“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter Four

I know exactly what I’m going to ask next — the first question they probably expected from me instead of the curve I threw them.

I like to keep people on their toes, though, keep ’em guessing.

That’s my motto. One of them, anyway.

But this isn’t a normal, everyday interview. And it certainly isn’t a game.

It’s a young man’s life.

“What made you take the leap from telling your teammates and coaches to coming out publicly?” I get right to the point. “Even your parents aren’t too keen on the idea — nor are they too thrilled about you consenting to do this interview with me — but only because they love you and are concerned for your well-being. I get that. Honest, I do. Plus, they know what you’re going through better than anyone else and only want to protect you because they do worry. So why bring public attention to yourself? And again, this isn’t a criticism in any way on my part, but a valid question many people most likely will ask you to get a better understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Scott takes his time, considering my questions and weighing his answers before speaking with carefully chosen words.

Told ya he’s a smart one.

I’m a pretty good judge of character — OK, so there are a few glaring exceptions from my past, but I never claimed to be perfect — so I have a pretty good idea where’s he’s going with this. It’s just best for me to record it — figuratively speaking since I’m going old-school all the way by taking notes instead of spooking him with my ancient tape recorder — in his own words.

“Not everyone has the wonderful support system I’m fortunate to have, and because I’ve been given so much unconditional love from so many people, I feel like it’s my duty to sort of pay it forward to others who don’t, to others who feel alone or are all alone,” he says. “If I can help one person, save one person by going public with my story, then all of this is well worth it. I’m not doing this for selfish reasons, let me make that clear right now, but I know people are going to think what they want to think and there’s going to be no changing their minds no matter what I say or do. I’m OK with that. But I’m not OK with knowing that there are others out there like me who hide their true selves out of fear. It’s the worst feeling in the world.

“So I asked everyone I told if they would stand behind me — no, with me — if I were to go public so I could reach out to others who are going through the same struggles as me. Some of them — especially my moms — expressed the same concerns you brought up with your questions, but in the end, they told me they’d support me no matter what I decided to do. How can I turn my back on others when so many have reached out to me? It’s a no-brainer, and I’m willing to face whatever comes my way head-on with no regrets. I can do that because of the support I have from all the people who are willing to stand beside me.”

I worked that much out for myself coming into this interview, but it’s nice to hear him say it, nice to know he’s doing it to help others.

“I figured as much,” I reveal, focusing my attention on Coach Thomas now. “Coach, what was your initial reaction to Scott wanting to go public? What was the very first thought that popped into your mind?”

He claps Scott on the shoulder before getting up from his chair to prowl around his small, somewhat cluttered office.

“Honestly?” he starts out. “The first thing I thought about was how doing this story with you might affect his scholarship offers. I’m not talking about the ones he’s already been offered — he’s had a few from a handful of really outstanding smaller schools to play both sports on a full ride if he so wishes — but ones he could receive in the future from bigger universities that have shown an interest whose athletic programs might appeal more to him. But then I thought, ‘If those bigger universities suddenly back off, then he’s better off elsewhere because I know they’re not going to be supportive of him.’ So I look at it as their loss, not his.

“But that’s just hypothetical thinking on my part since nothing of the sort has happened. YET. I sure hope it doesn’t because I would like to think that colleges and universities pride themselves on being forward-thinking and welcoming to ALL, but I imagine there are some out there that are not from behind closed doors. It’s not like he’s the first gay person to play sports and excel at them. Not even close.

“It worked for Michael Sam at the University of Missouri — although his teammates knew several months before he went public about his sexual orientation — so why not Scott?”

Straightforward. I love it.

Unfortunately, Michael Sam’s NFL — National Football League for those of you who live under rocks or don’t (GASP!) watch the sport — career didn’t pan out the way he had envisioned. The defensive end — a unanimous first-team All-American in 2013, plus the Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year alongside Alabama (Roll Tide!) linebacker C.J. Mosley and first-team all-SEC selection that same year — watched his professional career fizzle out before it ever had a chance to begin. He came out to his Mizzou teammates in 2013 and announced it to the rest of the world on Feb. 9, 2014. Some questioned the wisdom of his decision to do so before the NFL draft that took place three months later in May, but the St. Louis Rams scooped him up on the final day of the event with the 249th overall pick. A total of 256 players were drafted that year.

Sam — the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL — was cut by the Rams at the end of training camp after they chose to keep undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks because he proved to be a more versatile player on the defensive line. I’ll give the Rams the benefit of the doubt on that one since they did take a chance on Sam by drafting him in the first place, especially since he had a poor showing in the NFL Scouting Combine — a one-week showcase in which college football players are subjected to physical and mental tests under the watchful eyes of NFL coaches, general managers and scouts — also in February, the same month he came out publicly. I can understand them being leery of taking a chance on a player who doesn’t produce the way he’s expected to when it comes down to the time and money it might take for NFL organizations to develop him to ensure he’s a perfect fit for their respective teams.

He was added to the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad later in 2014, but was waived when they opted to go with linebacker Troy Davis instead. He then signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL — the Canadian Football League, which I make a point NOT to watch because, hey, it’ll never hold a candle to my precious NFL, in my not-so-humble snotty bitch opinion — the following year, but ultimately called it quits due to what he, himself deemed personal issues after playing in just one game. He later admitted that he never wanted to play in the CFL to begin with, and while I respect his honesty, he could have handled that whole situation a lot better by talking it over privately with the Alouettes’ organization first rather than yapping about it on live radio to sports talk show host and former longtime ESPN personality Dan Patrick (y’know — SportsCenter, en fuego, sarcasm). It’s akin to a slap in the face.

But then, I’m not Michael Sam — who also was the first openly gay player in the CFL — and I don’t know a damn thing about his personal life other than what has been reported, so I’m not going to sit in judgment of him after everything he has endured in public and in private. I can only imagine the monumental pressures he must have been under while being pulled in every which direction by people who I’m sure meant well, but ended up doing him more harm than good in the long run. That’s just a wild guess on my part, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark. And no matter how you look at it, being the first to be up front about his sexuality takes the kind of mettle rarely achieved by ANY football player on ANY field ANYWHERE.

So, until you’ve walked a mile in HIS shoes, you have no idea what HIS life is like. And I’ll just leave it at that.

“With that said, I’m going to tell you what went through my mind the day he came out to the team,” Coach Smith informs me, once more jarring me out of my innermost personal observations.

Have at it, buddy.

“Coming out to his teammates took a great deal of courage. If it were me, I’m not so sure I could have done it, could have told my teammates like he did. Fear can be a very powerful thing — is a very powerful emotion — but Scott … Scott just put all of his cards on the table for his teammates to see, knowing that there was a strong possibility they’d turn their backs on him and tell him to get the, uh, blank out of their locker room. But they didn’t, which speaks highly of their character and, as I already told you a few minutes ago, their unconditional love for each other.

“Now, don’t you go rolling your eyes at me, Piccolo, but that right there is the biggest reward any coach or teacher can ever receive,” he says, calling me out before I can even begin to get in a good eye-roll. “Knowing your values, actions and teachings have made the kind of impression that shines through in their collective choice to embrace Scott for who he is on the playing field AND away from it makes me grateful to be in a profession where I can witness firsthand the good in people that comes from doing what I do. It’s why I chose to do what I do. That in itself is way more satisfying than any championship trophy, any teaching or coaching accolades and, yes, any paycheck — not that they’ll ever amount to much — I’ll ever receive.

“It’s not just a job to me; it’s a calling.”

Powerful stuff.

I can’t describe it any other way.

The man certainly has the gift of gab.

And a knack for getting his point across in such a direct manner that causes people to stand up and take notice.

To pay attention.

Well played, Coach. Well played.

“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter Three

I usually work my way up to the hard, personal, gut-wrenching questions during sensitive interviews such as this one, but I’m not going to take that route today.

Interviewing people often calls for finesse when it comes to posing the kinds of questions that may not be popular but that need to be asked in order to get the whole story, especially if they’re reticent about sharing the most private parts of themselves they normally only reveal to those closest to them.

But, here and now with Scott Ericsson and Wayne Thomas, I’m going to follow my gut instinct to take the direct approach to address the elephant in the room right off the bat instead of pussyfooting around it until I can figure out how to work my way up to it.

And no, the aforementioned elephant isn’t code for gay. Not that there’s anything wrong whatsoever with being lighthearted and carefree, which is the TRUE meaning of the word.

I still don’t get how people say ignorant things like “that’s so gay” when they think something is silly, trivial or dumb. It boggles my mind to no end that they don’t grasp the true definition of the word, bless their hearts, but just because people are born with brains doesn’t mean they actually use them.

What can I say? I call ’em as I see ’em.

Anyhow, the elephant in question is consequence, and you can take that to mean anything you wish. But consequences, as we all know, can be good or bad.

I just hope they aren’t taken aback by my unflinching straightforwardness, although I’m sure they can deal with whatever questions I toss their way. Of course, I’ll have to don the kid gloves with Scott’s moms when I talk to them later this afternoon because, well, Scott’s their baby and upsetting two mama bears is just plain suicidal if you ask me. But in this moment, I can take them off because I know from an objective standpoint that Scott can handle himself just fine. Besides, being so candid about his sexuality takes the kind of courage most people don’t have and can’t even begin to comprehend, myself included.

I also know Coach Thomas is present not simply in his capacity as Scott’s coach and mentor on the football field, but as someone who genuinely cares about him as a human being. Which is why I think he’s perfect for Mandy Jo. But that isn’t why I’m here this morning, although I will begin planting a seed or two in his mind a little later.

“I’m not going to pull my punches or be politically correct, so please, please, PLEASE try not to get too defensive about my line of questioning,” I look them both in the eyes as I warn them. “These are valid, objective, fair enough questions that people more than likely are going to be asking you in the coming days, weeks, months and, yes, maybe even years. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything, but I WILL do right by you, Scott. This is YOUR story to tell, YOUR life you’re sharing. Some of my questions probably will make you uncomfortable or even angry, and if I’m out of line, you can tell me where to go in no uncertain terms. I won’t take offense, OK?”

They glance at each other and then back at me, nodding their mutual agreement.

“Fair enough,” Coach Thomas says.

“Shoot,” Scott prods me, past ready to get on with it.

“This is a question for both of you: Do you think Scott coming out publicly is a distraction to his teammates on the football field, one that might — and probably will — result in mixed reactions from players on opposing teams that, again, might — and probably will — result in someone or several someones getting hurt during a game?”

Sometimes, it’s best to get the toughest questions out of the way first.

“Wow,” Coach Thomas finally manages to blurt following what seems like a lifetime of stunned silence that in fact only has been a minute at best. “You really don’t mess around, do you, Piccolo?”

It’s a rhetorical question, so I stifle my trademark impatience and wait for the enormity of what I’m asking to marinate between the two of them a bit longer before tacking on the last part of it.

“Are you prepared for the criticism, the backlash, the snubs, the intolerance, the outright hatred that likely will come — for lack of better phrasing — by putting yourself, the most personal aspects of your life, out there for everyone to see, and, as much as I detest admitting the probability of so many ugly truths already, judge? Is it still worth the risk, in the end, knowing that people will be dissecting your life frontward and backward, putting you and your family under the kind of microscope from which you might never emerge unscathed, questioning your motives for using a public medium to show the world who you really are when they might think private acceptance from the people you care most about matters far, far, FAR more than what any stranger might feel or believe?”

Coach Thomas gives the younger man’s shoulder a compassionate squeeze before opening his mouth to speak, but Scott is quicker.

“Life is all about choices and consequences — both good and bad — but I didn’t choose to be gay,” he begins. “I was born gay, but I hid who I really was from everyone except my parents. Until I got tired of it, so damn tired of being someone I wasn’t for everyone else because I was afraid I would lose all of my friends — everything — if they ever found out the truth about me.

“When you start telling lies — and man, do they ever stockpile when you can’t even begin to remember how many you’ve told — you lose sight of what’s real in the illusions you create, in all the stories you make up. It got to be too much for me trying to keep up with the illusions and fabrications of the fictitious character I concocted, so I decided once and for all to stop hiding the real me, the real Scott Ericsson. I was so unhappy, Miss Granger. You have no idea how unhappy. I hated myself for being such a coward beneath the facade. Every single day was a struggle for me to get through, a struggle for me to … to survive. I just … I just couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t live with the lies anymore, couldn’t live a lie anymore.

