Written by: Susanne Beck and TNovan
Disclaimers: Nothing really to disclaim. These characters and the story surrounding them are owned by the authors and may not be reproduced without their express written consent. There are bits of naughty language scattered here and there, as well as several tasteful, yet graphic, scenes of love between two consenting human beings of the same gender. Those offended by any of the above are welcomed to click the little red "X" at the top of their viewscreen and shut themselves of this story forever.
For those of you who are intrigued, we invite you to read further.
This story is complete (though it took over three years to write) and will be posted in four large parts over the succeeding days. We hope that you will enjoy.
This story is dedicated to all the fans on the swordnquil message list. Without your constant and heartfelt requests for more, this novel might never have been finished. You all rock to the nth degree. Thank you. And to MaryD, the Pallas Dylan "The Goddess" Lambert of the Xenaverse Website world. Thanks!!
Richard “Mac” MacKenzie liked to think of himself as a lucky man. And so he would tell you, if ever you were unfortunate enough to be pinned in the corner with him at a cocktail party.
And if there had ever been a sub-species of the genus Homo Sapiens, he might even have been correct in his assessment. Born to a poor, but loving family in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, Mac had one thing that made him stand out from the rest of the steelworkers’ sons he called friends.
The genes of a six foot six inch father ran through his veins, awaiting adolescence’s beckoning call.
Though topping out at an inch shorter than his father’s not inconsiderable height, Richard parlayed his genetic gift into a “full ride” scholarship to Indiana University, where he took his lumps, both literal and figurative. Drafted in the later rounds by his hometown team, the Indiana Pacers, he had himself a decent NBA career, in longevity, if nothing else. The classic story of small town boy makes good.
Where others would have been content to rest on their laurels after their playing days were over, lending their names to fast food restaurants or strings of car dealerships, and telling their glory stories in local watering holes for an Old Milwaukee, Mac knew that sometimes lucky men made their own fortune.
So he took his years of basketball experience, combined it with his IU business degree, and jumped in on the sub-basement level of a business venture that had the mark of three-day old road kill writ large all over it.
And that venture was known, to the few who cared, as the Women’s Basketball League, though its initials were more often translated to form such witticisms as the “What Basketball? League” or the “Wobbling Boobs League” to mention two of the more repeatable ones.
To say what the WBL was on its last legs when Mac climbed aboard would have been a bit of an understatement. Caught between the rock of dyke drama, the hard place of “Family Values”, and the black hole of fan ennui, the Women’s Basketball League was an elderly matron with one foot in the grave, and the other on a banana peel.
But, as Mac was quick to tell everyone within hearing distance, lucky men jumped head first into shit heaps and came up smelling like roses.
Mac’s particular shit heap bore the title “General Manager of the WBL Louisiana Lightning.”
His rose was Pallas Dylan Lambert. Also known as “the Goddess”, a play on both her name and on her skills.
A basketball phenom since her elementary school days, Dylan graduated from UCLA holding over one hundred school records, as well as national collegiate records in several scoring categories. If, upon graduation, she wasn’t the best woman’s basketball player ever, she was certainly far ahead of whomever was in second place.
The fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous didn’t hurt matters either. Six feet, three inches of wiry muscle and feminine curves, topped by a halo of jet black hair and eyes so blue they glowed, she had the face that launched a thousand dreams, many of them wet.
Ordinarily, Mac and the Lightning would never have had a shot at the only player worth drafting, but a lucky man is a man with foresight, and Mac had shown just such prescience the year before by trading two of his better forwards to the worst team in the league in return for a journeyman player he didn’t need, and a number one draft pick he did.
A quick trip to the podium on draft day, and the woman who would come to be known to the world as Ms. Michael Jordan was his.
Dylan didn’t disappoint. She was every bit the player advertised, and then some. With a strong work ethic, astounding beauty, and phenomenal skills on the court, she elevated women’s basketball to a level never before dreamed of, let alone seen.
And soon, people began to take notice. Talk spread, in small circles at first, that maybe the WBL wasn’t quite as dead as it seemed. Dylan’s name began popping up in casual conversation almost as fast as her face popped up on the covers of all sorts of magazines, from torrid tabloids, to sporting journals, to such bastions of feminine fare as McCall’s, Mademoiselle, and Redbook.
As fans began to return to the arena in droves to see this new wunderkind, the endorsement deals began to roll in. Not only from the traditional standbys such as cosmetic and feminine protection companies, supporters of women’s sports for years, but real endorsements, from the famous makers of athletic apparel and sporting goods long known for their unsubtle wooing of whatever male athlete was hot at the moment.
Dylan took it all in stride, carrying the league on her broad shoulders and vaulting them all up through the glass ceiling and into the stratosphere of popularity, money, and celebrity.
A lucky man knows, however, that into every life a little rain must fall.
Mac’s storm cloud burst upon him in all its glory during the summer Olympics. The American Women’s Basketball Team had the gold medal won before they even left their own shores, and win it they did, but at a cost almost too high for any of them to pay.
The gold medal game was between the USA and Russia, a match up reminiscent of the famous men’s games back before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. As games went, it was a laugher, with the USA leading by almost forty points before the first half had even run out of minutes.
By all rights and common good sense, Dylan should have been warming the bench by the time the forth quarter rolled around. Fifty points was a lead even a group of vertically challenged pre-schoolers wouldn’t have problems holding onto. Especially with only four minutes left.
But America wanted to see her Goddess in action, and with just a minute and a half to go, disaster struck, as if from Mount Olympus itself. The Russians, who weren’t taking kindly to being used as cannon fodder, assembled quickly downcourt, and Dylan found herself pinned between two monoliths with murder in their eyes just as she’d gone up for one of her infamous jams.
When the dust cleared, the monoliths were out cold, and Pallas Dylan Lambert’s playing career was over.
When she woke up from surgery that pinned her broken femur, and repaired her ruptured Achilles tendon and shredded ACL, she was told that she might never walk again, and certainly not without a limp.
