by S.J. Noble
I’m already out of the shower when the alarm beside my bed goes off. Hopping on one foot as I struggle to slip a sock onto my still-damp foot, I hear a thick thud as the screeching dies.
Damn. I was hoping he’d be gone by the time I got out. I’d picked him up last night after a few too many drinks. He’d been a great cure for my nerves—a way to relax and get out of my own head for a while. But now…
Grabbing the blow dryer, I crank it to high and try to give him a few more minutes to vacate my bed. Once my wild chestnut mane is mostly dry, I flip my head back, combing it with my fingers into a high ponytail and securing it tightly. When I exit the bathroom, he’s standing next to the bed, buttoning his jeans.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he says, offering me a crooked smile. “You’re up early.”
I scurry around the bed and to my closet, locating the pale green jacket that will go over the white lace top I’ve picked out for my first day.
“New job starts today. Can’t be late,” I mutter, struggling to keep from making eye contact.
God help me, what was his name again? Carter? Carver? Shit, shit, shit. I’ve gotta stop bringing home strays.
“You sure you don’t have time for a little…fun before you run off?”
Before I know what he’s doing, he’s behind me, pressing the evidence of his arousal against my ass. He wraps his arms around me, his hands caressing my chest through the blouse. I sigh and lean against him for a brief moment. Any other time, I’d take advantage of the opportunity to work off the first-day nerves fluttering in my belly. But today, I don’t have time. Pulling his hands away, I slip out of his arms as politely as I can manage and slip my feet into my tall brown boots.
“Look, Carver—“ I begin.
“Dave,” he corrects me.
“Sorry, Dave. Last night was great, but I really need to go. You can show yourself out, right?”
He steps back, looking adorable in his confusion. His wavy blond hair hangs to nearly his shoulders, and my eyes can’t help but continuing the apprising gaze, down his well rippled torso, and to the large bulge behind his fly.
“I’ll call you…later,” I lie. Dave is a drummer and fun, but I’m not in the market for anything beyond a one-night fling. I don’t have the time, energy, or temperament for anything more. Most guys get that—hell, most appreciate it–but this one seems like a clinger. Now I can only hope he vacates my new apartment without stealing my big screen on his way out the door.
He grins again, “That’s normally my line.”
I shrug helplessly, “I really gotta go. Bye.”
Rushing past him, I deposit a quick peck on his cheek and grab my bag on the way toward the door. The living room is still mostly boxed up, only a few larger furniture pieces were scattered around and the TV was hung on the wall. Who am I kidding? I muse as I make my way through the mess. He can’t carry that TV by himself, if he’s even smart enough to figure out how to get it off the intricate wall mount.
Slamming the door closed behind me, I make one quick stop off at my local coffee shop, grabbing a triple espresso as I speed walk towards my car and head for the stadium.
Thankfully I’d already received my badge and been given the full tour. My office isn’t far from the locker room, they want me close to the players in case I need to evaluate anyone on the fly, just a few doors down from the training room, to the far side of the press office and the fan cave. Waving my badge over the lock plate outside my door I pause, staring at the nondescript grey name plate they must have just installed.
Dr. Vaughn, it reads in brassy letters. I take a minute to let that sink in. This would be my first real job since I left my internship at the Stanford Sports Medicine clinic in California. I was there only two years, and yet it had somehow felt like forever. I’d been perfectly content to stay, turning down a half dozen teaching jobs at various universities, until I’d been courted by the Memphis Knights Football Organization.
I’ve been here a week setting up my lab and meeting with various big wigs within the organization, but today is my real first day—the day I’ll be meeting with the players and coaching staff for the first time—and I’m jumpy, my already high anxiety reaching dangerously neurotic levels. I haven’t had time to do much of anything besides set up here, not to unpack my apartment, or to find a doctor in my new healthcare plan, not even to shop for new clothes. Luckily, the weather here in Memphis isn’t much different than Cali, a sticky 87 degree August day and yet for some stupid reason I’d still brought a jacket. It’s just a habit, really, born of too much time in the overly air conditioned research facility.
Pushing the door open, the overhead lights flicker on automatically. They’ve set up my lab perfectly according to my specifications. A half-dozen large monitors cover the far wall, each linked to my dedicated server and controlled by my notebook sized tablet. There’s a tall table in the center of the room, my would-be desk, but no chair—I think best on my feet. Along the other walls are file cabinets, bins full of random equipment, and in the back corner, a sound system that would make most grown men piss themselves with envy. Above that. A pair of headsets and a wall mount phone with a direct line to the bench on the field beyond.