I have to be me. I have to be true to myself. I can’t be someone I’m not anymore, not for anyone. I have to do what’s right for me, and this … this feels right. I have never felt more … more right in my life, more at peace with myself than I do now. It’s such a wonderful feeling to have that weight lifted off of my shoulders, to not feel like a coward anymore.”

I instantaneously thump my busy pen down on the desk, reach for his hands, give them a reassuring squeeze, release them.

“Scott, in the few years I’ve been around you, I’ve observed you to be many things — so incredibly intelligent, wise and well-spoken beyond your 17 years, not to mention brave, kind, helpful, sympathetic, empathetic — for starters,” I point out. “But there’s one thing you most definitely are NOT, and that’s a coward. Being who you are — being the young man you really are inside and out — is WWWAAAYYY harder than being someone you aren’t. Trust me on that.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie to you by telling you that I understand the emotional and mental toll this journey has taken — and continues to take — on you, but I applaud you for, well, being YOU. I empathize with you because I know it couldn’t have been easy for you to tell your teammates, classmates, coaches and teachers. In fact, I imagine it was one of the hardest — if not THE hardest — things you’ve ever done, felt you HAD to do. You’re the furthest thing from a coward, Scott, so please don’t beat yourself up for being human.”

I grab my pen again as Scott composes himself and gives me a small, grateful smile before continuing.

“I wanted to get the why of it out of the way first,” Scott needlessly explains. “As for my teammates, I would NEVER, EVER do anything to hurt them. We’re family — brothers — on and off the field. A lot of them could tell something was eating away at me, but every time they asked me what was wrong, I’d lie and say it was nothing. But it was something, and they knew it. So my teammates cornered me in the locker room one day not long after practice started this summer and told me that whatever was bothering me, whatever was eating away at me, we’d get through it together.”

Scott breaks down then, his entire body convulsing as tears spill from eyes as bright as a cloudless sky like miniature waterfalls. Coach Thomas and I instinctively clutch his hands simultaneously to give him the strength to go on as much to offer compassion.

It does the trick.

“I cried like a baby when they told me that,” Scott confesses, holding onto our intertwining hands as if they’re a lifeline. “So I just came out and told them. I guess blurted it out would be a more apt description. And then I waited for them to tell me to get out, tell me I wasn’t wanted on the team anymore because I was — I am — gay. But you know what they did? You know what they told me? ‘You’re our brother, and we love you. Being gay will never change that. We’re a family, and families stick together no matter what.’ Simple as that, they made something I’ve been struggling with for so long seem like no big deal. Several of them told me afterward that they had suspected for some time, but didn’t know how to bring it up without making me feel alienated when they only wanted to help their brother.

“I’ve always been careful not to give anyone the wrong idea that I was looking at them in the locker room or anything like that because I didn’t want to be accused of any kind of inappropriate behavior. You probably understand where I’m coming from better than most people, Miss Granger, being a female sports writer. But I never — not in a million years — expected their unconditional acceptance. No questions asked, no judgments made. I can’t even begin to tell you how blessed I am to call them teammates, friends, brothers. Not just the football team, but the soccer team, too. All of that worrying was for nothing. They’re awesome. To have that kind of support from all of them is amazing.

“It’s humbling. They humble me.

OK, I’ll willingly fess up right now. I’m crying my damn eyes out right alongside Scott, but I’ll just chalk up this sobfest — the second of this morning already — to hormones since I AM pregnant.

Coach Thomas, on the other hand, manages to maintain his composure. But only just.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys than these,” the older man starts off with an irritatingly oft-used coachism — y’know, the usual boring crap coaches blab to reporters that makes us want to rip our ears, eyes and hair out, but not always necessarily in the same order — as he commences to tackle my multifaceted questions. “My coaching staff and I want to see these young men succeed in every aspect of their lives, but the cohesiveness they continue to demonstrate is second to none. It is literally one for all, all for one. They’re family — brothers, as Scott told you — and no one is ever going to break those family ties.

“They work together, play together, win together, and yes, sometimes even lose together. But it’s so much more than that with the most incredible, refreshing group of young men I’ve ever coached, even dating back to the days when I was an assistant. They’ve developed the close relationships they have now because they have to trust each other in order to be successful as a team  — always — whether it be to execute a play exactly as we’ve drawn it up on the chalkboard by practicing it over and over again every single day or to turn a busted play into a positive on little more than blind faith, sheer determination and a little bit of luck during a game in which there are no do-overs … with lots of people watching, no less. But there’s no finger-pointing either way; it’s just on to the next play with no mention of shoulda, coulda, wouldas.

“So when Scott told them, none of them went running for the hills screaming at the top of their lungs like he was some kind of pariah. They just all pulled together around him — like they’ve always done with each other — and accepted him for the man he is, the brother he is and always will be to them with no ifs, ands or buts. In all of my years, I’ve never seen anything like it. I couldn’t be more proud, more blessed, more humbled by their unconditional love for one another. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

I hope everyone embraces him as his teammates have, but assholes always have a way of showing their, well, y’know.

Asses.

Hence the name.

“As for Scott’s coming out possibly posing a distraction to the team, you already know the answer to that: No,” Coach Thomas adds. “A definitive NO. Nor do I believe any opposing players, coaches and fans will do or say anything to harm anyone because I know — and they know — that they are above that kind of behavior. Sure, we expect that there will be people who don’t approve or aren’t as tolerant or whatever the case, but they’re entitled to their own opinions — just like everybody else. But I don’t anticipate any problems on or off the field because I know EVERYBODY will conduct themselves accordingly out of respect for each other, our strict school policies and, of course, the law, itself.”

Tou-fucking-ché.

Taking the high road instead of stooping down to the low level of assholery that unfortunately inhabits every continent of our world.

I like that.

So will Mandy Jo, once I tell her every detail of our interview while sneaking in tidbits about Coach Thomas here and there.

It’s a good plan.

Who am I kidding?! It’s a fucking GREAT plan!

“Anything you want to add to that, Scott?” I inquire.

“Nope,” he responds. “I think Coach Thomas about covered it.”

So do I.

I incline my head at them.

Whew.

It’s a relief to get the elephant out of the room.

“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter Two

I turn right onto Lexington from the Glasgow Road turnoff to our house several minutes later. In another 30 minutes or so — and barring any early morning traffic hiccups on the way — I’ll be pulling into Ruffian County High School.

A smoke and a coffee sure as hell would make this drive a lot more bearable, but I know good and well that both are no-nos for the baby. I’m no dummy. Not that I ever would do anything so idiotic to put our precious little bundle at risk. End of story.

So I suppress the cravings for my two favorite vices — well, other than my prized Krispy Kremes — as I think ahead to the interview with Scott Ericsson and the doors it might open for other youngsters who are thinking of coming out but are afraid to do so for fear of retribution.

Scott’s story certainly will put the state — and possibly national — spotlight on the quiet little town of Bourbon.

Ruffian County has a population of 12,690, but that’s over an expansive 431 square miles, which means no one lives right on top of each other. It’s a beautiful county, and its residents always are nice, hospitable and helpful — even to strangers. They look out for one another, the way good neighbors always do.

Scott sought me out, shockingly enough, not the other way around. I think maybe it’s because I’m a woman and he feels that it will be easier to open up to me rather than a man. I could be wrong, though. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, but I highly doubt it in this case.

I had suspected that he might be gay for a couple of years now, having picked up vibes while conversing with him on numerous occasions during the football and soccer seasons — I have excellent gaydar, by the way — but I respect everyone’s right to privacy despite the bad rap reporters often get for being the exact opposite. And I wasn’t about to ask him point-blank or out him to anyone because it’s not my right or place to do so.

Teenagers in particular are an incredibly sensitive lot as they begin to explore their sexuality and as their hormones kick into high gear, which is a natural part of growing up even though I imagine the vast majority of parents generally dread having to have THE TALK with their kids.

Peer pressure especially is hard for teens to combat or outright ignore, which is why Scott’s parents understandably are afraid that he will be subjected to hate, intolerance, prejudice and bullying outside of his community and very possibly within it. But they hated watching him suffer for years, knowing how badly he just wanted to be himself, knowing how much he despised hiding, knowing how much he deserved to be as happy as them.

Teens often fall victim to the pressures of doing as everyone else does instead of rocking the boat and making their own unique paths, so to speak. Breaking the mold can easily cause one to be ostracized simply because they refuse to be anyone other than who they are, hence the reason why Scott’s moms worry so much. And who can blame them for wanting to protect their only child so fiercely?

There’s always a pecking order among kids, like it or not, and the ones who dare go against the majority often are cruelly treated as outcasts. We are all the same inside, but not everyone sees it that way because of the herd mentality of the masses not to take a step out of line. I’m not saying all kids are like that, mind you, but it happens far too frequently to ignore.

It’s more a case of monkey see, monkey do. And it’s wrong. Love is love, period. We are who we are and we should own it, but it’s not always easy when the people you’ve always counted on to have your back suddenly turn theirs on you during the times you most need them to support you.

We like to think of ourselves as a forward-thinking society that embraces all, but that’s only in an ideal world for dreamers like myself. And there are a lot of us, believe me.

It nearly shocked the shit right out of me when Scott approached me after football practice Tuesday afternoon and came out to me on the spot. I was only in Bourbon to do the story on the Thoroughbreds for the Daily Herald’s annual pullout football tabloid featuring the 13 high school teams in our seven-county coverage area that’s also going to run in tomorrow’s paper.

It humbles me that he trusts me enough to help tell HIS story to the world. His unwavering determination and courage have the potential to help others who might be struggling with their sexual orientation or identity, possibly even saving lives by sharing HIS with THEM.

Scott’s parents aren’t my biggest fans, but only because they want to protect their baby from any backlash that the telling of his story might generate. I have their son’s best interests at heart, though, so they have nothing to fear from my end. I can’t speak for anyone else, however. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope that everything works out for Scott in the end.

I don’t know if anyone knew about his two moms being lesbians prior to their marriage, but no one in Bourbon or the whole of Ruffian County ever has bothered them or treated them as pariahs, as far as I know. Smaller communities tend to be extremely protective of their own, and, despite the misconceptions that many people seem to have about the South in general, we’re not a bunch of small-minded, prejudiced rednecks who go around shooting people who are deemed “different” — for whatever reason — for sport.

I loathe being stereotyped because of my Southern roots, and fuck the people who do that shit. But, hey, that’s just me. I call ’em as I see ’em. They can kiss my Alabama-lovin’ ass if they don’t like it and take their narrow-minded views elsewhere. As in super far the hell away from this planet, ’cause ain’t nobody got time for that shit around these here parts.

On that note, I pull into the mostly empty school parking lot with 15 minutes to spare, directing my jalopy toward the field house adjacent to the stadium behind the main building that will be full of students and teachers in the next hour-plus. I park between an old beater pickup truck that’s a garish orange and a newer model black Volkswagen bug. Most people call them beetles, but we call them bugs in our neck of the woods, not that it matters either way.

Upon closer inspection of the pickup after exiting my own car, I notice the hideous orange and blue Auburn stickers on the bumper. I’ll hazard one guess as to whom it belongs, and it sure as hell ain’t Scott. All I can say is a heartfelt UGH!

There’s no accounting for taste.

But I guess I’ll have to behave when I see Coach Thomas per Richard’s, ahem, dictatorial request, so I try my best to conceal my natural revulsion for Auburn since I have no choice but to play nice.

It really sucks having Richard as my boss sometimes. He knows me way too damn well.

It also doesn’t help matters that he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism — an emphasis in investigative journalism, to be exact — with a minor in communication from said hated school in just three years. He later returned to the scene of his previous crime to get his master’s degree in communication with an emphasis in digital technology journalism.

But I can overlook his criminal orange and blue past because he never actually rooted for the Tigers since he isn’t a fan of American football. Richard balks at the very idea of it. But he did learn just how much I love my Alabama Crimson Tide this past season because I always have to watch the games  — come hell or high water. I take my football very seriously — just about every self-respecting person in the South does — but I’ll have to dial it down a few notches this year being pregnant and all. I wouldn’t want my over-exuberance to result in complications of any kind for the baby or me, something I’m sure Richard will greatly appreciate. It ain’t all about Piccolo anymore, that’s for sure.

“Piccolo!”

I scan my surroundings in an attempt to locate the owner of the familiar-sounding drawl.

“Over here!”