She proved them wrong, using the same focus and intensity of purpose she’d always employed to get what she wanted. Long before even the experts thought it was possible, she was not only walking without a limp, she was also running, and juking, and jumping, making it clear to one and all that she would be back as good as ever.
And that might have been true, had not her custom-made knee brace chosen to fail during what should have been a routine warm-up. Her still healing joint gave out, dumping her to the ground as her newly repaired and suddenly overstressed ligaments went the way of her brace and tore themselves to shreds once again.
The corrective surgery was simple enough, but when it was over, Dylan was left with one message.
Do it again, and you could lose your leg.
The owners of the Lightning, a consortium of old money gents from the deep south, panicked. Their team had held the championship title for five years, and if a sixth wasn’t a sure bet, a great number of people would be very angry. And anger from some of the more notorious investors would mean a great deal more than a nasty fan letter or two. Dark haired men in darker suits were experts at making their disappointments disappear. Permanently.
The fact of the matter was, however, that without their superstar, the Lightning was a mediocre team at best, more than capable of bringing up the league’s rear in any given season. The owners had become so miserly and lazy after Dylan’s signing that they hadn’t even drafted a competent backup for her, despite Mac’s loudly voiced objections, and instead spent their money on a plethora of short guards who were of no use to them now.
Seeing this, the rest of the league’s teams licked their chops like a pack of ravenous wolves with a dying elk in their midst. Trade offers were cut off at the knees as owners and general managers rubbed their hands together with glee, convinced that their ships had finally come in.
All, that is, except for one.
The Birmingham Badgers was a rookie expansion team chock full of cast-offs, over-the-hill rejects, and mildly promising rookies long on potential and short on experience. They weren’t planning on making any upward moves in the next few years, but no one seemed to mind. The Badgers had two things in abundance; money and time. What they didn’t have was a coach.
Thus, the wheels were set in motion for a trade the likes of which had only really been seen in the NFL. The Badgers dealt two of their power forwards—a crafty, if slow, veteran, and a young, somewhat talented rookie, plus their number four pick in the draft, all for the services of Pallas Dylan Lambert as the Badgers’ new head coach.
When Mac heard the news, he came as close to having a stroke as he hoped he’d ever get. All of his arguments, and he made quite a few, fell on deaf ears.
He tendered his resignation the day the deal was signed.
The Badgers accepted him with open arms the next day.
Which was why, two years later, he found himself sitting in the crowded stands at Madison Square Garden, watching Dylan Lambert watch ten young women run up and down a basketball court during the final game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship.
The game itself was an entertaining one, with the number one ranked University of Connecticut Huskies going up against the number two ranked University of Tennessee Lady Vols. The lead had changed hands two dozen times and halftime was still five minutes in the future. The young players were giving it their all, both for the glory of their schools, and for the eyes of whatever professional scouts happened to be watching.
Shifting uncomfortably in a seat much too small to hold his generous frame, Mac turned to his left to study Dylan’s profile as she stared, with hawk-like intensity, down onto the court. From the corner of his eye, he could see several fans staring at Dylan and whispering among themselves. Thus far, his glares had been enough to warn them off, but he knew that wouldn’t be the case for long.
Since her playing career had ended, Dylan’s public appearances had dwindled down to almost nil, by choice. Even so, she was a bigger draw than even the game the fans had paid good money to see, and things could get sticky for them both.
He shifted again. “Dylan…”
The piercing gaze swung his way, all put pinning him to his seat. Even after eight years, he still wasn’t used to it.
He cleared his throat and tried again. “Do you think we could get back up to the Sky Box now? They’re starting to watch you more than the game.”
He breathed a sigh of relief when Dylan’s gaze swung away to casually scan the crowd, then tightened up again when she looked back at him, a smirk firmly in place on her face.
“Aww, c’mon, D.,” he rushed on, desperate to get her to see things his way. “Remember last time you were out like this? They practically had to call in the National Guard to get us out of the mob scene! I’ve still got fingernail marks in places fingernails were never meant to be.”
“You can go up if you want.” Her voice was deep and warm, holding a slight note of affectionate teasing.
“Dylan…Mr. Johnson spent good money for that box. Don’t you think it would be a good idea to at least pretend you’re enjoying his generosity?” He knew he was whining, but somehow, he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
“Going corporate on me now, Mac?” The teasing note turned a bit wry, and Mac held back a wince by sheer will.
“You know that’s not true, D. It’s just…this crowd’s making me a little antsy, y’know?”
Dylan’s gaze swung away again, looking over the crowd. The intensity in her eyes caused all but the most ardent admirers to blanch and turn away. Her smirk broadened. “I’m comfortable where I am, Mac. G’wan back up. I’ll be along in awhile.”
“Excuse me, Dylan, but no way. If you’re so set on staying in the lion’s den, I’m staying with you. Somebody’s got to watch your back and it might as well be me.”
Shaking her head, Dylan turned her attention back to the court just as the halftime buzzer sounded. As the players began to file back toward their locker rooms, she leaned back in her seat and opened her program, idly leafing through its glossy pages.
Only when she noticed Mac’s tension reach the breaking point did she deign to look up. A large group of fans was headed purposefully in her direction and gaining steam as word spread swiftly that “the Goddess” was in their midst. Mac stood quickly, edging his burly body in front of her for protection. Though only an inch taller, he was double her weight, and would have made an effective shield if she had let him.
But Dylan Lambert was born knowing how to play the game, and with a smile more manufactured than genuine, she stepped from behind her living wall to greet her adoring public. Pulling a Sharpie from the inside pocket of her leather trench, she accepted the first program with grace and scrawled her signature before handing it back and accepting the next.
As if from behind a broken dam, the programs, basketballs, trading cards, T-shirts, hats, and the occasional bit of bared flesh came under the heavy caress of her pen. On and on it went until finally the arena’s security guards filtered down and dispersed the crowd back to their seats.
Heaving out a relieved breath, Mac plopped back down in his seat and took out a handkerchief, mopping his sopping brow. “God, I hate this shit,” he muttered, half under his breath.
