Challenging the Center (Santa Fe Bobcats #6)


Challenging_The_Center_1600x2400Michael Lambert is known as the calming influence on the Bobcats team. Baby Bobcat behaving badly? Call in Michael, and watch him work his magic. So it’s no surprise when his agent calls to ask him to watch out for an athlete. The real surprise is…it’s not a teammate. It’s a woman.

Katrina Kelly has seen some success on the tennis circuit, but she’s hit an all time low, thanks to a sex tape released by her ex. She’s become persona non grata on the tour, and between injuries and sponsors dropping her, she’s hit the rock bottom, both professionally and personally. But seriously, sending her to be mentored by a football player? This is not going to end well…

As Michael gets to know Kat, he realizes her sex tape doesn’t come close to defining who she is, and that she’s scared to death of losing her career. Kat sees past the stiff exterior Michael puts on and begins to enjoy the man he is outside of the favor he’s performing. But when their fledgling relationship is tested, will they turn to each other for help, or break apart under the challenge?

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Excerpt

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Michael Lambert parked in his apartment complex’s lot and got out of the car. Beside him, rookie center Dante Willis did the same and looked at him over the hood of his car. “Thanks for the pep talk, man. It’s been rough, being out here. You know?”

Michael walked with him to the lobby of the complex and toward the elevators. “I definitely do. I didn’t grow up around here. Most of us didn’t. We all know the homesick feeling from time to time. No shame in it.”

Dante gave him a look that said yeah fucking right. “Homesickness is for five year olds at sleep away camp.”

“And for grown ass men who love their families,” Michael countered quickly, giving him a benign smile. “Take it from someone who’s seen a lot of this league. You don’t get to be my age and still be in this game without having seen some stuff. People go through it. They just don’t admit it…or attempt to hire a hooker to compensate.”

Dante’s cheeks flushed under the light brown skin tone. “Yeah, well…that was a stupid move.”

“Stupid’s one word for it,” Michael said mildly. “You’re just lucky you got caught by a teammate and not the cops.” The elevator pinged and he waited for the doors to open. As they did, Josh Leeman stepped out. “Hey, man.”

Dante nodded, then got on the elevator. “You coming?” Dante lived four floors below Michael in the building.

“Nah, go ahead. And hey,” Michael called out as the doors began to close. “Call me if you need to talk next time. Don’t go cruising.”

Dante nodded fast just as the doors closed on him.

“Babysitting again?” Josh asked him with a smile.

“Mentoring,” Michael corrected, but he grinned. They went through this all the time. Josh never understood why Michael said yes every time the coaching staff asked him to take a younger player under his wing and keep them from doing something insane…or keep them from doing something else insane. But Michael had had enough mentors growing up—starting with his father and his older brother—that he knew sometimes, a guy just needed someone else’s footsteps to walk in. Despite being a legal adult, sometimes a man wasn’t quite ready to make the trek alone.

Plus, it earned him brownie points with the coaching staff. He wasn’t above brownie points. Only an idiot turned those down, especially in his line of work. Michael collected IOUs like some kids collected baseball cards.

“Where are you off to?” Michael asked.

“Meeting with my Realtor about the house I just bought.” When Michael raised a brow, Josh shrugged. “It’s time. I know the area, I know I’m not leaving regardless, so it’s about that time to get things rolling with living like an adult.”

“I happen to think my apartment is very adult-like, thank you.” Michael nudged him. “Maybe you’re just not having the right company over.”

Josh rolled his eyes. “My company is perfectly fine, thanks. In fact, I’m meeting her later at the house.”

“So that’s how it is. Well, have fun and good luck.”

“We’ll need it. This place is a dump.” Seeming in a much more cheerful mood than a man who had mentioned his new six-figure purchase was a wreck, Josh saluted him and took off.

The moment Michael stepped off the elevator, his phone pinged with a text. His agent, Sawyer Grade, wanted to chat. He called back as he flipped his keys around his fingers.

“Michael, my savior,” Sawyer said emphatically the moment the phone rang. “You’re the only one who can save me.”

“If you’re going to quote Star Wars, don’t butcher it. What do you need?” Michael opened his door and tossed his keys on the table beside the front door. They slid off and onto the ground. He backtracked to pick them up. He had a maid—who worked for Stephen Harrison’s girlfriend’s fledgling cleaning company, Elite Clean—but he didn’t like to make extra work for her if he could help it. He wasn’t the tidiest guy, but he tried not to be a pig.