I shield my eyes from the sun with my right hand, finally spotting Coach Thomas waving at me while sitting atop a riding mower of all things on the end zone farthest from me. Coaches seemingly never sleep, so I don’t know why I should be surprised to find him mowing his beloved football field himself so early in the morning. Baseball coaches do it all the time — doesn’t matter what time of day — even when the grass doesn’t look like it needs it. And if they’re not mowing the baseball fields, then they’re raking the damn dirt or dusting off the damn bases every time a few granules blow out of place. I swear, it must be a man thing because Richard is forever booting around on his riding mower at home from spring until everything starts dying off in the fall.

Boys and their toys.

Serious eye-roll here.

Whatever cranks their tractors, I guess. Or, in this case, riding mowers.

I catch a glimpse of Scott standing behind the riding mower and head toward the duo, careful not to walk onto the field itself so I don’t get grass all over my flip-flops. Besides, the morning dew on the grass leading up to the track surrounding the field already is bad enough as my feet get wetter the more I walk to meet up with them. Makes me wish for a paved path leading straight to the track so I can forgo tromping through the grass, but no such luck.

“Wait there, Piccolo!” Coach Thomas shouts. “We’ll meet you at the field house!”

Fan-fucking-tabulous!

NOW he tells me.

Men! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

So I backtrack and impatiently wait for them at the fieldhouse that sits to the left of our parked cars near the home team’s bleachers.

They reach me within a couple of minutes with Scott easily keeping pace alongside Coach Thomas on the riding mower. Being a soccer player for probably as long as he’s been able to walk, he’s used to running up and down a football-sized field constantly for 80 minutes — 40 each half — and is well conditioned because of it. Trotting beside a riding mower likely is a piece of cake to him, come to think of it.

Scott Ericsson is about the same height as his coach, both of whom are roughly just under 6 feet tall. He always wears his long, sun-streaked blond hair in one of those increasingly popular man buns, a style that in no way detracts from his natural good looks or his masculinity even a smidgen. Not that either of my objective, asexual, non-sexist — just to be clear I have NO designs whatsoever on ANY youngster, period — observations matter much. It just means he’s comfortable in his own skin, and to hell with what anyone else thinks. He has the kind of face any self-respecting sculptor would love to have the opportunity to immortalize, his features are so damn near perfect right down to his sparkling azure eyes. He’s lean without being the least bit skinny, sporting muscular arms and legs he has come by quite honestly due to the endurance it requires to play — not to mention excel in — both sports.

Coach Thomas turns off the ignition, thus suspending my innocent reflections, before extricating the keys and handing them off to Scott so he can unlock the fieldhouse door.

Scott holds it open for me like the true Southern gentleman he is, so I oblige him and enter the sacred football domain, embracing a refreshing cold blast courtesy of the central air-conditioning system that is a staple of just about every inhabitable building in our hellaciously hot neck of the country.

He then leads the way through the weight and locker rooms until we get to Coach Thomas’ office tucked in the back corner of the building. I automatically cringe and wrinkle my nose in distaste at the gawd-awful Auburn paraphernalia strewn all about what I might otherwise consider cosy quarters. It looks as if someone spewed orange and blue shit all over the damn place, it’s so horrifcally ugly!

Coach Thomas catches the disdain clearly etched on my expressive face and gives me an all-too-familiar knowing grin. No, scratch that. Make that a smirk. An irritating smirk. Just like Richard’s.

Damn them both!

I suppose I should count my blessings that he’s blissfully unaware he and Richard share the same craptastic alma mater, else he’d never let me live THAT down. I can only hope it stays that way, too. I’ll have to make sure those two never get close enough to compare notes because they’ll have way too much ammunition to use against me if they ever team up to give me grief about my precious Crimson Tide. I can’t be having any of that. Uh uh. No siree. No fucking way.

“Something bothering you, Piccolo?” he slyly inquires in that rich, comforting drawl of his only a true fellow Alabamian can fully appreciate, already knowing good and damn well the answer to his very obviously unnecessary question.

“Nope,” I reply, resisting a most tempting urge to rise to the baited hook he’s purposefully dangling … for now. “Not a thing. Just excited and honored that Scott chose me to tell his story is all.”

Coach Thomas gives me a real smile then, silently approving my hard-fought diplomatic response over my compelling need to be petty about all things Auburn.

Truth be told, I genuinely like the guy. Even if he did willingly go to Auburn like Richard, bless their poor, wayward little hearts. I guess people are allowed to have bouts of insanity every now and again. Even me, seeing as how I married myself an Aub.

Hey, I never said I was perfect. But the Alabama fan in me balances out the insanity of it all. Sort of.

Scott, meanwhile, flushes at my earnest admission but recovers quickly enough to offer me a seat in one of the plastic, classroom-style chairs in front of Coach Thomas’ cluttered desk prior to claiming a second for himself beside it. Before I can ungracefully seat my pregnant ass in it, however, Coach Thomas shakes his head no and motions for me to sit in his oversized, cushioned office chair instead. He takes the seat next to Scott as I gratefully sit down on the huge, comfy chair, digging a reporter’s notebook and pen out of my bulging purse before placing the bag out of my way to the right on top of the messy desk that mirrors my own version of organized chaos back in the sports office at work.

A girl needs room to write, after all.

I usually produce my handheld tape recorder to back up my notes — particularly when it comes to centerpiece feature stories like this one is going to be — but I don’t want Scott to clam up on me the second he sees it. And he will, believe you me. Recording devices tend to have that effect on young athletes who aren’t used to being thrust into the limelight. In my experience, it freezes them up and virtually renders them unquotable.

It’s every reporter’s worst nightmare.

I shudder at the mere mention of that nightmarish thought before my straying mind refocuses its attention on Coach Thomas.

How can I possibly dislike someone who’s more concerned about my comfort than his? Plus, I’m sure his mama would smack him upside the head with a cast-iron skillet if he didn’t have any manners like most of the rest of the free world these days. We Southerners have good manners drilled into us from the moment we’re born, and we take shit to heart when somebody is downright rude to us for no reason at all other than to be an asshole. Like not holding a door open or saying a simple please and thank you.

Wayne Thomas also is easy on the eyes.

Sure, I’m married and madly in love with my handsome husband, but that doesn’t mean I’m dead inside. I can appreciate the, uh, scenery as long as I don’t touch or act on any impulses.

Yes, he’s a striking man who has piercing eyes the color of fine Kentucky bourbon — amber, in layman’s terms — with straight, dark brown hair that stops right above his ears and falls just below them in back. He’s not too terribly tall — probably around 5-foot-11, and I’m being generous at that — with the build of a linebacker, meaning there’s not an inch of excess fat anywhere to be found on him. His nose is crooked, denoting a break somewhere along the way, but it only serves to give his otherwise chiseled face even more character.

And I’m pretty damn sure most of the females in Ruffian County have been swooning over him since his arrival a year ago. Hell, he even gave me a jolt the first time I met him in person and shook his gentle, hulking hand. Helloooo?! Again, I still have a pulse, so don’t go getting all judgy and shit on me.

Anyway — and surprisingly enough — he walked on at Auburn as an offensive lineman, of all things. He was considered small for that position despite his impressive build, but he earned the respect of everyone who watched him in action because of his unwavering tenacity and work ethic. After his first year with the Tigers, all of his hard work paid off when the coaching staff unanimously decided to reward him with a full scholarship for his efforts on and off the field, much to the delight of his teammates, not to mention his family.

It just goes to show you that bigger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Heart, well, that’s another trait altogether. And when it comes right down to it, I’ll choose heart over size any day of the week. I wish we had a million more like him waiting in the wings to play for Alabama, not that I’m complaining about our ever-expanding national championship trophy case of late.

Another thing he has going in his favor — at least for me — is that he always asks after Mandy Jo Oliphant, my closest friend at the paper. She took over as the Daily Herald’s cops and courts beat reporter last year after James Reliant went on what since has become a permanent sabbatical to write a book about Kentucky’s politicians with his own satirical take on them. Mandy Jo was the Bluegrass city and Derby County reporter until she began covering the entire Lester Smith soap opera, but she has excelled at her not-so-new position with the Daily Herald. She’s not as fast as the rest of us in the newsroom, but she’s thorough and she always gets the story — wherever it might take her — in the end.

She met Coach Thomas last year on the fateful day that one of his senior linebackers blindsided Bob Gallant when my former sports editor tried to make a grab for a Derby County sheriff’s deputy — who was recruited as a decoy to successfully dupe him into thinking she was me in order to lure him out of hiding — during one of the Thoroughbreds’ football practices. And in broad daylight, no less.

The all-state linebacker who put the hurt on Bob ended up being heavily recruited by several Division I schools, narrowing his choices down to Alabama and Auburn. The traitorous little shit picked Auburn, dammit, a choice that I’m absolutely convinced was heavily influenced by his coach, bless his blasted little heart.

Just between you and me, though, I do believe Coach Thomas has a soft spot for Mandy Jo, who, at 35, is a Christmas baby like my dearest Richard. I also think Mandy Jo has taken a shine to him, but at the snail’s pace they’re going, it’ll take forever for one of them to make the first move. That is, unless someone gives them a, ahem, gentle nudge to help move things along. Namely, me. Now that I’m disgustingly happy in love, I can’t help but want the same thing for the people who are closest to me, Mandy Jo included. A little help can’t hurt the situation, right?

“Are you comfortable enough, Piccolo?” the second-year head coach asks me, interrupting my wandering thoughts. “Can I get you something to drink? Some water, maybe?”

I shake my head in the negative, preferring to get on with the interview before the school day interferes.

“Good,” he says.

“Let’s get started, then.”

“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter One

Author’s Note: If you haven’t read Blindsided yet, don’t read Icing the Kicker any further. There are lots of spoilers in this chapter that will ruin the first book for you.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

This is not at all how I envisioned the earliest stages of my pregnancy to be going.

Instead of the maternal glow and serene outlook I keep expecting to miraculously happen overnight, I’m constantly blotchy, sweaty, bitchy, fungry and horny. And not necessarily always in that order.

Even worse is waking up every single day with a severe case of the dry heaves, which is causing me to rethink this whole having a baby thing.

With our luck, there’s really a little monster growing inside of my womb who will make Godzilla and the creature from the Alien movie franchise seem tame in comparison. It probably ate our real baby and is chowing down on my innards as I retch over the open toilet seat in the master bathroom for what seems like the gazillionth damn time this week alone.

Our baby.

I can’t stop the smile that invades my lips at those two words, even though I feel like I’m about to spew all of my organs everywhere.

I still can’t believe how much my life has changed in the past year. I never thought this kind of happiness was even remotely possible for me to ever experience in this lifetime, my recent case of the gags notwithstanding.

And never, EVER in a million fucking years did I think I would find love with someone I used to loathe with the same passion I still do — and always will — the Auburn Tigers, Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees combined.

Who knew I’d find love in the newsroom of the Bluegrass Daily Herald, and with my once-despised boss at that?! But that’s exactly what happened, believe it or not.

Daily Herald managing editor Richard Headrick came into my life about as quietly and subtly as an aggressive bull charging a moving object just over two years ago, turning my orderly little world as I once knew it into absolute chaos.

I wasted the entire first year of our, ahem, uneasy acquaintance trying to avoid the man formerly nicknamed Dickhead by yours truly at all costs and quarreling with him whenever I was forced to be around him at the office. Or whenever he backed me into a corner, which was far too often for my liking back in those days.

My outlook took a shocking 360-degree turn around this same time last year, however, when Bluegrass High School head football coach Lester Smith was murdered by my former sports editor and half-brother, Bob Gallant, at the behest of the diabolical Abigail Wellington-Smith. Both are serving consecutive life sentences for her husband’s murder, as well as that of Jane Gallant, Bob’s mom, who had a one-time fling with Coach Smith that produced a bastard son. You guessed it: Bob.

I am Coach Smith’s illegitimate daughter, courtesy of a long-ago affair that MY mom, Margaret “Meggy” Granger had with him when she was separated from my dad, William “Bill” Granger. I didn’t find out about any of this until after Coach Smith’s death and his crazy bitch of a wife tried to kill me in the sports office with all kinds of witnesses milling about the building — in broad daylight, to boot.

I have a nice little souvenir from that near-lethal encounter permanently etched into my left shoulder via a bullet wound and some faint scarring on my legs where she dug her deadly stilettos into them during our life-and-death struggle. But I try not to dwell on just how close she came to ending my life and my then-budding relationship with Richard that since has blossomed.