Dylan gave him a fond clap on the shoulder, then turned back to the court as the players filed out from their locker rooms. Her gaze immediately zeroed in on one young woman from the Huskies who effortlessly caught a rifle-pass from her teammate and made a sweet shot from just past mid-court. Her teammates cheered as the ball went through the basket without touching the rim, and the young shooter pumped her fist as she ran toward the basket to rebound.
Mac straightened in his seat when he saw that smile bloom, and squinted against the bright lights in an attempt to see what had generated such an expression. It was an impossible task.
“What?” he finally asked.
Dylan turned away after a moment, and quickly leafed through her program until she came to the page she wanted.
“Her,” she said, tossing the program on his lap.
Mac looked down to see a fresh-faced, attractive green-eyed blonde woman staring back up at him, the grin on her face an interesting mixture of sweetness and deadly intensity. As he scanned her statistics, his heart first rose, than sank as her name rang a bell.
“She’s the best point guard in the game, Mac.”
“She’s also five foot five!”
“So? There are at least ten others in the league her height, and they’re doing just fine.”
“Yeah, but the difference is that those teams didn’t have any choice but to draft them! You’ve got the number one pick and a whole slew of point guards to choose from, Dylan! Why not Keisha Brown? She’s got a sweet shot, and she’s four inches taller!”
Mac sighed. “Well, what about one of the Jackson twins?”
“Both of them?”
“Both of them.”
“Nissa Tomalin? You have to admit she’s an outstanding player.”
“Sure she is. It’s her personal life that’s gone to hell.”
“She beat that rap, Dylan.”
“I said no, Mac. Catherine Hodges is the one I want. She’s got class, she’s got game, and she’ll make the Badgers into winners.”
Mac opened his mouth, then closed it again. What he had to say next made him feel all kinds of a bigot, but it needed to be said nonetheless. “Dylan…she’s gay.”
The blue eyes that turned to him had an expression that made his balls shrivel up. “Who she sleeps with is not my concern, Mac. What she does on the court is.”
“It might not be your concern, Dylan, but did you forget about the man who owns this team? The man who is, on issues like this, so far to the right that Pat Robertson looks like a Commie standing next to him? He’ll never go for this, not in a million years.”
“My orders are to turn this team into a winner. Without Hodges, that won’t happen. Period. Either he wants to win, or he wants to be an asshole. It’s his choice.”
Dylan turned in her seat, facing him directly, clearly annoyed. “Listen, Mac. You’re the General Manager. So do your goddamn job and convince him that I’m right on this.”
“How can I do that when I’m not even sure you’re right?!”
Dylan’s long arm flung out wide. “Look at her, damnit! Look at her play, then tell me with a straight face that there is anyone out there who even comes close to her.”
Though technically her superior, Mac knew an order when he heard one, and so obediently turned to watch the game in progress. Not more than a minute later, the diminutive Husky stole ball from her opposing point guard, dribbled the length of the court and fed a no-look pass to her trailing forward that would have made some members of the NBA green with envy.
Mac’s shoulders slumped. Dylan was right. Again. And though he loved her like the daughter he never had, he hated it that she was always right.
Dylan had the good grace not to smirk as Mac conceded his defeat by standing, head lowered. “I’ll talk to him, D. God knows I can’t promise anything, but I’ll talk to him.”
Her acceptance was gracious. “Thank you,” she said, simply and sincerely.
He nodded. “Now, will you please come up to the box with me??”
Grinning, she rose easily from her seat, twitching her coat into place and stepping into the aisle. As Mac began to climb the stairs toward the sky boxes, Dylan turned to stare, one last time, down onto the court, eyes narrowing as they tracked Catherine Hodges the length of the court and back.
Her smile bloomed again.
Catherine Frances Hodges, known as Hodge to her teammates, felt herself being carried along in the flow of an overjoyed crowd, heading back to the locker room. The cheers of the audience could still be heard in the background, but they were fading quickly, drowned out by the whoops and hollers of the players and staff making their way down the long, brightly lit hall.
Hodge could only grin like the cat that ate the canary as she toweled her face dry, made wet from the combination of sweat and some liquid that had been dumped on her when her teammates and most of the fans charged the court.
“Phe-fucking-nominal Hodge!” Kellie Wilkes, six feet of exuberant center, easily lifted the much shorter Hodges off the ground and carried her the rest of the way to the locker room.
As they burst through the door, the rest of the team and staff renewed their catcalls and cheering.
“Our hero!” Kellie yelled, spinning her friend around several times before returning her to the floor.
“Oh please,” Hodge grinned, trying to scrub the blush from her face as she waited for the world to stop spinning around her.
“Oh please is right!” Tonya Burns, power forward, stepped into the fray with a hairbrush-cum-microphone in her hand. “So, Catherine Hodges, your last second shot at the buzzer has taken you team into the history books with an NCAA Championship. What are you gonna do next?”
The small player laughed and looked at her friends standing around her. “I’m going to Disneyland!”
The room roared with laughter as congratulations continued to circulate. Each person took their turn clapping Hodge on the back, or snapping her rear end with damp towels, to the general hilarity of all.
Though she enjoyed the adulation of her teammates, and the pure adrenaline rush that came with winning the long-coveted title, Hodge found herself wishing for a shower. She was hot, she was sweaty, and she was sticky, and as soon as she found out who had upended a jug of Gatorade over her head, there would be hell to pay.
Until that time, however, a little alone time in a nice hot shower would do the trick nicely. Managing to slip away, she headed for the showers and was soon delighting in the feel of the hot water pounding her body and loosening muscles just beginning to stiffen. Bracing herself against the wall, she dropped her head and just let the water beat her neck and shoulders.
She groaned at the singsong sound of her name. Slowly she raised her head, spitting out the water flowing over her face. Opening her eyes she saw Marlie Edgars, one of the assistant coaches, grinning at her with an ‘I’ve got a secret’ expression.
“What’s up, Coach?”
“Did you by any chance notice who was in the crowd tonight?”
“I was kinda busy, Coach. You know, playing and all?”
“Smart ass. C’mon, try to guess.”
Grabbing the towel her coach held out to her, Hodge sighed and began drying her hair. “Hmmm about 35,000 of our biggest fans?”