I’ll have a few assistants once the season is in full swing, but for now it’s just me and that’s how I prefer it. One of the reasons I’d taken the position here was because I’d been promised full autonomy to see if I could make my algorithm work. The other was because I’d been personally recruited for the job by hall of fame running back turned team manager Carson Watkins—and I doubt anyone has ever told him no in his entire life, not because he’s persuasive, but because he’s just too charismatic for his own good. I remember watching him play for the Knights when I was a little girl, my father cheering him on from the old leather recliner in our family room. He retired when I was seven and I think daddy took it as a deep, personal tragedy. But they brought him back last year as the general manager, trying to revive the team’s winning legacy.
Taking a deep breath, I toss my jacket onto the table and, leaning against it, begin bringing the screens to life one at a time, slowly combing through the hundreds of files I’ve made on the players so far. Once they are all downloaded into the system, I connect my tablet to the stereo, blasting the Beastie Boys as I get down to work.
I’m not sure how much time passes before the tap on my shoulder, but it nearly scares me out of my skin and I half-leap off the table.
Carson smiles as I frantically tap my tablet, killing the music. In his early sixties, he doesn’t look a day over forty-five, his sandy brown hair thin but still covering his full head, greying only around the temples. He just grins, adjusting his wire frame glasses and speaks over his shoulder, “I told you she’s unconventional.”
“Actually,” I defend, “Studies have shown that by enhancing the activity in your audio cortex, your ability to perform complex equations doubles. It also floods the body with endorphins that reduce blood pressure and boost productivity and coordination.”
“What does that mean, in English?” he asks, peeling the ball cap off of his head.
“Loud music makes your body work better.”
Looking around him I see two men standing just inside the door. One I recognize immediately, despite the baseball cap and reflective aviator sunglasses. Dean Kincade has had his face splashed across every magazine cover and television screen for months. Starting with his Heisman Trophy win at Oklahoma State and, most recently, he’d been caught on camera making out with a very prominent, very married Hollywood starlet at an LA hotspot. It also helps that he’s a giant at nearly six foot seven and has shoulders so broad he looks more like a lumberjack than a quarterback.
He made the sexiest man alive top ten last year—and for good reason, I decide as I sweep a gaze over him.
It’s not until I see the man standing next to him that a familiar tug pulls low in my stomach. Paxton Davies is an NFL legend, and a god among men besides that. He’s the shorter of the two men at only six foot four, his light brown hair clipped short, his eyes blue and intense in the glow of the overhead lights. I bite my lip, trying to resist the urge to fangirl all over the poor guy.
Paxton was one of the players I’d done my second thesis on, not to mention that while other girls had been plastering posters of boy bands all over their bedroom walls, he’d been plastered on mine. Every bit a champion in his own right, the man is a hero of the game and it’s hard to quash the flip in my belly as he smiles warmly, holding out his hand.
Thirteen-year-old me squeals in delight and I struggle to keep my composure as his big, warm hand wraps around mine. I shake it, trying to hide what I’m sure is the goofiest grin on the planet.
“Please, Doctor Vaughn, call me Paxton.”
I actually feel my IQ drop ten points at the sound of my name on his lips. “Oh, yeah, that’s not going to happen,” I mutter, extending my hand to the other man.
Dean takes it, holding my hand for just a moment longer than is really necessary. “So, you’re the team doc? Nice.”
Beside me Carson levels a glare at the rookie that clearly says, behave. “As I explained earlier, Dr. Vaughn is heading up a new bioresearch program here at the Memphis Knights Organization. But I’m sure she can explain it better than I can.”
“Of course,” I say, turning my mind back to what I’d been working on. The weight of Paxton’s gaze falls on me and it’s all I can do to keep my voice level, to push back against the irrational desire warming inside me even now. “The program I’ve created is a mixture of medical and mental science. Basically, it allows me to look at each individual player and create a profile that will help us to better prepare for our opponents.”
“And that helps us win games, how?” Dean asks, sounding extremely bored.
I point to one of the screens, “Here, let me show you. Your first pre-season opponent, the Charleston Cheetahs.” I open the file, exposing the list of players. “I created a profile for each starter, and anyone I considered noteworthy on the team, anyone who might affect the outcome of the game.” I open the first file. A photo and basic bio spring to life on the main screen, while other feeds open on the surrounding ones. All his social media accounts, public records, a few videos I’d stripped off the cameras at the hotel he stayed at last week.