I initially was horrified at the thought of Richard acting as my protector while we were delving into the mystery surrounding Coach Smith’s murder, but we ended up forming an unlikely alliance that turned into something so much more than either of us ever could have imagined or hoped.

Richard eventually copped to intentionally putting my back up from the very beginning of our tumultuous association in hopes of keeping me at arm’s length because he had always been against getting personal, if you will, with his subordinates. He finally gave in to the feelings he’d been fighting all along, though, on the morning Coach Smith’s body was discovered and made me suffer his company as we embarked on a journey to solve the mystery behind it. And once I admitted to the same romantic feelings I’d been stifling for him, well, that was all she wrote.

Don’t believe for one second that we don’t still go round and round, because we do on a daily basis, but we made a pact early on never to go to bed mad at each other. After all, that would be rather counterproductive of us, don’t you think? In any case, our home and work lives never are dull, that’s for damn sure.

My name is Piccolo Granger-Headrick, by the way, and I’m the assistant sports editor at the Daily Herald in Bluegrass, Kentucky. I still use my maiden name on my bylines for stories so our readership doesn’t get confused into thinking that we have a new sports writer, although Piccolo isn’t exactly what you’d call a normal or common first name. Especially for a female.

People tend to get accustomed to the way reporters write once they develop a sort of familiarity for our different styles and approaches to the stories we tell, so we try not to upset the masses by throwing them a curve like an abrupt name change. I’ll be the first to admit that routine can be an extremely bad thing in a competitive industry like ours, but not when it comes to keeping a daily circulation of more than 20,000 happy with something that may seem minuscule to us but isn’t to them. Our readers prefer names they recognize as they begin to develop a sense of trust integral to true journalism that sorely is lacking in the so-called media as a whole in this day and age of technology, but this is an ongoing argument I will save for another day.

Richard and I were married on my 34th birthday, which is Star Wars Day  — May the Fourth be with you! — and we apparently conceived the baby I’m carrying that very same night, according to my OB/GYN’s calculations.

We were wed in a small ceremony before a justice of the peace on a Thursday afternoon following our newspaper’s 11:30 a.m. deadline, much to the horror of our parents, because neither of us is into that whole big-ass wedding scene. We deal with enough stress in our daily work lives as it is, and a large wedding would have pushed us both right over the proverbial edge.

My hat goes off to anyone who can plan an elaborate event like that because I just don’t have the time or patience for any of it. Richard would have agreed to a huge ceremony and reception had I desired them, but I was quite vehement about my stance on the matter. It was a good thing, too, because his relief was as transparent as looking through a clear glass window.

We’re a lot alike in that aspect, not wanting to make a big production out of our lives and our love for one another for all the world to see. I’m not knocking or making fun of weddings at all, no matter how big or small, but I just don’t like being thrust into the spotlight in any way.

I’m used to telling people’s stories, not being the story itself like I was in Coach Smith’s case. But it seems everybody on the planet knows all about my sordid family history now, which is why I much prefer staying in the shadows even more so these days than I ever did in the past. Others are welcome to absorb all the attention they can handle from center stage as long as it deflects the limelight far, far, FAR away from me. I’m perfectly OK with that, as is Richard. We’ve certainly endured enough notoriety in the past year to last us a lifetime.

I guess what I’m trying to say in a VERY roundabout way is that weddings should be a reflection of the couple’s personalities and not so much about what other people think or want. It’s their special day to celebrate their love for each other in whatever fashion they see fit. I’ve been to some incredibly beautiful celebrations of love — this is how I personally like to refer to weddings — in my lifetime and each has fit the respective couple to a T, which is the way it always should be.

The one thing we HAD to do that we really didn’t want to — under strict instructions by the powers that be at the Daily Herald, no less — was put a wedding announcement in the newspaper, which generated a shitload of congratulatory phone calls, texts, e-mails, cards and notes from family, friends, coaches, athletes, parents, reporters, editors, executives, readers and various other people across the great state of Kentucky and beyond. For a while there, it felt as if we were being subjected to a never-ending cross-examination by a rabid pack of defense attorneys led by Johnnie Cochran. So it came as a great relief to us when all the buzz regarding our private nuptials finally DID die down, which took way too damn long for our comfort.

My coworkers still think I’ve lost my ever-lovin’ mind for marrying Richard, but they’re also grateful to their, uh, willing human sacrifice because he’s mellowed somewhat in the past year. Not much, mind you, but he’s less volatile than he used to be. And with our tiny bun in the oven now, he’s been far more obsessed with reading every fucking baby book ever written when he isn’t driving me batshit crazy fussing over me about every little piddly thing. I know he means well, but DAYUM. Settle the hell down, will ya?! It’s not like I’m made of fine China that’s going to break easily.

As it is, I lock the door to the master bathroom to keep Richard out, although I’m pretty sure he’s hovering on the other side of it. I feel bad and more than a little guilty for being such a snarky superbitch only 15 weeks into this pregnancy, but my raging hormones seem to have a mind of their own.

Once my stomach settles, I soak for a bit in our luxurious clawfoot bathtub before clumsily exiting it to brush my teeth and the previously unruly carrot-orange hair I recently had chopped off into a super short pixie style with a side part. That done, I unlock the door to find Richard pacing an invisible hole into the oak flooring of our master bedroom. He immediately comes to a halt to examine me with those eagle eyes of his, opens his mouth to begin yet another of his lectures on the state of my well-being and then stops himself in time when he sees the exhaustion all of that heaving has caused me.

“This isn’t good for you or the baby at all, Piccolo,” he says in that oh-so-proper English way of his, briefly touching my bare belly as I brush past him wearing nothing but my birthday suit to enter the walk-in closet in search of something loose and comfortable to wear in yet another brutal August heat wave. “We need to set up another appointment for you to see the obstetrician. Have you taken your prenatal vitamins yet? You need to eat something before we leave for work, too.”

I pick out a roomy blue sleeveless full-length V-neck maternity maxi dress with an empire waist that’s made of rayon and spandex, which have a nice cooling effect on my already too-sweaty body. My ankles and feet have been swelling like mad lately, so I slip on a pair of men’s black flip-flops with memory foam to complete the comfortable ensemble.

Ahhh, better. MUCH better.

Thank fuck my baby bump is only slightly noticeable in the dress, because I prefer loose clothing that isn’t plastered to my belly like a second skin. I get that some people like to show off their bodies when they’re preggers, but I sure as hell am not one of them. It does, unfortunately, further accentuate my already-too-large chest that forever has been a sore spot with me due to my self-consciousness from men continually ogling me since I was at an early age. Not all men, mind you, but more than anyone ever should have to endure.

And don’t even think about touching my stomach or coming anywhere near it. The only people who are allowed to do that are Richard and me. Not my parents, not my friends and certainly not perfect strangers. I’m not an animal at a fucking petting zoo, thank you very much, and I will beat the holy living shit out of anyone who dares to assume otherwise.

I emerge from the closet in lighter spirits, stopping to give Richard a good morning kiss to make up for my increasingly snappy behavior toward him these past several weeks. I know he’s simply excited about the baby and that he’s going to be such a wonderful dad to our child, despite having grown up without his own unknown father in the picture when his mom uprooted the two of them from London to rinky-dink Walkerton, Indiana — or BFE, as we like to call it — when he was just a young boy.

“Whatever you think is best, honey,” I say to placate my worried husband, knowing good and damn well that I will respect his wishes to see the doctor if for no other reason than to ease his growing concerns. “I’m sorry I’ve been so horrible to be around lately. I just wish this fucking morning sickness would stop already. I know I’m taking my frustrations out on you, but I can’t seem to stop myself. I feel like shit, I look like a beached whale and I feel so damn ugly! What’s wrong with me?! I’m supposed to be happy, gawddammit!”

To my dismay, I start blubbering as he gently leads me to the kitchen table, pulls out a chair and helps me sit down. He scooches a heaping bowl of fruit in front of me along with a fresh box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts that he must have picked up from the nearest convenience store at some ungodly hour this morning while I still was sleeping. They deliver doughnuts to supermarkets and convenience stores every day, so this is quite an unexpected treat for me.

I instantaneously stop crying as I push aside the fruit and greedily rip open the red, white and green box filled with my all-time favorite Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnuts. The heavenly aroma of my impending multiple doughnutgasms wafts through our house, miraculously curing my upset stomach as I unabashedly shovel one down in no time flat.

I take my Krispy Kremes very seriously, and I will rip your face off if you so much as THINK about looking at them. Because they’re all mine, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m the stingiest bitch on the planet when it comes to my Krispy Kremes. Even if I could end world hunger forever by sharing them, I honestly don’t know if I could go through with it. Sure, I’d give it some serious consideration as I throw down on an entire box of glazed doughnuts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’d end up doing the right thing.

Hell fuckin’ yeah, I’m a selfish bitch about my beloved Krispy Kremes! What about it?! I’ve been called a lot worse, but I don’t give two shits. At least I’m not a liar. Particularly when it comes to my or-fucking-gasmic Krispy Kremes.

OK, OK, so MAYBE I would share them if doing so really DID end world hunger. But I know it won’t, so it ain’t happening. Uh Uh, no way.

Richard stops me after I inhale a fourth one, once more pushing the bowl of fruit in front of me alongside my prenatal vitamins and a glass or water in an unspoken request. I comply, downing the vitamins and gobbling up the fruit with nearly the same relish as I did my Krispy Kremes. By the time I finish, I’m sated and quite ready for my first nap of the day.

But that’s merely wishful thinking on my part. I have a full day ahead of me, starting off with today’s early morning interview for a feature story that will run in tomorrow’s edition of the Daily Herald. It’s going to be on Ruffian County High School senior Scott Ericsson, an all-state football and soccer player who has attracted the attention of several NCAA Division I schools. He’s a midfielder on the soccer team and handles the placekicking and punting duties on the varsity football squad.

He’s also the first openly gay high school athlete in our coverage area.

Coming out to his teammates, classmates, teachers and coaches took a great deal of courage for this brave young man, but he told me that he wanted to be true to himself in his final year of high school, that he had grown weary of hiding the real Scott Ericsson from everyone except his same-sex parents. So he decided to go public when the new school year started Monday, although his parents at first were against it out of fear that he could become a possible target of a hate crime.

Scott’s parents — Joyce, his biological mother via artificial insemination, and Jill Ericsson, his adoptive mom — are an incredibly nice, loving, well-to-do lesbian couple. They finally were able to wed in their home state of Kentucky after being together for nearly three decades when the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015, that same-sex couples have the right to get married anywhere they want in the United States.

Kentucky was among the states that did not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the historic ruling by the nation’s highest federal court, which also opened the door for Jill to at long last adopt their beloved son as his step-parent after she and her wife jointly petitioned to do so. Jill was forced to sue Joyce in court many moons ago, albeit amicably, just to obtain guardianship of their son after he was born since Kentucky only allows individuals and married couples to adopt. Thankfully, same-sex couples who since have wed under the ruling that was made more than two years ago now are able to adopt once they are married.

What a fucked up world we live in, huh? But at least they beat the state’s system at its own game to give their story the happy ending it so rightly deserves.

“Piccolo, you’re doing it again,” Richard — sporting his usual penguin getup that consists of a white long-sleeve button-down shirt, black tie, black slacks and shiny black dress shoes — teasingly brings me back to reality. “Lost in your own thoughts again, eh, love?”

Busted.

He knows me so well, and I love him all the more for putting up with my quirkiness.

“Sorry,” I give him an apologetic smile as I gingerly reach down to pet our calico cat, Stinky, who’s just finished polishing off a can of tuna that Richard has been giving her every morning since we, uh, temporarily moved in with him last August purely for safety reasons and ended up staying for keeps. “I’m just really revved for the interview with Scott Ericsson. I’d better get going soon, else I’ll be wasting a trip to Ruffian County.”

He gives me his most stern look then, and I know exactly what he’s going to say before the words even leave his mouth.

“I expect you to be on your best behavior when you talk to Wayne Thomas,” he reminds me for the umpteenth time, his thin lips now displaying his trademark smirk, which he damn sure knows only serves to irk me further. “You will do well to remember that you’re representing the Daily Herald like the professional I know you ARE while conducting this interview, and NOT going there like some uncivilized hooligan attending an Alabama-Auburn football game for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment of hurling insults at the opposition.”

Well, shit.