“I need you. Yes, you.”

“Now you sound like a recruitment poster. Spit it out, please.” Dropping down onto his futon, Michael grabbed his remote and turned the TV on, then muted it, changing it to ESPN.

“I need your mentoring capabilities.”

He bit back a groan. “Who is it this time? I didn’t know you had any baby Bobcats on your roster this year.”

“Not a Bobcat.”

There was a pause, which intrigued Michael. “College senior? Someone out here you’re looking at for draft time? Who’s the guy?”

“Not a guy at all, actually.”

Michael blinked. “Come again?”

“Ever heard of Kat Kelly?”

“Kat Kelly,” he repeated, mulling over the name. “Maybe. It sounds familiar, but no details are forming.”

“Pro tennis player. Just missed her shot at the Olympics this past year.”

“Oooookay. And you want me to, what, teach her how to serve? I’m not your guy.” He paused. Kelly. Kat Kelly. In the frame of reference, it was starting to click… “Wait a minute. Was she one who…”

“Had a sex tape, yeah.” Sawyer sounded exhausted just saying the short sentence. “So you’ve heard of her.”

“Sort of. Wasn’t it with another tennis player? A dude? Uh, what was his name.”

“Dorchessky. Igor Dorchessky. She released it, for God knows what reason. Maybe to spite him, since he claims he’d broken up with her right before she released it.”

“And you haven’t dropped her from your roster because…why?”

“Because there’s enough of me that sees something redeemable in her. She swears she didn’t actually release the video. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe she got hacked. I don’t know.”

Michael rolled his eyes. My phone was hacked was the new I swear, Officer, that’s not mine, I was just holding it for a friend excuse. “Hacked. Uh huh.”

“Up until that moment, she was a model athlete, off the court, anyway. Prone to injuries, but agreeable enough. Anyway, she’s sort of derailed since the video hit the internet and didn’t get the results she wanted. Partying, photographed with some less-than-ideal companions, acting up in the locker room and on the sidelines.”

“Fighting?”

“Dancing,” his agent said through what Michael could only assume were clenched teeth. “She likes dancing. Badly. Says it helps clear her mind, which whatever. But it’s doing nothing to rebuild her reputation as someone sponsors want to work with. They think she’s a party girl with no substance.”

“Dancing,” Michael muttered. He loved cutting loose like anyone else, joking around with teammates. But not when it distracted someone from the job at hand.

“I need you to calm her down.” Sawyer sighed. “Look, she’s good. She’s not Olympic Gold good, but she’s solid. She had the potential for decent career—injuries not withstanding—with lasting cred to get her a good coaching job after. Suddenly, this video hits and she’s a pariah. Now she’s acting out some teenage rebellion phase she must have missed on and wants to reclaim. She’s in the media more than she used to be, getting more play in places like Sports Center, but it’s all for her antics off the court.”

Which might have been why Michael had at least heard the name before. Though tennis wasn’t a sport he followed, he might have seen the name pass by on a scroll or flash in the corner while watching something else on TV. Like most other athletes, he was a sports news junkie. Some sports channel was playing nearly all the time around him.

“And every time she does something ridiculous, they make sure to bring up her video.”

“None of this explains my role in this little play.” He scratched at his chest with the corner of the remote, debated stretching out for a nap on his one day off during the week, then decided against it. A nap would fuck up his sleep schedule. Sleep was the magic bullet during the season.

“I need you to do your magic with her. That thing you do with all the babies of the team where you take them out for meals and suddenly they’re perfect children. That thing. Whatever it is you do with them, do it now with her.”

“And she just happens to live in Santa Fe?”

Sawyer scoffed. “Of course not. I’m setting her up with an apartment in your building. Short term lease. She’ll be nearby to keep an eye on.”

“I’m not a paid nanny, Sawyer. I have a season that’s in full swing currently. Why me? Why now?”

“Because she has a break in the action, and if she doesn’t pull her head out of her ass, she won’t be returning for any more tournaments. That’s the end for her. So help her. Please.”

Michael said nothing.

“Please.”

Nothing.

Sawyer sighed. “I’ll owe you.”

No, Michael never turned down earning brownie points…or IOUs. “Done. I’ll let you know when I want to cash in on that favor.” Michael hung up and stretched out, unmuting the TV simultaneously. One bratty teenage athlete, he could handle. She couldn’t be more than nineteen or twenty, tops, the way Sawyer talked about her. How much trouble could she be?

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