“Tyler Taysun, quarterback. He’s the biggest weapon in their offensive arsenal. Last year he scored more points against us than any other QB in the league. But something came up when I ran his profile. Firstly, this,” I open one of the screens with a loop of video footage of him at a fundraiser last year, he’s walking down a narrow hallway with one of the children from his charity. Then, on the opposite screen, grainy footage of him walking through JFK earlier this week.
“This,” I explain, “was taken last year. This is footage from a fan’s cell phone last week. Notice anything?”
They all stare for a minute, but say nothing.
“Here, it’s subtle. Let me show you what I see.” On the first screen, I strip down the footage and overlay a re-creation of his gait in skeletal animation, then I do the same to the second set of footage. “Can you see it now?”
Paxton pipes up. “His gait is different.”
I nod, “Substantially. He had that ankle injury toward the end of last season, but with what they were reporting, it should have healed up by now. But this,” I point to the skeleton on the screen, “this is not healing. Not like it should be.”
Zooming in with a few taps of my tablet, I show the second skeletal animation in better detail. “If I were his doctor, I’d be very concerned about early onset osteoarthritis in the bone at this point. But the big takeaway for us is that it’s going to seriously limit his mobility in the pocket and, if he’s having pain which I’m sure he is, he’s not going to want to risk taking a sack, which means he’s going to get the ball out fast, or rely primarily on the run game.”
“You can’t possibly know that,” Dean challenges. “Not from something someone shot on a crappy cell phone.”
“Mr. Kincade, I hold doctorates in Sports Biomechanics and in Athletic Psychology, plus I’m the reigning pub trivia champion of Stanford University two years running. I assure you, the number of things I can’t possibly know are very few. This is,” I wave at the screen, “basic predictive science. It’s no different from when you watch game tapes, trying to know and understand your opponents. It’s the same type of program investigators use to recreate crime scenes or to run scenarios in cause of death cases. I’ve just applied it to football.”
Paxton steps up to my side, so close I can feel the warmth radiating off him, his chin titled up at the screen. My eyes slide over to him and I’m helpless to prevent it. Something in the back of my mind is chanting, don’t sniff him. Don’t you dare sniff him.
“And you have a profile on every player?”
I nod, clutching the tablet to my chest, wishing I’d worn something a little nicer than my grey tweed skirt and calf high brown boots. Somehow the abstract idea of meeting him hadn’t prepared me for this, for the reality of him standing next to me. “I factor in variables both physical and mental, information from social media feeds, paparazzi images, any data I can get my hands on. The program flags potential issues, which I then investigate and make a game related report on.”
He offers an impressed whistle and I fight off a blush.
Hero worship, the clinical side of my brain decides. It’s nothing more than that.
Something down lower disagrees.
“Roger Bransford,” Dean throws out the name as a challenge, bringing me out of my quasi-daze. A few taps on my screen and his file pops up, followed quickly by the other outlets I’ve compiled for him.
“Dick Terry,” he says again. I repeat the process.
Paxton straightens, exchanging a knowing glance with Carson.
“And what about us?” Dean asks quickly. “Do you keep these files on our players too?”
I look at Carson, who nods once. “Yes, to a lesser degree, and only as a matter of comparison. It’s the coaching staff and trainer’s jobs to evaluate our players, I focus on the opponents. But I am available to lend a hand if needed.”
A few taps and Rick’s file opens on screen. He elbows his way past Paxton who chuckles.
“Is that your prom picture?” Paxton teases. Sure enough, a grainy image of a very young, brace faced Dean in a dark blue tux with his arm around a red-haired girl in pepto-pink ruffles fills the lower screen.
“Nice mullet,” I jab, bringing the image to the center screen.
“It was Texas and it was Homecoming, freshman year.”
“Yee haw,” I say, tapping my pad. The file vanishes, leaving the spinning Knight’s logo on the main screen while the others go dark.
Carson throws one arm across my shoulder, the gesture managing to be fatherly rather than assuming. “Like I said, I expect you two to work closely with Dr. Vaughn. Go over tape together, do a weekly meeting to discuss her findings on the coming games. I think you’ll find her input extremely valuable.”
I turn just a bit so I’m watching both QB’s intently for their reaction. Not surprisingly, Dean looks unconvinced. He nods once, offering me a sly smile and bowing his head at the neck, laying on his Texas drawl thickly “Whatever you say, Doc.”
Paxton, by contrast, looks a bit more skeptical than I’d hoped, though his words are supportive. His arms once more folded across his chest, his hips tilted back just a bit. “Of course. Happy to be part of the team,” he says. His expression, however, says something else, but I’m not quite sure what.