That just takes all the damn fun right out of it for me. I admittedly had some good-natured ribbing planned for Coach Thomas, who played football for — UGH! — the hated Auburn Tigers. Coach Thomas and I both hail from Tideville, Alabama, but I grew up a devout University of Alabama Crimson Tide fan, which makes us sworn enemies for life when it comes to college football.

THIS right here also is one of the MANY reasons WHY I nicknamed him Dickhead in the first place, but those days are over. For the most part.

He’s lucky I love him as much as I do, else I’d tell him to take a long walk off a short pier, sexy physique and all.

Funny enough, Richard also is an Auburn alum. But he isn’t into American football at all, so I can overlook the fact that he went to Cow College.

I take in his inexplicably handsome, angular face then as I’m apt to do countless times every day, lingering on his strong, square jawline before moving up to his aquiline nose and then to those knowing ebony eyes of his. He still slicks back his short, straight, nearly black hair with that fucking gel I despise, but I’ve learned to live with it because he doesn’t bother with it whenever we’re not out and about. It’s surprisingly baby soft to the touch without that shit caking it, and I never tire of running my fingers through it whenever the opportunity arises.

And if I don’t stop gawking at him like some hot and bothered schoolgirl with her first real crush, he’ll soon be strutting around like a damn rooster in a henhouse flexing those muscles of his that he knows I just can’t resist.

I roll my eyes to TRY to detract his attention from the telltale blush creeping up my neck and straight into a heart-shaped face that sports a cleft at the bottom of it, still not understanding what it is he sees in me yet unwilling to question my good fortune too closely. We’re about as different as two people possibly can be, but it works for us.

I give him a double-dimpled smile as I carefully lean forward to smooch him goodbye until I return to the office following the 7 a.m. interview. It’s already 6 a.m. and it takes me roughly 40 minutes to get from our house in Oaksville to Bourbon, the county seat for Ruffian. School doesn’t start until 8 a.m., but I pride myself on being punctual for interviews and athletic events.

“Whatever you say, boss,” I tell him cheekily, getting up from my chair a little wobbly to go pee one more time before leaving the house so I don’t chance having an accident in the car.

My bladder isn’t what it used to be since I got pregnant. I literally feel like I have to piss every five minutes, sometimes far less than that.

Once that bothersome but very necessary task is completed, I take the keys to my piece-of-shit, two-tone 1994 Ford Tempo from the hand Richard is holding out to me and we head toward the garage, stopping briefly so he can set the alarm system from “stay mode” to “away mode.” Before parting ways, he tilts my chin to plant a lingering kiss that succeeds in making me weak in the knees.

“Did you charge your mobile phone and put it in your purse like I requested?” Richard inquires, reluctantly releasing me.

“Yes,” I grumble halfheartedly, still unhappy about having to tote around a cell phone I  didn’t want in the first place and rarely use in protest to that fact.

He gives my car his routine contemptuous once-over, shaking his head while muttering about, and I quote, “taking that unsightly piece of rubbish to the nearest scrapyard.” It still rankles him that I refuse to get rid of my car, but I’m determined to keep driving the damn thing until it falls apart. Unless, of course, he makes good on his threat to do away with it first, which will inevitably start World War III in the Granger-Headrick household.

“Ring me if you need anything,” he tells me, opening the driver’s side door for me and then closing it once I’m seated before making his way to his own vehicle, “and please DO drive carefully in that antiquated Sherman tank of yours.”

I start my reliable eyesore of a car, pushing the garage-door opener clipped onto the driver’s side visor out of habit as I pull out into the driveway of our ranch-style home to begin the 40-minute trek to Bourbon. I cheekily blow Richard a kiss as I make it to the empty country road and take off down it.

I miss smoking the most when I go on long drives like this, but I quit cold turkey when we found out I was pregnant at the end of May. And it’s probably THE No. 1 reason why I’m so fucking bitchy all the damn time. Richard still smokes, but he won’t do it around me and barks at me if I come anywhere near him while he’s puffing away on a cigarette. But I love the smell of it, still have an intense craving for those nice, long, calming drags after a particularly stressful deadline — or day in general.

So I fiddle around with the radio dial to quash my longing for a smoke until I reach a classic rock station playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones and commence singing along word for word.

How i-damn-ronically fitting.

“Blindsided” is being published

on blurb.com as I write this. I am super stoked about completing my first novel, which has taken me eight years to finish. I wrote the first six chapters in 2009, rewrote them and added several more in 2014, picked away at it in 2015 and then got a fire lit under me by two friends to finish it this year. They both read the entire novel on my blog and loved it, so hopefully anyone else who reads it from cover to cover (or on here) will enjoy it, too. The original cover artwork on the self-published Blindsided was done by a friend of mine and I think it’s incredible. Anyway, I just wanted to share my good news with the rest of you. For those of you who have read my blog, thank you.

Here’s a link to my bookstore on blurb.com:

http://www.blurb.ca/b/7198522-blindsided

Blindsided

By Jennifer McMillan

“Blindsided” Epilogue

Abigail Wellington-Smith and Bob Gallant each manage to escape the death penalty, but that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Only three people have been executed — all for murder — in Kentucky since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976. One was by electrocution and the others via lethal injection, with the last one being Marco Allen Chapman in 2008.

It’s too bad, really. They’ll be wasting taxpayer money spending the rest of their lives in prison while we foot the bill, but at least they can’t hurt anyone anymore.

Since murder is a capital offense in Kentucky, both were given back-to-back life sentences for killing Lester Smith and Jane Gallant, as well as being convicted for various lesser charges after being tried separately. Mrs. Smith also was given the maximum sentence of 20 years for first-degree assault — the worst of those lesser charges — for shooting me.

Her new home is at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Pewee Valley, which is most certainly a comedown from her former life of luxury and excess. Bob, meanwhile, is housed at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville because he has proven to have an increasing propensity for violence by getting into several scuffles with other inmates since his initial arrest.

The mystery as to the whereabouts of Jack Gallant forever will remain just that. But he is presumed dead.

The laughable part in all of this is when that crazy Smith bitch tried to get her attorney to have ME charged with first-degree assault for beating her to a pulp when I was fighting for my life. Needless to say, I never was charged for that last-ditch outlandish bullshit ploy of hers.

And the linebacker who blindsided Bob? That young man has been heralded as a hero and the feature story I did on him ended up on the front page of the newspaper. Not the sports front, but Page A1, the VERY front. The well-deserving all-state football player also was featured on the cover of our football tab and is being heavily recruited by a shitload of NCAA Division I schools, including my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide. Roll Tide!

I signed the necessary paperwork to cash in Coach Smith’s life insurance policy and ended up donating it all to a local shelter for battered women when his sons refused it. They were cordial to me, but my half-brothers made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with me or the rest of their family. Which is understandable, given the circumstances. Both moved out-of-state before the trials began and neither has returned since.

We finally agreed on two new sports staff members, which has lightened our workload considerably. Jackson is thriving as sports editor as I knew he would. And I am admittedly a lot less unhappy about being his assistant editor because I don’t have to baby-sit our two newest reporters, who are proving very capable of handling our challenging coverage area.

As for life in general at the office, Richard has mellowed just a little. He’s still hard as hell on all of us and yells the building down on a daily basis during deadline, but he has rethought his tough-love stance somewhat to offer praise when one of us does something extraordinary. He doesn’t do that very often, but when it happens, it makes you feel like Neil Armstrong must have when he walked on the moon for the first time.

Kayla and I don’t talk anymore, more from simply drifting apart on her end than anything else, but I always send birthday and Christmas cards because I still think of her and Colt often. I miss them terribly, but I can’t force Kayla to come around. Maybe someday, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for her to change her mind.

My friendship with Amber Hardy, on the other hand, continues to flourish. In fact, Amber and her husband, Shane — who is now the permanent head football coach at Bluegrass High School thanks to his “acting” role resulting in a winning regular season and a furious playoff run that lasted until the Class 5A state semifinals — are frequent guests at our house just as we are at theirs these days.

My parents and I have grown even closer since the murder of Coach Smith, and they’ve finally welcomed Richard into our close-knit family, albeit with grudgingly open arms after their initial rocky beginning. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting his mum, Anne, on several occasions. It took a lot of getting used to from both of our ends, though. She was quite reserved at first because she was so taken aback by my blunt nature. But we’ve since warmed up to each other and found some common ground in our shared love of card games, much to Richard’s surprise and delight, given that my expressive face always gives my hands away. Still, every time she comes down from Indiana to visit us, we sit up well into the wee hours playing.

As for Richard and I, well, we eventually got around to showing just how much we love one another, an occurrence that happens far more often than either of us ever possibly could have imagined. And because I cannot tell a lie, I have to admit that my husband was right. Neither of us ever has been even remotely dissatisfied.

But I have to stop right there because I never kiss and tell. Unless I’m doing the kissing and telling to the man formerly known as Dickhead, who lovingly helped me create this perfect little being growing in my womb.

“Blindsided,” Chapter 38

“You promised me that you would keep her safe!” Bill Granger bellows.

“I did, damn you!” Richard Headrick roars back. “How was I to know that crazed woman would come barging into the office to kill Piccolo in broad daylight with so many witnesses around to see her?!”

Chairs scrape across the hard floor.

THUMP!

THUD!

SMACK!

“Dammit, Meggy, that hurt a lot more than the last time you did it!” Bill wails.

“And I’ll slap you upside that thick, bald head of yours even harder if you don’t quit it RIGHT NOW!” Meggy Granger yells at her husband. “As for you, Mr. Headrick, I’ll wallop you one, too, if you punch my husband again! I don’t care if he DID hit you first! NOBODY hurts my family and gets away with it! NOBODY!

A rap on the door interrupts the argument. It swings open and the loud voices of scant seconds before become whispers. Papers rustle, and then the door closes.

“I love your daughter,” Richard professes to the couple, “and I would never see her hurt for anything in the world. Anything! How I wish it had been me, instead! I would gladly trade places with Piccolo, if only I could wind back the clock! I would willingly give up my life in an instant if it meant saving hers!”

He breaks down, inconsolable.

“Oh, you poor thing, we had no idea,” Meggy says helplessly, her urgent decisiveness to reach out to him as natural as her maternal instincts to offer him comfort in the warmth of her embrace like she always did with her beloved daughter.

He returns her hug with interest while Bill watches uncomfortably, overcome with guilt.

“I’m sorry,” he apologizes to Richard. “I know you did everything you could to protect her. I don’t blame you. Not really. I blame myself. I’m a retired Navy SEAL, for fuck’s sake, and I should have been able to see it coming, should have been able prevent it somehow! But I failed her.”

All three are weeping uncontrollably now, drowning in their shared misery.

“Why are you all talking about me as if … as if I’m dead?” I grouchily rasp at them from my hospital bed, my mouth and throat dry as fuck from the damn tube that I’m guessing was shoved down them so an anesthesiologist could put me under for surgery.

I’ve undergone surgery in the past to remove some particularly nasty plantar warts on the bottom of my left foot, so I remember all too well how shitty I felt coming out from under the anesthesia.

Just like this.

Abso-fucking-lutely craptastic.

“Piccolo!” Mom manages to beam at me through her tears. “You’re finally awake! We’ve been so worried about you, honey!”

She pours some water into a Styrofoam cup while Richard pushes a button on the side rail to my right to adjust the head of the bed so I can sit up and drink without dribbling cold liquid all over myself. The slight movement from the head of the bed being raised shifts my left shoulder a bit, causing me to hiss at the abrupt pain.

I still don’t remember getting shot. I never even felt it, perhaps due to my sudden burst of adrenaline during the final moments of that frightening ordeal with the certifiable Abigail Wellington-Smith.

I’m just relieved it’s finally over.

For real this time.

“Water tastes so good,” I croak, greedily slurping from the cup Richard accepts from my mom and holds up to my parched lips until it’s empty and he hands it back to her to be refilled. “I’m so thirsty.”

And still so groggy, I’ll probably fall asleep again in the not-so-distant future.

I reach out to touch Richard’s face with the tips of the fingers on my right hand, swollen knuckles and all, lightly stroking the split upper lip Dad gave him before moving it higher to touch his shockingly gel-free hair. Baby soft. Nice. I opened my eyes just in time to witness my dad slug him and Richard respond with an uppercut. The area around Dad’s right eye already is swollen, indicating he’s going to have one hell of a shiner.

Good. Serves them right for fighting in a hospital room like a couple of back-alley thugs.