“34, 999 of our biggest fans and,” she paused, grinning from ear to ear, “The Goddess.”
The towel was slowly lowered from her face, and a wide eyed kid looking every bit of twelve stared back at the coach. “You’re kidding me.”
“Nope. She was mid court, a few rows above floor level. Watching you like a hawk, short stuff.”
Hodge snorted. “Right, Dylan Lambert was here scoping out my talent tonight.” Green eyes rolled. “Come on Coach I won the game, why do you have to torture me?”
“I’m serious Hodge. Lambert was here and she was taking notes.”
“You are serious,” Hodge replied, her voice barely above a whisper.
“As a heart attack, kid.”
The coach grinned. “Congratulations, Kitty Cat. You just might be the first to go come draft day.”
So struck was she with the news, Hodge actually let the coach get away with using her detested nickname, which was, in and of itself, a minor miracle.
Edgars’ smile faded slightly, and she snapped her fingers in front of the young player’s face. “Hodge. Hodgie. Anybody home in there?”
“Huh?” Catherine’s head came up with a snap, and she blinked as if coming out of a daze.
“The press is gonna be coming in soon, kid. I know you could use the exposure, but I don’t think this is exactly the sort you had in mind. Maybe some clothes...?”
Hodge visibly drew herself together. “Uh..yeah. Right. Stall them for me, will you?”
“Sure, kid. And Hodge?”
“You were damn good out there. Way to go.”
Hodge’s smile threatened to split her face. “Thanks, Coach.”
Dylan tossed her keys on the small table to the right of the door, shifting out of the way as her two dogs, Siegfried and Brunhilde, bounded past and chased each other around the large foyer. Rolling her eyes at their antics, she stooped to retrieve her mail, idly leafing through the envelopes as she made her way through the parlor and into the rarely used kitchen.
“Junk, junk, a nasty letter from Manny, junk, and more junk.” Tossing the mail down on the chef’s island, she looked down at the dogs who were sitting at attention, awaiting their nightly meal. “Haven’t I taught you to kill the mailman yet?”
The large Dobermans stared back at her, heads cocked. Dylan snorted. “Some guard dogs you are.”
After filling their bowls with kibble, Dylan exited the kitchen and walked into the large, tastefully appointed living room. Chrome, glass, and modern art dominated the room, but did little to detract from its almost sterile air. Grabbing the remote from one chrome and glass end table, she switched on the large flat screen television which stood proudly between the two huge French doors facing the back of her property.
ESPN was replaying the closing seconds of the game she’d just seen, and she paused for a moment to watch Catherine Hodges sink the winning bucket as time expired. “Oh yeah,” she said softly to herself. “She’ll do nicely.”
A glance down at the phone caused her smug grin to fade. “Twenty two messages. Christ.” One long finger flipped through the caller ID display, deleting messages and the phone numbers attached to them with impunity. It was only when she got to the fifth call from Manny Blum, a pain in the ass disguised as her agent, that she pressed the “play” button, wincing as the whining voice came through the small speaker.
“Dylan, this is Manny. Remember me? The short, skinny guy who gets paid to represent you? We need to talk, sweetheart. Those Nike idiots aren’t getting any younger, and if I show up empty handed one more time, sweets, they’re gonna shove a size 14 golf spike up my ass, understand? C’mon, D, just call me, will ya?”
“Maybe I should call Nike and tell them to make it a size 16,” Dylan remarked to the air as her finger jabbed down on the “erase” button. She knew she’d eventually have to break down and call the little bastard, but she was deriving too much sadistic pleasure out of watching him twist in the wind to give in to the inevitable just yet.
She scowled at the next number displayed and, just for perversity’s sake, played the message.
“Dylan? Hi, this is Hunter.”
“Oh goody. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Dumb as a Rock.”
“I just wanted you to know that I had a great time last night.”
Dylan snorted. “That makes one of us.”
“And I was wondering if maybe we could do it again sometime.”
“When pigs fly.”
“I have a couple of passes to the premier of my new movie, Death by Desire. We could get together for that, if you want. Anyway, I guess that’s it. Just wanted to tell you I was thinking about you.”
“You can think without a brain. I’m impressed.”
“Night, Dylan. Sweet dreams.”
“Maybe, but not of you.” Shaking her head, she erased the message, chuckling softly to herself. “God, give me strength. I’d hate to have to hurt him.”
Brunhilde came bounding into the living room, followed close behind by her brother, and pressed her cold, wet nose into Dylan’s cloth covered belly. Dylan chuckled, giving both dogs a fond scratch behind the ear. “Alright, I get the picture. It’s 3 a.m. and you guys need your beauty sleep. Let’s get to bed.”
Upon hearing their favorite word, both dogs raced for the bedroom, leaving their mistress to turn off the television and lights, and follow behind.
Dylan’s bedroom was cool and calming, done up in various shades of blue. Her king sized bed beckoned invitingly, and she walked over to it, stepping over two sprawled canines as she stripped off her clothes before slipping, naked, between the soft cotton sheets.
Propping herself up on one elbow, she reached for the thick stack of dossiers laid atop her nightstand, and pulled them onto the bed. Sharp eyes danced across the lines she’d read a thousand times before. These young women were the best of the best, each one possessing a particular skill which would make her invaluable the team lucky enough to draft her.
And though she read each folio carefully, Dylan’s mind had been made up long before this night. She flipped to the last folder in the stack and smiled at the earnest green eyes staring back at her. She quickly scanned the already memorized statistics.
Five foot five, one thirty five, blonde hair, green eyes. Good health. Average student heading for a degree in elementary education. Mother, father, nine siblings all alive and living in Bridgeport Connecticut. Father a machinist in a textile plant. Mother a waitress in a greasy spoon. Supportive family. She didn’t smoke, she didn’t do drugs, she had no juvenile record. Good work ethic, glowing reports from all of her coaches. Her physical abilities spoke for themselves, but it was the person looking back at Dylan from behind those eyes that convinced the young coach that her decision was the right one.
