down. Familiar. Too familiar, but I didn’t want to move in case I winced.
“Should we get a bottle of champagne?” she asked. “Have a little celebration?”
“What are we celebrating?”
I raised my eyebrows. If she was talking about us, we’d blown through a second chance already. “Second chances for what? And do you mean second… or third?”
The corners of her mouth tilted upward. “I mean next season. A second chance at the playoffs.”
The words came out before I could stop them. “I’m out, Mac. There is no next season.”
A cloud of emotion passed across her features. Shock. Maybe horror. Was she really that upset for me?
“What?” she asked.
“I’m not coming back. I’m done with football.”
“You’re not serious,” she said, the shock melting into a false smile, her bright red lips parting over her sparkling white teeth. “Of course you’re coming back. You always bounce back.”
“Not this time.”
Her back straightened and she shifted away. “You’re retiring?”
I nodded. There wasn’t much more to say.
The curve had gone out of her spine, so she no longer arched her back, emphasizing her boobs and admittedly fantastic ass. She had a wicked resting bitch face and it was out in full force. No more softness. No more compassion.
“I didn’t realize.” She stood, clutching her small sequined purse to her body. “I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Shit happens,” I said, spreading my arms wide again. Still playing the part of the guy who was too mellow to let anything faze him.
“Of course,” she said, faking another smile. “Good to see you, GT. Take care.”
I tipped my chin. “Take care.”
She walked away without looking back. It didn’t matter that her ass looked great in that dress. The sultry sway of her hips left me feeling nauseated, not aroused.
I wasn’t sure why being rejected by a woman I didn’t want stung so bad, but it did. The second she’d realized my career was over, she’d been out. Totally uninterested. It shouldn’t have surprised me. But I’d thought MacKenzie might care enough to at least ask if I was okay. Maybe be concerned about my future. Ask what I was going to do next.
But she hadn’t. And it shouldn’t have mattered. But it did.
I looked around at my teammates—my friends. At the girls dressed to kill in their tight dresses and expensive heels. I was surrounded by beauty. Attractive people, beautiful clothes. But it was hollow. Empty and meaningless. And I realized I was ready to move on. Ready to leave the life of a pro athlete behind me and take a new path.
My knee still fucking hurt, and MacKenzie’s rejection stung. But there had to be more for me out there somewhere. A world that valued me for more than playing a game.
And maybe she was out there, too. The woman who’d see me as more than a guy who was good at catching a ball.