I still think Mom and I need to let them go 12 rounds in our backyard or Richard’s or wherever so they can get all of this … this territorial tomcat bullshit out of their systems, else we’re going to be having a lot more of these, uh, bouts, if you’ll excuse the pun, for years to come.

I wonder what our kids will think, seeing those two go at it.

Whoa, Nelly! I’m getting WAY too ahead of myself here!

But a big, goofy smile flutters across my lips as I picture a surly little boy with dark hair and rebellious black eyes before I fall back into the sleep of the dead.

I awake much later to the sun shining through the open blinds on the windows and the three of them conversing with Briscoe as the ever-silent Harpo nudges his partner to let him know my eyes are open.

After guzzling more water in the same fashion I inhale my prized Krispy Kremes, I’m ready to give the detectives my official statement, at once dreading the moment Dad finds out Lester Smith is, indeed, my biological father and knowing there’s no way I can omit that ugly truth to protect him from the heartache it is certain to cause him.

But first, they fill me in on the details leading up to and following my deadly confrontation with Mrs. Smith.

No one gave a second thought to her being in the building Tuesday, from what Briscoe tells me, since she had just been at the Daily Herald the previous day for that interview with Mandy Jo. Alex was doing some work in his own office but didn’t know she was there, or he’d have called the police well before anyone heard the gunshot because Richard at least had the foresight to fill him in on our suspicions. Not that it changed the outcome, mind you, but his heart was in the right place.

IS always in the right place.

The bullet was lodged in my left shoulder, Briscoe informs me, so it had to be surgically removed. This was achieved via a minimally invasive procedure known as a shoulder arthroscopy, Dad interrupts the detective to explain, in which the surgeon utilized a tiny camera to assess the damage, carefully remove the bullet and repair tissues inside and around the joint. He also tells me the cuts to my legs from Mrs. Smith’s stilettos are superficial, although there is extensive bruising that will take a while to heal before I’m able to get around without assistance.

I vaguely remember the surgeon looming over me in recovery doing a bunch of babbling, but he might as well have been speaking in a foreign language for all I understood while I was in such a woozy state of mind.

“You were damn lucky, young lady,” my dad says gruffly as he bends down to kiss me on the forehead.

“Nice black eye there, Rocky,” I quip before getting to the statement that no longer can be delayed.

Everything I tell them corroborates Bob’s boastful confession — he’s quite proud of his role in their painstaking murder scheme, from what Briscoe relays to me — and further strengthens the state’s cause as it begins to build its case against the villainous couple. And when it finally does go to trial, I’m sure to be a slam dunk as the state’s star witness, thanks to my well-known inability to lie.

Bob — who was probably watching my apartment for any activity from me — predictably fell for our plan, making a grab for Deputy Alexis Roberts while she was interviewing Coach Wayne Thomas at Ruffian County High School. The bumbling idiot didn’t even bother to wait until she was alone in my borrowed vehicle, either, pulling his gun out in apparent desperation to get to ME when SHE was talking to Coach Thomas in front of his entire football team during practice. One of the linebackers blindsided Bob and knocked his ass out cold.

That’ll teach him.

Mrs. Smith, meanwhile, is expected to recover from the beatdown I gave her, but she’ll be needing a bit of plastic surgery to make that once-flawless face of hers presentable again.

Good. No one ever will look at that bitch the same way again once the whole world discovers the true woman beneath her public facade, if it hasn’t already.

I pity her sons, though.

My half-brothers.

It’s still difficult for me to digest.

“Dad, I don’t care what that damn DNA test says,” I hold out the hand on my good arm for him to grasp tightly, unable to keep the tears dammed up any longer. “You’re my dad, and I love you. No test is ever going to change that. What I feel in my heart — what I know in my heart — is real. I’m your daughter. I’ve always been your daughter. And I’ll always be your daughter. Nothing, and no one is ever going to convince me otherwise.

I look at my mom then, the anger and disillusion of a few days ago gone.

“Lester Smith did a lot of bad things in his life,” I commence by stating the obvious. “He caused so much pain and suffering, never once giving a damn about the consequences of his actions. Unlike you, Mom. You stumbled during what had to be the most trying time of yours and Dad’s lives with a man who preyed on women’s weaknesses, and yet, neither of you ever treated me like I was a mistake. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know then what I do now. What does matter — the only thing that matters — is that you always made me feel like a … a miracle. You never once made me feel unwanted or unloved. All you’ve ever done is love me and protect me. When it would have been easier for you to hide the truth from Dad by having an abortion, you stood your ground and told him because … because I was the miracle baby you’d been trying to conceive for so long.

“But the truth is YOU are MY miracle. I have been blessed with the most wonderful parents anyone ever could imagine, and not a day goes by that I’m not thankful for the two of you for giving me the amazing gift of such a loving life.”

We’re all in serious need of a box of Kleenex or two by the time I finish what has become an emotional show-and-tell session that ends in a fierce hugfest.

Even Briscoe and Harpo turn away, swiping at their eyes as they exit the room with the older detective promising to keep us informed with the progress of their continuing investigation.

“The two of you are going to have to get used to having Richard around, y’know,” I warn my parents, though I only have eyes for Richard as mine find his and hold them steadily. “Besides, he tends to grow on you, after a while. Kind of like ivy. There was a time when I used to spend every waking minute trying to devise ways to get as far away from him as I could. And now, well, I love him, and I can’t even begin to imagine ever wanting to get away from him again.”

As if on cue, Bill and Meggy Granger leave the room, abuzz with talk of grandchildren on the horizon.

Richard takes the opportunity to move in closer, lowering the rail on my right side to perch on the edge of the bed without jostling me. He gives me a velvety kiss, wincing from the contact to his currently very swollen split upper lip.

“So, I guess we’re not in any shape to, uh, show each other how much we love one another right now, huh?” I say, the yearning in my voice unmistakable.

“I suppose we shall simply have to show each other often to make up for it,” he promises. “As often as WE desire.

“In the meantime, why don’t you tell me all about these children of ours?”

“Blindsided,” Chapter 37

She’s just as beautiful — and cold — as ever as she closes the door to my office and moves uncomfortably closer to me, the compact gun in her well-manicured hand never wavering from its target while she delicately scores the trigger with the long, blood-red painted nail on her right index finger.

Somewhere in her early to mid-50s, she must have married the significantly older, more experienced Coach Smith — who was 70 when he met his demise — at a very young age.

Her long, golden blonde tresses are swept up in an elegant, sleek bridal-worthy topknot bun, her immaculate makeup enhancing her deep blue eyes, high cheekbones and natural Angelina Jolie Pitt-esque plump lips. She has the height, figure and carriage befitting a model IF you go by the industry’s standard toothpick-thin look splashed on the covers of magazines the world over.

She’s wearing a short black peplum dress and black stilettos that accentuate her shapely legs and are far more suitable for a night out on the town than for mourning her late husband. I can envision Bob easily falling under the seductive spell of this vengeful, honey-tongued black widow.

“Hhh … how … how did you get in here?” I stammer, the fear in my quavering voice unmistakable.

“Why, I just waltzed on in the building and those helpful ladies up front directed me right to your office, Miss Granger,” she says conversationally as if we’re two old friends shooting the breeze over a couple of refreshing glasses of iced tea on her front porch during a sultry summer afternoon.

But we’re not, and I know good and damn well she’s here to finish the job that Bob no longer can do, now that he’s behind bars.

“Why me?” I beseech her. “What did I ever do to you?”

She laughs maniacally.

“You were born, weren’t you?” she sneers.

“You’re nothing more than Lester’s bastard child out to tarnish the Wellington family’s good name, but he must have taken a shine to you because he named you as the primary beneficiary on his new life insurance policy. I saw it with my own two eyes, despite his attempts to keep it a secret from me. But I have my ways of finding out. Money always talks, my dear. And, if for some unforeseen reason you meet an untimely death, it all goes to the contingent beneficiaries — my two sons.

“So you see, Miss Granger, you simply have to die so my boys get their just dues.”

Why, she’s enjoying all of this immensely!

Maybe, just maybe I can stall her long enough by stroking her ego like she did Bob’s to get her to tell me about her intricate scheme. It’s worth a shot — no pun intended — to at least try to prolong her endgame.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

And while I’m at it, I for damn sure am NOT going to point out that I’m not hellbent on sullying the Wellington name, nor am I the least bit interested in Coach Smith’s newly changed life insurance money.

“Before … before you … you k … ki … kill me, will you tell me the truth?” I meekly implore her, honest to the bitter end. “I’ve been lied to all of these years and I … I just want to hear the truth from someone who … who knows everything. Please. I’m begging you.

She seats herself all ladylike in Jackson’s chair, using the gun to motion for me to do the same in mine.

“I suppose there’s no harm in telling you since you’ll be taking the truth to the grave with you,” she informs me, the smile that never reaches her eyes utterly evil.

“I met Lester when I was 18,” she reminisces. “He was 35 and so worldly, I was smitten from the start. I thought he was, too, because he swept me right off my feet. Two years later, we were married in Lexington. I … I always knew he had a wandering eye, mind you, but I naively thought he would stop once we were wed. I thought my love could change him, that it would be enough for him. But it never was, and he continued carrying on with other women.”

I sympathize with her plight, but a simple divorce could have solved her problems a long time ago. It’s incredibly sad the lengths people will go to in order to protect their precious legacies.

“I gave that man 35 years of my life, my heart, two sons, the prestige of the Wellington family name and all the comfort our money could buy,” she says in a long-suffering tone. “And do you know what he gave me in return? Messes I constantly had to clean up and women I had to pay off to keep quiet because of his many indiscretions, but I did it because I loved him so much, it hurt. And that hurt slowly turned into hatred when I … when I discovered he … he didn’t always take the necessary precautions.”

Sounds about right. That cavalier asshole acted like he didn’t give a flying fuck about consequences of ANY kind.

“How did you find out?” I proceed cautiously, careful not to antagonize her, lest she shoot me now and be done with it.

“A man named Jack Gallant called our house one night a long, long time ago,” she reveals, making me wonder if she had anything to do with his mysterious disappearance. “He was very agitated, and he demanded to speak to Lester. My husband was working late like he always did, so I told him about Mr. Gallant’s call the next morning. Lester got very angry and told me he was just a parent who was upset about his son not getting enough playing time, so I didn’t think anything of it until I read a story in the paper a few years later about a man from Perrysville vanishing who happened to have the exact same name. It made me curious because he was supposedly from Bluegrass, but I didn’t dare mention it to Lester. I suspected he might have had something to do with that man’s disappearance, but I suppose we’ll never know for sure now that Lester is gone.”

She pauses briefly to gather her thoughts before continuing.

“About five years ago, Lester came home from work rip-roaring drunk. He never drank as a rule, so I knew something — or someone — must have driven him to it. Lester kept on mumbling gibberish about Maggie coming back to haunt him with a piccolo, which made no sense whatsoever to me until I was sifting through the previous day’s newspaper over breakfast the following morning and saw your picture with a short story about Piccolo — what and odd name for a woman, by the way — Granger joining the Daily Herald staff as a sports writer. The possibility of you being his daughter dawned on me then, but I turned a blind eye to it because … because I still loved him at that point, you see, even after all I had endured because he just couldn’t keep his pants zipped up.

“I still had hope, as foolish as that may seem to you.”

My heart goes out to her. I’ve been in her shoes, and I empathize.

We can’t help who we love.

But I also learned something she never did: There comes a time when you have to walk away because staying only will succeed in destroying you from the inside out.

And I know for certain she wouldn’t have recognized the name Meggy O’Brien written on that piece of paper found at the scene of Coach Smith’s murder because she thought she heard him say Maggie, instead. Still, Bob knew my home number AND I now have a question that needs answering despite my previous wishes to never find out.

But there’s no getting around it anymore.

“Am … am I really his … Coach Smith’s daughter?” I have to know.

“Yes, you are, Miss Granger,” she confirms my worst fears.

“I had DNA tests done using samples I collected from you, Bob Gallant and Lester without any of you the wiser, you see. Do you recall the sports memorabilia auction I organized in January to help raise funds for Lester’s football camp for disadvantaged children and the sit-down dinner that I served following it? Well, I collected both of your napkins — which I needed so I could get your dried saliva stains tested — when I was helping the servers clear the dishes from all the tables — an absolutely brilliant idea on my part, if I do say so, myself. Getting Lester’s was no problem because his DNA is all over our house. Anyway, as soon as I got the results, I set a plan in motion to get even with Lester once and for all by using one of his own children to do all the dirty work for me.”