Nodding with a sense of final satisfaction, Dylan closed the folder, replaced it on the stack, and moved the entire mess back onto her nightstand. A flick of a finger and the room was plunged into blackness.
A moment later, Dylan was asleep.
Hodge did her absolute best to ignore the merciless teasing at her expense. As if it were somehow her fault that that her very own personal hero, Dylan ‘The Goddess’ Lambert had been in the crowd.
“Would you guys just knock it off? I’m sure she was only there as a fan.”
“Riiiight.” Kellie gave her friend a gentle punch to the arm. “Sure she was.”
Tonya nodded her agreement. “Yeah, like Dylan Lambert doesn’t have better things to do than watch college ball. I read last week that she’s dating Hunter Locke.”
The other girls ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’. Several fanned their faces.
Tonya laughed. “You got that right, girlfriend. I just saw the promos for his new movie last week and if I had a choice between going to a stupid game and spending time with that wonderful hunk of man flesh, you know which one I’d choose.”
Laughter filled the air.
Hodge just shook her head. “Yeah.” She shouldered her backpack and continued toward the dorm. “Anyhow, I’m sure it was nothing.”
“Okay Miss Denial, this is where we part company. You are planning on going out with us tomorrow night to celebrate, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Kellie. I’ll catch you guys tomorrow.”
She watched as Tonya and Kellie split off and took another path across the quad. Once they were out of sight, she turned to continue her trek to her dorm.
Once in her room she tossed down her backpack and flipped on a small desk lamp. There was just enough light to cast the room in a warm glow and soft shadows. The room was a single she had been fortunate to get when resident registration had screwed up her housing assignment. In order to keep her from having a fit of gargantuan proportions right there in the office, the assistant director had made the executive decision to assign her this single, normally reserved for resident assistants.
The room was neat and very orderly. Everything had a place and everyplace had its thing. Hodge couldn’t stand clutter and this was one of the biggest reasons she was grateful for her single room. She had been forced to share a room with a woman the year before who was a total slob and it had driven her half out of her mind.
Pulling a bottle of water from the small fridge, Hodge flipped on the TV and dropped down to her bed, frowning as the abused springs poked her in places that were most definitely sore. She looked around the room at the pictures and posters hanging on the walls. Photos of her family had a place of honor at the foot of her bed so that her parents and younger siblings were the last things she saw at night and the first things she would see in the morning.
The rest of the room, however, was dominated by pictures and posters of some of her favorite basketball players. There were a lot of them, from various eras of the game, but her eyes where drawn to what some of her friends lovingly referred to as ‘the shrine’. Pictures, posters, T-shirts and trading cards dominated one entire wall, all bearing the face and form of one Pallas ‘The Goddess’ Lambert. Her favorite was a life-size poster of Lambert standing alone at center court, a faraway gaze in her piercing eyes. One hand perched on her hip, while the other cradled the basketball tucked under her arm.
To Hodge’s eyes, in that one perfect moment in time, the superstar veneer had faded, leaving a flesh and blood woman standing in her place. The image had captivated Catherine for years, and for some reason, staring at too long always left her with a strange sense of melancholia.
It was to this image that she spoke, her voice a subdued whisper.
“Regardless of what anybody thinks, I’m glad you got to see me play at least once Goddess. Thanks.”
She turned her attention to the TV where the weatherman was droning on about something she wasn’t particularly interested in, and very slowly her eyes dropped closed.
The sound of a ringing phone shocked Dylan out of a particularly pleasant dream, and she awoke to find herself pinned beneath the heavy weight of a dog who was aiding the wake up process by enthusiastically licking her face. “Brunhilde! God! Dog breath. Move it, you big oaf, before I turn you into dog puree!”
Voicing her displeasure with a loud groan, Brunhilde absented herself from the bed in a leisurely fashion, allowing Dylan to pick up the phone on its fifth ring.
Mac’s smug tones oozed through the phone. “You owe me, Lambert. Big. Not candlelight dinner big. Not front row Pacer’s tickets big. Diamond watch big.”
Sitting up, Dylan dry scrubbed her face with her hand, lips curling in disgust at the dog saliva coating her palm. “He go for it?”
“Hook, line, and sinker, my friend. He wants to see her at pre-draft camp, though. Up close and personal, so to speak.”
“Why? Isn’t he afraid her gayness might rub off on him?”
“Mac, the man’s a bigot. You know it, and I know it, so let’s stop beating around the bush, alright?”
“Hey, at least he’s willing to listen to reason. So now all we need to do is find out if she’s planning on going.”
Dylan sighed and shook her head. “Fine. Book us a flight for tomorrow morning and we’ll find out.”
Mac’s sigh was louder. “Dylan, you know I love you, but I do have a wife I haven’t seen in three weeks.”
“Make it three weeks and two days then, Mac. Your wheeling and dealing got us into this mess, you’re gonna help us get out of it.”
“Bye, Mac. See you tomorrow.”
As she hung up the phone, Dylan looked up at the ceiling, praying for strength. Then she pushed herself out of bed, scowled down at the two oh so innocent faces staring back up at her, and headed for the shower to begin what was left of the day.
The Rusty Bucket was a small, hole-in-the-wall tavern well known to the students of UCONN. Though it was a bit of a hike from the main campus, it had the reputation for being a little lax when it came to checking ID’s, and so was a hit with the underage crowd.
The interior was typical for a college dive. Dim and smoky, it had a long, badly abused bar, stools bleeding foam stuffing from mortal wounds, and a smattering of splintered and sticky tables set much too close together. The tiny dance floor was fronted by an even tinier stage from which local talent was invited to do its best to drive paying customers away.
This night, the local college sensation, Laying Rubber, was pounding out the atonal chords and drum riffs that passed for music among the eager young crowd. Their hit song “My Girlfriend is a Blow-Up Doll” was a particular favorite, and they played it so often that the bartender seriously considered rupturing his eardrums with his own icepick just so he wouldn’t have to hear it anymore.
All in all, it was the perfect place for Hodge, her friends, and their fans to let their hair down, celebrate their victory, and break the half-year long alcohol ban imposed upon them by their coaches.