Bob.

“Bob was so easy to manipulate,” she brags. “Lester despised him from the moment he met him and made no secret about it, which worked in my favor. I think he knew Bob was his son, and I believe Jack Gallant’s call had everything to do with Lester getting his wife, Jane, pregnant all of those years ago. I guessed as much after I read the story about Bob being hired as the Daily Herald’s new sports editor last year because of his last name, but I knew when I saw him. He resembles Lester when he was much younger, but I had to be sure, so I had your DNA tested.”

As we get into the homestretch of her story, it occurs to me that she seems to be getting off having me as her audience, having me hanging on to her every word as if each one is a lifeline.

Truth is, they are … because the longer she talks, the longer I live.

I just wish I could see Dic … Richard one last time to tell him how much I love him before she does away with me, but at least he’s far away from here, far away from HER. As long as he’s safe, I can accept whatever fate has in store for me.

“I took great pleasure in telling Bob you’re his half-sister because he hates you as much as he hated your dear, departed father,” she states with vicious glee. “Bob has always been insanely jealous of you because Lester publicly respected you, and publicly disrespected him.

“So I began planning my husband’s death by initiating a naughty little affair with your brother in January, after I told him I knew he was Lester’s son and you were Lester’s daughter, and he enjoyed getting back at my husband as much as me by having the raunchiest, hottest, most deviant sex right under his own father’s nose. Every time I fuck Lester’s bastard son’s brains out, every time I suck his bastard son’s dick, every time I make his bastard son cum is … liberating, exhilarating, empowering. Bob worships my body, does anything and everything I ask of him like a good little boy because I reward all of his deeds with the goods God gave me that my no-good husband took for granted the entire time we were together because he was too busy sticking his dick into his endless supply of whores instead of me.”

EW, EW, EW, EWWW!!! WAY TOO DAMN MUCH FUCKING INFORMATION!!!

I can’t conceal the revulsion these disgusting truths of hers evoke in me while this sick bitch is positively gloating over my transparent distaste for her heinous methods.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Miss Granger,” she says coyly. “Lester had it coming, and he got exactly what he deserved in the end. We came up with the perfect alibi using that horrible boss of yours as the reason why Bob quit, and then I set him up in an apartment on one of my family’s properties where no one could find him. But Lester got suspicious after a while and started carrying a gun on him, so I had no choice but to put the final stages of my plan into motion when he was working late this past Friday. I supplied a Smith & Wesson Model 29 — you know, the big revolver Clint Eastwood had in that Dirty Harry movie — for Bob to use as he saw fit and, well, you know the rest.”

I wish like hell I didn’t know, but stopping her now will be the end of me.

“Bob told me what was on that piece of paper, so I had him follow you and Mr. Headrick to Tideville,” she substantiates our feelings of being watched during our travels. “And when he couldn’t get to you, I sent him on a little errand to kill his mother after convincing him that she would run her mouth and ruin our special relationship. Sex is such a powerful weapon to wield over men, don’t you know? And the very thought of not being able to get it on with me anymore was enough motivation for him to murder that piece of trash mother of his with the same gun he used to kill my Lester.”

Poor Mrs. Gallant.

Blood really is no thicker than the water that washes it away.

“We were going to pin it all on you when you got back into town, but you foiled our plans when you didn’t go home Saturday night,” SHE has the audacity to chide ME. “I sent Bob to your apartment to kill you and then make it look like a suicide with a note confessing to Lester’s and Jane’s murders, but he flew into a rage and tore your place apart when you didn’t show. He had been looking forward to killing you, Miss Granger, but you were way too busy spreading your legs to that boorish boss of yours! You’d have done your father proud whoring around like that, you little slut!

“You’re just like him!”

The only father I’m going to do proud is William Lawrence Granger. If I’m going to die, I’m going to die fighting.

“You’ve ruined everything!” she screeches at me, the gun dangerously flailing about in her right hand. “It’s all your fault Bob got caught, but I will avenge him, and there’s nothing your precious boyfriend can do to save you now!

“It’s time for you to die, Miss Granger!”

I lunge for her in the same instant she pulls the trigger, the explosion from the gunshot causing a faint ringing in my ears as our chairs topple over and we fall onto the carpeted floor in a life-and-death struggle.

She slits my bare legs using those lethal stilettos of hers to dig into them, succeeding in making me loosen my grip on the hand wielding the gun as I cry out from the intensity of the stabbing pain. She manages to wrestle her hand away from mine, but I pull a Mike Tyson and bite down on her cheek so hard, I draw blood. She lets loose a furious howl, clutching at her face, and in that one moment of weakness, I slap the gun out of her hand.

And then I start whaling on her, my fists coming down hard like a judge pounding a gavel over and over and over to maintain order in the court. I continue pummeling her until she stops moving and my fists are bruised and bleeding and swollen.

I roll away from Mrs. Smith’s still body, completely spent, when both doors burst open and uniformed police officers converge in the sports office, their guns drawn. I notice Briscoe and Harpo among them while paramedics tend to us and carefully place each of us on stretchers. I hear them say Mrs. Smith has a pulse. Barely.

And that I’ve been shot.

Strange. I don’t remember that happening.

The last thing I glimpse is Richard’s tear-streaked face hovering over mine.

The last thing I hear is his desperate voice begging me not to die.

The last thing I taste is the softest of kisses.

The last thing I feel is love.

“Blindsided,” Chapter 36

Stinky spends yet another night sleeping between us, but I only succeed in resting fitfully at best despite all of us hitting the hay well before 10 p.m.

Being overly exhausted tends to have that effect, as does my boss’ perplexing roundabout talk from yesterday that did nothing but keep me awake overthinking it.

What else is new?

I suspect Dickhead has been awake for quite some time now, completing his daily workout regimen and then showering while I lay here tossing and turning in dire hopes of catching a few more winks of sleep before calling it quitsville and getting my ass up to face the day ahead of the alarm set to go off at 5 a.m.

He exits the bathroom with only a towel covering his bottom half and smirks at my frank appreciation as he saunters into the closet to grab his everyday penguin suit.

“You need to add some color to that awful work wardrobe of yours,” I remark not for the first time as I join him in the roomy walk-in closet, morning breath be damned.

Brushing my teeth can take a backseat to this higher priority for once.

“And what would you suggest?” he asks, inching closer to me after I move past him to sift through his clothes.

“How about this?” I suggest, picking out a light blue dress shirt, red power tie and navy blue slacks to hold up for his inspection.

“I don’t know, Piccolo,” he says, his hot breath on the back of my neck sending shivers of pleasure down my spine. “What would everyone think of me coming to work dressed so daringly different? They might believe I’m getting soft and take advantage of my jolly good nature.”

Fat chance of that ever happening, mister!

“I hardly think … ” I whirl around, preparing to do battle with him and freeze.

Why, he’s joking.

Yet another layer of this endless onion of a man peeled back.

I silently hand him the clothes, delighting in his mirth.

He sets them aside momentarily to enfold me in his arms for a long, slow, steamy kiss despite my protests over not having brushed my teeth, but he doesn’t seem to mind at all. And after a while, neither do I.

“We’re going to be late for work if we keep this up,” he says against my lips.

“You’re the one who insisted on it,” I sass him.

“So I did,” he muses, letting me go with a smile.

I seize the opportunity to slide past him and make a run for the bathroom, his deep, sexy laughter following me as I shut the door.

A short time later, I emerge to select a royal blue sleeveless ruched faux wrap dress that falls just below my knees on one side and shows a little more leg than I prefer on the other. I pair it with the sandals Dickhead picked out for me in Tenne-damn-ssee and make my way to the kitchen for a quick breakfast before we leave for work.

Stinky is rapturously finishing the can of tuna he has taken to giving her but stops long enough for me to kneel down and give her a quick pet. She resumes her meal as I accept a bowl of fruit and toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese from Dickhead to take to the table. His food is already there.

I could easily get used to this routine — even the breakfast part, which seems to be agreeing with me more and more — if it means waking up to HIM every day. So could he, by the looks of it. He’s perusing me as if he could swallow me whole.

“That dress enhances your beauty, Piccolo,” he says with admiration as he joins me at the table with two cups of coffee in hand.

I blush, unused to genuine flattery of any kind. Unless you count men goggling my chest, which is NOT the same thing AT ALL. He’s one of the few men who hasn’t done that, along with Josh, Alex and Jackson. Even Coach Smith, come to think of it.

“Th … th … thank you,” I mumble as I take a generous bite out of my bagel.

Not knowing what else to say, I make fast work of the bagel before taking a tentative sip of the coffee he took the liberty of doctoring with milk and sugar for me.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

“This is actually pretty good,” I approve, moving on to the bowl of fruit. “Thank you.”

He inclines his head in response to my praise.

“I wish … I wish we didn’t have to go in to work today, Piccolo,” he says wistfully.

“You and me both,” I heartily agree.

But we do as we must anyway, again escorted by the same patrol unit from the sheriff’s department as yesterday. We wave our thanks as we enter the Daily Herald building.

“I promise not to stray from the sports office,” I tell him before the dictator in him gives me my orders for the day, “but if you’re not in there by 10:31, I’m going to be in YOURS dragging you outside for a, uh, cigarette in the loading zone.”

That’s my code word for kiss, although I WILL be having that smoke at some point, too.

“Good girl,” he gives me an insolent pat on the head as we split up to go to our respective offices. “I will collect you no later than 10:31 sharp.”

Ohhh, is he ever maddening at times!

But I put the thought aside once I’m at my desk and commence laying out the laborious agate page in hopes of having it nearly done by the time Jackson comes bounding in the door at 7ish.

We only have a six-page section today, so that’s not too bad. As the week progresses, the sports section tends to get bigger, with the whopper coming like clockwork every Sunday. The smallest section we’ve ever had on a Sunday during my five-year tenure is 12 pages, but there’s always plenty of copy to fill it.

Jackson comes waltzing in at 7 on the nose, scrutinizing me as if I’ve suddenly sprouted horns.

“You look nice today, Piccolo,” he says, a question in his voice.

“Thank you,” I reply, ignoring it because I’m still miffed at the yellow-bellied fucker for flying the coop on me yesterday. “We have six pages today. I just sent the agate page for Alex to look over before he passes it on to production to get ready for print, so we’re in good shape right now.”

We spend the remainder of our deadline working in silence, but I can feel Jackson’s eyes on me intermittently. I really can’t blame him because I never dress this nice, not even for work. I always wear proper attire, mind you, just not of this quality that Dickhead picked out himself.

Truth be told, it sort of makes me feel like a kept woman with him buying me all of those new clothes, even though I know I’m simply a woman in SAFE keeping who needed duds because most of mine were destroyed as a result of the break-in to my apartment.

Just then, the ever-punctual Dickhead comes marching into our office to suspend my wayward thoughts.

And does he ever look spiffy in the outfit I chose for him!

He looks good in anything, really, even those damn penguin getups he fancies. I’m just ecstatic he was in the mood to humor me by wearing something other than the norm for him, just as I’m in clothing he picked out that reveals so much more than my own comfort zone generally allows.

“Piccolo, Jackson,” he greets us, “I need to see you both in my office after the Page A1 deadline at 11:30. Also, well done on your sports deadline today. Jackson, excellent piece on Shane Hardy being named acting head coach at Bluegrass High School. You went above and beyond a simple news conference to give the story meat AND heart.”

To know Dickhead is to comprehend that he NEVER, EVER goes around the newsroom doling out praise for ANYTHING, not even if we were to win every award in our Daily 3 classification — which is based on our certified circulation of 20,000 or more, thus making it the highest and toughest of the three categories for dailies in our state — of the prestigious annual Kentucky Press Association Excellence in Newspapers Contest.

Simply put, Jackson is flabbergasted. So, for that matter, am I, even knowing everything I do about our dear boss now.

“Piccolo, I need to speak to you privately,” he says, signaling for me to follow him out of our office via the back way to the loading zone.

Once we’re outside, he smooches me into oblivion before abruptly releasing me to light up a smoke with a smirk as if he hasn’t a care in the world, the lout. But his shaking hands tell another story entirely.

I take a calming drag of my cigarette with a trembling hand of my own.

“Are my lips swollen again?” I have to ask. “Because if they are, I’m going to sic Amy and Allyson on you.”

All I get in response is another of those agitating smirks he’s just begging me to wipe off of his infuriating face one of these days.

“Let them try,” he dares. “And you had better get used to those lips of yours being swollen. Kissing you senseless seems to be the only way for me to keep you in line.”

He follows that up with another smug grin as he propels me back inside to my office and then leaves for his own until our scheduled 11:30 meeting.

Jackson wisely doesn’t offer any sardonic commentary, but I have a pretty good idea what he’s thinking all the same.

Fuck it. Who am I kidding, anyway? Why bother hiding it when everybody already knows?

As long as we don’t go around slobbering all over each other and get carried away in —ahem– other overly graphic public displays of affection, the powers that be at the paper won’t have a problem with our relationship. Our managing editor before Dickhead dated and later married one of our former copy editors, so it’s not like this is an unprecedented occurrence.

“Oh yeah, I meant to tell you that I scheduled interviews with the new coaches at Ruffian and Man o’ War counties,” I advise Jackson just in case he happens to start calling all 13 schools to get a jump on the pending football tab. “I felt really bad about you getting saddled with everything over the past few days, so I wanted to try to make it up to you somehow.”

I feel guilty as fuck for misleading him like this, but that asshole left me high and dry yesterday when Dickhead was ready to spit bullets at me so I consider us even now.

“Thanks, Piccolo. I really appreciate that. While we’re waiting to meet with your, ah, boyfriend, we can divvy up the remaining teams, if you want.”

I flip him the bird before we get down to the nitty-gritty of selecting from the 11 schools left and then picking one player from each of the 13 teams to highlight on the sports front via feature stories every day starting two weeks prior to publishing the football tab. The players and their parents eat that shit up, but we have an endless supply of incredibly talented athletes in our coverage area who most definitely are worthy of the spotlight.

Before we know it, it’s time for us to have our meeting with Dickhead. After closing his door and taking our seats in those shitty, un-fucking-comfortable plastic chairs of his, he gets right to the point.

“Jackson, I’m promoting you to sports editor if you still desire the position,” he says, not bothering to mince words because it’s not his style. “Piccolo, you will be his assistant sports editor. And do NOT bother arguing until you hear me out first. You will, of course, each be given a raise in salary. However, I cannot discuss specifics at this time.”

In other words, each of us is not supposed to know how much money the other makes. We already know, but whatever.

Jackson, who applied for the position shortly after Bob left, quickly recovers from his initial shock to accept Dickhead’s offer while I sit here stewing because I don’t want the responsibility that comes with being an editor, even if it IS only as an assistant.

“After much consideration and lobbying, we’ve decided to expand our sports staff from three to four people,” he drops another bombshell on us. “This is why it has taken Alex and I so long to move forward with hiring someone to fill Bob’s vacancy. We wish to keep our circulation up, so offering more local coverage will help us not only maintain it but strive to increase it. We also recognize that the workload is too great for three people to handle in a seven-county coverage area that continues to boom in population due to increasing job opportunities, hence the extra position.”

Halle-fucking-lujah!

I’m so damn giddy, I feel like doing a happy dance right this second!

“I have a list of potential candidates and their resumes for you to peruse to help you get started, but I trust your judgment should you already have anyone in mind for the two positions,” he tells us. “I will sit in on all of the interviews you conduct, of course, and once we find suitable candidates, we will discuss pros and cons before making any final decisions. Does that sound agreeable to both of you?”

We enthusiastically nod our heads, still too stunned for words.

Dickhead hands Jackson the resumes and sends us on our way to start making calls.

“I don’t know what the hell you’ve done to him, but whatever it is, keep it up,” Jackson commends me once we’re back in our own office. “I can’t believe our good fortune! We are going to kick some serious ass with four people on staff!”

We work through lunch, ordering pizza as we set up interviews with job candidates and wait for callbacks from others who aren’t home or simply not answering their cells right away because they don’t recognize our phone numbers.

I start getting antsy when 3 p.m. rolls around because it’s time for Deputy Alexis Roberts’ first interview of the day at Ruffian County High School. She’ll be talking to the new head coach, Wayne Thomas, who played his college football at — UGH — Auburn. He’s a year younger than me — 32 — and he graduated from Tideville High School the same year I did from Holy Mother of Jesus Catholic School.

I hate not knowing what’s going on, but I have to trust the authorities to do their jobs and nail those two bloodthirsty assholes.

But the time is creeping by MUCH too slow for me, so I get up to make my way back to Dickhead’s office just as he comes rushing into ours at 4 p.m. on the dot, scaring the fuck out of Jackson and I.

“They have him in custody, Piccolo!” he shouts with joy, scooping me up in a bruising bear hug and whirling me around in circles until we’re both so dizzy, he’s forced to set me down again.

“It’s over?!” I ask, the question rhetorical. “It’s really over?!”

His beautiful, blinding smile is all the reassurance I need.

“I need you to stay here, where I know you will be safe just in case Abigail Smith decides to take matters into her own hands,” he tells me, an unspoken plea in his eyes. “Jackson is coming with Mandy Jo, Josh and I to the county jail, where the authorities are holding Bob right now. Jackson, I will fill you in on the way.”

A temporarily stupefied Jackson rapidly snaps out of his trance to snag a notebook en route to meeting the others in the newsroom as Dickhead envelops me in a gentle — no, loving — hug this time.

“Please do this for me, Piccolo,” he whispers for my ears only. “Not Dickhead the boss. ME. Richard Headrick. The man you love.

“The man who loves YOU.

And just like that, he’s gone.

I don’t know how long I stand there basking in his blindsiding declaration of love, but it doesn’t matter.

Nothing is standing in our way anymore. Nothing is holding us back. Nothing is keeping us from exploring this newfound love of ours.

“Well, hello there, Miss Granger.”

Nothing except Abigail Wellington-Smith, who’s holding a small gun aimed straight for my heart.

“Blindsided,” Chapter 35

“Do you think this is going to work?” I ask Dickhead shortly after Harpo returns to drop off Sheriff Eddy Roberts and Deputy Alexis Roberts to collect their vehicle in his driveway, pick up Briscoe and leave again.

Alone, at last.

“We shall find out soon enough,” he says, not in the least reassuring.

We’re sitting in the middle of his colossal sofa with Stinky curled up in a ball on the end closest to the front door purring contentedly in her sleep.

“I’m sorry for, uh, scaring you today,” I babble. “I went out for a smoke so I wouldn’t go running into your office like a, uh, lovesick schoolgirl with her first crush. I’ve kind of gotten used to being around you all the time these past few days, and it just felt weird when we went back to our old routines.”

He looks at me then, his eyes telling me naked truths his mouth never may voice to my straining ears yearning to hear them.

“It took great restraint on my part to stay away until after your deadline,” he confesses, “and when you weren’t there, I was quite, ah, unsettled.”

That’s putting it mildly.

“So, um, about everyone knowing … ” I falter.

“Yes, what of it?” he prods.

“Well, how are we going to handle it?” I appeal to him.

“I believe we already did,” he responds vaguely.

“How?” I insist. “From all of that caterwauling you did earlier that probably woke the dead from their eternal sleep? Yeah, I suppose you’re right, then.

“And here I thought we were going to have to take out a full-page ad in the newspaper to announce it.”

What can I say? Needling him is as natural a reflex to me as yawning. I really cannot help myself. The urge is way too fucking great for me to simply ignore.

“I most certainly do NOT caterwaul,” he says, getting all uppity and snarly with me. “And I warned you about pushing me.

“I bite back hard, love.”

He grabs me then, silencing any other sassy remarks rolling around on the tip of my tart tongue by planting a rough kiss meant to punish that only succeeds in further awakening a body once dead to any man’s touch.

Except his.

I match his anger with uninhibited enthusiasm and he subsequently gentles the kiss before we bring the house down in flames around us, eventually succeeding in bridling his passion so we don’t lose ourselves in the moment to the point of no turning back for either of us. We can’t give in to this just yet, not when we most need our wits about us, not when we’re so close to getting justice for Lester Smith and Jane Gallant.

But, Lawd help me, I don’t want this to ever end.

Admiringly and regretfully, though, he has the willpower I lack to pull back entirely, leaving me grateful and unfulfilled in ways I never thought possible. Grateful because he wants it to happen when the time is appropriate, and we both know it’s not right now. Unfulfilled because this is yet another scrumptious sample of what it’s going to be like when it finally does happen, when we give ourselves unconditionally to one another with no outside distractions to hinder us.

And, oh, is the anticipation ever about to damn near kill me!

“You are becoming much too addictive,” he admits once his breathing is back to normal again.

“I thought … I wasn’t … your type,” I accuse, still trying to catch my own. “You … said so … yourself.”

He shrugs, giving me his maddening trademark smirk.

“So I did,” he grants me that point, “but I lied. Had you not been so obsessed with the state of my breath at the time, we could have been doing this much sooner. But then, I’ve grown quite fond of your mouthiness and willfulness this past year, particularly since I know just how to manage both so well now.”

By kissing me senseless.

I’ve got no argument with that because he’s right. And he knows it, too, the arrogant, conceited, egotistical, smug — Oh, how I could go on forever with the name-calling! — burr under my saddle whom I just so happen to love.

I expect life never will be boring with him, that we’ll never tire of each other. Sure, we’ll squabble often, as we always have, but making up each time will be well worth every single one of our anticipated fracases.

“You … you don’t mind my weight gain?” I ask, needing to know for no other reason than to be reassured like any self-conscious person.

“Piccolo, to me, you are perfect,” he says meaningfully.

“Down to your every curve, the way your hair flies away when you leave it to dry by itself, your zest for good food, that nonstop mind of yours when you’re off somewhere in your own little world, your cheekiness, your inability to lie, your love for your parents, your cat … and … and me. You fascinate me, and you humble me. But I’ve told you this already.”

You guessed it. I’m blushing.

“I wasn’t fishing for compliments,” I need him to know. “I just … “

But he holds up a hand, effectively cutting me off.

“I know, Piccolo. We all need reassurance sometimes. Even … even me.”

ESPECIALLY him.

He deserves to know.

“I wish I had the right words to .. to express what you’ve come mean to me,” I make a solemn attempt anyway, meeting his astonished eyes head-on in a real-life version of the old game show, To Tell the Truth, “but every single one that comes to mind falls way too short. I resented you for making me feel again when the simple truth is that I’ve never felt so alive — never been more alive — since you came tearing into my life with the force of a … a damn tornado. And I hated you for it — no, I thought I hated you — for making me feel so much — too much — when all I wanted to do was keep hiding from the world. So really, it is YOU who humbles ME. Aside from my dad, you are the most honorable man I’ve ever known. You’re fiercely protective, fiercely principled, fiercely lo … caring. You are, by far, the most worthwhile human being I’ve ever known, and to me, you are the whole world.

“And I … I love you.”

“So you keep telling me,” he says affectionately, his voice cracking ever-so-slightly, his eyes suspiciously moist.

“You really don’t mind?”

“I shall never tire of hearing you say it, Piccolo.”

“Even if it’s every day?”

“As often as you wish.”

“Does it make you uncomfortable knowing?”

“Does it make you uncomfortable that I know?”

“No,” we say in sync.

“Jinx, you owe me a Coke,” we say in concert again.

“Careful, you’re starting to pick up on my Americanisms,” I laugh.

“Well, I AM an American citizen,” he points out the obvious.

OK, so he has me there.

D’OH!

“So, um, when this is over … ” I stammer.

“Yes?” he coaxes.

“I’m going to want to, y’know, show you.”

“Are you now? Do tell?”

“I never kiss and tell.”

“You can kiss and tell me anything your heart desires, anytime you desire, for as long as you desire.”

If there ever was any doubt I was a goner before, there’s no question about it anymore.

“I hope you won’t be disappointed.”

“I daresay neither one of us will ever be even remotely dissatisfied, Piccolo.”

The promise in his voice gives me a case of the shivers. The good kind.

“How can you be so … so sure?”

“I have never been more certain of anything in my life, love.”

“You keep calling me that,” I try to weasel it out of him without actually coming out and begging him to say it.

Good job, Piccolo. Give yourself a pat on the back for handling that so well.

“Ah, so you’ve picked up on that, have you?” he says enigmatically, intentionally ignoring my sort-of-but-not-really-subtle cue.

“It’s kind of hard not to notice.”

“It wasn’t meant to escape your, ah, attention.”

“Well, you have it now.”

“I know.”

“And?”

“I will be showing YOU soon enough, as well, Piccolo.”

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