Which was probably why, though the evening was scarcely two hours young, most of the young women were three sheets to the wind, and showing no signs of stopping.
Hodge never had been much of a drinker. She didn’t hold her liquor well, and there were goddesses other than the porcelain one that she’d much rather worship. Still, she figured that it wasn’t every day that a gal got to sink the winning basket in a championship game, and since it had happened to her, she figured such an event deserved a celebration.
She didn’t really know when she’d switched from beer to rum, nor exactly when the rum suddenly gained the taste and consistency of a jello shooter, but sometimes it was just best to go with the flow and refrain from asking questions whose answers were better off unknown.
Looking up from her latest shot, she noticed, for the first time, that she was alone at the table. Her gaze swung ponderously toward the dance floor where Kellie, Tonya and the rest of her friends were pressed up against a number of willing males in a pre-mating ritual they called “dancing”.
So intent was she in the drunken study of her friends that she nearly launched herself into orbit when a warm hand came down gently on her shoulder.
“Who? Wha--?” she blubbered, turning her head to the left in time to spy a particularly cute redhead staring down at her, a look of adoration in her eyes.
“Is this seat taken?” Redhead breathed.
Before Hodge could even work her brain around a particular answer, the young woman lowered herself down into the seat next to the basketball player and leaned forward so that their bodies were almost touching.
“Do I know you?” Hodge found herself asking a pair of very pert breasts. Normally, she wasn’t quite so rude, but her eyes seemed to have frozen in that particular spot. Maybe it was some strange side effect of the alcohol she’d been consuming. God only knew what they put in jello shooters anyway.
“Not yet, but you could if you wanted to.” The redhead flashed a sexy smile and slid a little closer. “Great game by the way. I’ve never missed a game when you’re playing.”
Finally able to drag her gaze up to a pair of twinkling gray eyes, Hodge smiled. “Basketball fan huh?”
“Not particularly. More of a Cat Hodges fan.”
The sober part of her brain looked on in horror at the developing situation. Though hardly a prude, she’d also never been the type to outwardly flirt with women, especially in straight bars. Her libido, however, aided by the alcohol, was firmly in control of the rest of her. “A fan, huh?”
“Oh yes. A very…big…fan.” Hodge’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when the redhead put a hand on her knee and slowly drew it upward. “Who would love the opportunity to pay you back for the hours of enjoyment you’ve given me.”
In a last ditch effort to bring her suddenly rebellious body back under control, Hodge pushed back and stood up, not even noticing as her chair toppled over backwards the moment it was free of her weight. “Air!” she squeaked. “I need air.”
With a tiger’s smile, the redhead stood and took Hodge’s hand. “What a wonderful idea. Let’s take a walk.”
Hodge looked desperately over her shoulder, but her friends were too busy searching for tonsil scars on their latest dates-du-jour to pay her any mind at all.
Then the redhead slid a sly thumb across Hodge’s sensitive palm, and she pretty much stopped thinking for good.
Hodge wasn’t sure how they ended up back at her dorm room, but by then she’d given up asking those sorts of questions. Her body craved what the redhead was offering and gleefully pounded the little voice of Catholic guilt in her head into silent submission.
Managing to get her key into the lock on the third try, she pushed the door open and made a gallant gesture with her hand to allow her date to enter first. Then she dropped her ‘Do Not Disturb, upon penalty of death’ sign on the knob and closed the door.
Turning, she stripped off her jacket and let it drop into a heap on the floor. “So Red, whaddya think?”
“I think I should help you get the rest of those clothes off so I can see that delicious body up close and personally.”
“Sounds good to me.” Hodge had a stupid grin on her face as she walked to the bed.
The ringing phone went through Hodge’s head like a dentist’s drill. She would have covered her ears had her hands not been trapped beneath….something. The ring came again, and she dragged her eyes open, then shut them immediately as the light streaming through the window set what was left of her brain on fire.
“Oh god, just kill me now,” she mumbled, finally yanking her hands free, and managing to reach the phone just as it stopped its infernal jangling.
Her eyes slitted open, carefully this time. She froze as it became readily apparent that the “something” which had trapped her hands was a very warm, very naked female body pressed tightly against her.
“Ohhh shit,” she breathed, lifting the sheet to find that she was as naked as her guest. “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.”
She looked around her room, trying not to turn her head too much, and found various articles of clothing strewn about. Very briefly she wondered if that was her bra hanging off the mini basketball hoop over the bathroom door.
The phone rang again. “What!” she growled into the mouthpiece, and immediately regretted it. Her head spun from the sound of her own voice.
The mocking tones of the dorm’s RA, Cookie Reese, filtered through the handset, adding nausea to the list of complaints Hodge’s body was voicing. “Hate to disturb you and your ‘date’, Kitty.”
“Don’t call me that.”
A snicker. “There some guy named Mac here to see you.”
Hodge looked down at her bedmate, who was finally coming awake. “Your boyfriend no doubt, here to kick my ass.”
Another snicker. “Wrong, sweetie. This guy says he’s from some basketball team or something.”
She sat up ramrod straight, her face paling to the color of curdled milk. “What?!?!?”
Cookie heaved a dramatic sigh. “For goodness’ sake, Kitty, were you so hot to get laid last night that you didn’t listen to the message I left you? I told you he would be here this morning.”
Slowly turning her head, Hodge looked down at the phone whose red message indicator was flashing urgently. “Ohhhh shit.”
“Better get some clothes on, love. I’m sending him down right now.”
Hodge stared at the phone as if it had suddenly grown fangs, then slammed it down. “Shit! Shit! Get up! Get up now!”
Jumping out of bed, Hodge grabbed the tangled sheets and pulled. The redhead tumbled to the floor with a startled squawk. Hodge ran around the room gathering up her guest’s clothing, then pulled the indignant young woman up by her arm and shoved the bundle into her chest.
“Get in the closet and don’t make a sound till I tell you it’s ok.”
Turning away without waiting for an answer, Hodge grabbed her own clothes and started shoving her limbs into them, almost tripping herself as she tried to stuff two legs into the same hole. “Shit!”
Finally she managed to dress herself in wrinkled clothes that stank of smoke and stale beer. Grabbing her brush, she pulled it through the tangled mess of her hair, then gave up and pulled it behind her head in a ponytail. She stiffened as she glanced quickly into the mirror and spied the redhead, still naked, and still staring at her, bewildered.
A knock on the door sounded a split second later.
“Just a minute!” she managed to get out in a voice that sounded more like a frog’s dying croak than anything else.
Turning on her heel, she grabbed her date’s clothing bundle and shook out the dress she’d been wearing the night before. “Put your arms up.”
“Arms up! Now!”
Still bewildered, the young woman did as she was told, and Hodge yanked the material down over her arms and head. “There. No go sit down at my desk and pretend you’re studying or something.”
“Please, please do as I say. Please!”
The knock sounded again.
Praying she’d somehow wake up from this nightmare she was trapped in, Hodge walked over to the door, twisted the lock, and pulled it open.
A huge man filled the open space, staring down at her with a polite smile on his face. “Catherine Hodges?”
“Um…yes. Yes, that’s me. Can I help you?”
“My name is Mac MacKenzie. I’m with the Birmingham Badgers.” His voice trailed off as he looked into the disheveled room. “Have I come at a bad time? Your Resident Assistant told me you’d be available this morning.”
“Oh. No…no….you’re fine. We were just…studying.” She looked over her shoulder at the redhead, who hadn’t moved an inch. “Right….?”
There was a sick smile on her face as she turned back to the door. “We have finals next week.”
Mac looked at her doubtfully. “I can come another time, if….”
“No! No, please, it’s fine. Phyllis was just leaving. Weren’t you, Phyllis.”
Finally, the redhead moved from her spot. “Yes, that’s right. Just leaving. We’re all through…studying…for today.” Walking forward, she made sure to brush by the sweating Hodge. “Give me a call later if you want to study some more, ok?”
“Yeah. Sure. Fine. Just…go now, ok?”
Mac stepped out of the way, and Phyllis left, but not before bestowing a lewd wink on Hodge.
“Please,” Hodge said sickly, “come in.”
Hodge pulled the door wider and moved aside as Mac ducked into the room. Once he had fully entered, she swung the door closed, only to find its forward progress halted halfway. Angered at the thought that her pushy bedmate had returned to embarrass her further, she swung around the door, ready to raise hell.
And stopped dead in her tracks.
Pallas Dylan Lambert stood in the doorway like a vision from a fevered dream. Wearing black slacks, a crisply starched white shirt, and her everpresent black leather trench coat, her glittering eyes were the only points of color to be seen.
Those eyes flicked past the frozen young woman to where Mac was standing, trying to cover his grin with the back of his hand. Dylan returned her gaze to Hodge. An elegant eyebrow rose.
“May I come in?”
If Hodge hadn’t been holding onto the door, she would have collapsed into an undignified, boneless heap on the floor. This is just a dream. It has to be. Because nowhere in any of Father McCarthy’s homilies did I ever hear him say that someone can be sent to heaven and hell at the same time.
Even though she knew it wasn’t true, just the possibility that all this might be the aftereffect of a night of boozing gave her the strength to straighten up and release the door. She even managed a smile.
“Yes, please come in.” Her voice sounded human. This was good.
Ducking her head slightly, Dylan entered the room, quickly scanning the small space as she did so. Other than the disheveled bed, which could be excused, the room was neat and well ordered, which told her a great deal about the woman living there.
Clearing his throat, Mac stepped to the side, presenting Dylan with an eyeful of…herself. Her image covered every inch of available space on the large wall. The pictures captured every stage of her playing career, from her high school days through to the Olympics. There was even her rookie card, autographed and released in such limited quantities that she’d heard it had become a rather valuable collector's piece.
She looked back over her shoulder to see a deer caught in the headlights staring back at her. Dylan couldn’t help but smile.
Hodge found it hard to talk through the dryness in her throat. “I…you….” She sighed. “You’re my favorite player,” she finally admitted in a small voice, wondering if it was physically possible to die from embarrassment.
Dylan decided to give the young woman a break. It was quite obvious that somehow the communications had crossed somewhere along the line and she hadn’t been expecting them. Dylan also had a hunch that whatever had happened in this room before they’d entered, it wasn’t something that occurred on a regular basis.
Decision made, Dylan crossed to the desk, pulled out the chair, and slid gracefully down into the seat so as to make herself less imposing to the much smaller Catherine. “I watched you play on Thursday. You’re very good.”
Dylan thought, privately, that Catherine’s blush was rather charming, but elected to keep that particular bit of information to herself.
“Thank you,” Hodge replied, forcing herself to relax. “It was a lot of fun.”
Dylan smiled. “Fun. I seem to remember that feeling.”
Hodge cocked her head. “Basketball isn’t fun for you anymore?”
“It can be,” Dylan replied smoothly. “It’s also a good deal of work. Particularly when you’re striving for a championship.”
“Yes, I guess it would be.”
The room fell silent for a moment. Mac decided to spur the conversation along. “We were wondering if you were planning on attending pre-draft came in Minneapolis this year.”
Hodge looked startled. “Well, yes, I was planning on going. Why? Is something wrong?”
Mac held up his hands. “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s just…as Dylan’s already mentioned, you were pretty impressive in that game against the Vols. Pre-draft camp will give us, and everyone else, a chance to evaluate your skills under many different sets of circumstances.”
Hodge nodded. Mac wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t know already.
“Not everyone participates, though,” Dylan continued. “Some don’t want to risk a chance of injury. Others believe that their selection is a foregone conclusion.”
“Sort of like an actor who thinks he’s too good to audition for a part?” Hodge asked.
“Something like that, yes,” Dylan replied, grinning.
“Well, pardon me for saying so, but that just doesn’t make much sense.” Forgetting for a moment exactly who she was talking to, Hodge became much more animated as her thoughts received free rein. “I mean, maybe it would if we were all professional superstars or something, but we’re not. We’re just a bunch of college kids looking for a job, just like everyone else. I mean, if I didn’t have basketball and had to get by on my teaching degree, I really don’t think I’d just walk into some elementary school somewhere and say ‘Hire me. I’m good.’”
Mac and Dylan looked at one another and broke out in identical grins. The young woman’s enthusiasm and openness were definitely points in her favor.
Realizing she’d just gone on a tear, Catherine pulled up short, and her blush appeared again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…um….”
Mac laughed. “That’s quite alright, Catherine. As you probably already guessed, one of the reasons we’re here is to get to know a little bit about you as a person. The woman behind the basketball player, in other words.”
Hodge’s face fell. “Oh. I guess I didn’t do so well in that department,” she said, more to herself than to her two visitors.
Mac shot Dylan a “this one’s all yours” look. Dylan rolled her eyes and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “That’s not necessarily true.”
Hodge’s normally vibrant eyes were dull and clouded. “No? From where I’m standing it is. I mean, a professional basketball team goes out of its way to send its head coach—who also happens to be somewhat of an idol of mine—and its general manager here to evaluate my personality. And here I am in yesterday’s clothes, probably stinking like stale smoke and cheap booze, caught in my room with a woman whose name I don’t even know. If this doesn’t go down in the record books as the worst first impression in history, I’m not sure what will.”
Dylan chuckled. “Well, I’ll admit that it isn’t the best one you could have made, no. But even under an enormous amount of pressure, you’ve managed to acquit yourself surprisingly well. And that’s the kind of player we’re looking for. Someone who doesn’t crumble when the going gets tough. That kind of person won’t lead a team to the championship.”
Hodge stared at her, wide-eyed.
“Besides, I get the impression that whatever happened here wasn’t a routine thing.”
Hodge couldn’t help but laugh a little. “You’ve got that right.”
Dylan’s gaze softened, as did her tone. “We all make mistakes. It’s how we learn. How you respond to those mistakes is what counts with me. And frankly, I think you responded pretty well.”
“Really?” The awe was back in Hodge’s voice, but this time, she didn’t feel embarrassed.
Dylan smiled. “Really.” Shooting a quick glance to Mac, she stood. “We’ll see you at pre-draft camp, then?”
A radiant grin lit Hodge’s face. “You bet!”
Reaching out, Dylan gently clasped Hodge’s hand in her own. “It was very nice to have met you, Catherine. Thanks for letting us talk to you.”
Reveling in the warmth of the large hand, Hodge looked up and was caught in the mesmerizing blue of Dylan’s eyes. “No,” she breathed. “Thank you.”
With a final nod, Dylan released the handclasp, and with a look, collected Mac. A moment later, both were gone, leaving a completely stunned Catherine Hodges staring at the now closed door and cradling her hand against her chest.
Mac managed to make it to the rental car before he collapsed, laughing so hard tears sprung into his eyes. Dylan patted him companionably on the back as choked out the last of his hysteria.
“Oh my god,” he wheezed. “Did you see the look on her face when she opened the door?” The memory sent him off into another gale of laughter.
Dylan could only roll her eyes and wait out the storm.
When Mac was finally able to loosen his cramped stomach muscles enough to lean back in the seat, he wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and turned to Dylan. “You know, if Johnson was with us, that would have been the end of any dream you might have had of drafting her.”
“Johnson isn’t with us, and he’s not gonna hear about this. Ever.”
Mac nodded. “Not from me. Mum’s the word.” Somehow, that set off another laughing spell.
Shaking her head, Dylan started the car and shifted into reverse. “Let’s just get the hell out of here before you have a stroke.”
And so they went.
Hodge stood in the sidelines with the rest of the women chosen to show what they could do in hopes of finding a spot with the Birmingham Badgers or one of the other pro teams present.
The camp was in its third day, and Hodge was looking forward to actually playing some basketball. The previous days had had the young women poked, pricked and prodded, weighed and measured, and generally treated like prime horseflesh. She’d run windsprints till it felt as if her lungs were going to exit through her ears, covered two miles in a very respectable time, and had shown off her vertical leaping abilities like some sort of demented kangaroo.
Today was the day to show what she could do on the court, and she was awaiting it with eager anticipation. She made sure to check everyone out, sizing up the competition. Seven other point guards had been invited to attend the pre-draft camp, including Hodges’ nemesis, Keisha Brown of the Stanford Cardinal. Topping Hodge in height, weight and attitude, Keisha was a woman who believed her own hype. And, early in the season when Brown was selected by most to go first in the draft, that hype seemed well founded.
Hodge’s late stretch run, however, cast what was once a certainty into the deep shadows of doubt.
Moving a bit away from the rest, Hodge began her warm up routine, every now and then casting what she hoped were covert glances toward the bench area, where Dylan and Mac stood. Dylan appeared to be in full “head coach” mode; focused and intent on the job at hand.
Which was fine with Hodge, since she knew from previous experience that if their glances so much as crossed, she’d be reduced to a blushing schoolgirl once again. And that wouldn’t do at all. After their near disastrous and completely embarrassing first meeting she decided that it was absolutely imperative that she concentrate entirely on the tryout. She had to prove to The Goddess that her decision to ask her to compete was not a bad one.
Of course, she had made a solemn vow never to be caught in a situation like that again. Even if it meant given up women forever. Well, maybe forever was a bit of a stretch, but at least until Pallas Dylan Lambert and the Birmingham Badgers were out of her life.
Decision made, Hodge hit her warm up routine with gusto, stopping only when she felt a presence looming over her. She straightened, looking up into the dark, flashing eyes of Keisha Brown.
“I seen you eyeballing Lambert over there, shorty. Just keep lookin’, girl, cause that’s the closest you’re ever gonna get.”
Hodge easily stood her ground. “Think so, huh?”
Brown beamed. “Oh, honey, I know so.” With that, Brown moved swiftly by, making sure to slam Hodge hard with her shoulder as she passed.
The whistle blew, and the camp’s directors filed out onto the court, basketballs in hand.
“Okay ladies, listen up. Now’s your chance to show our esteemed guests what you’re really made of.”
Hearty cheering echoed through the gymnasium.
“First up are shooting drills. When I call your name, go to the ball racks and start shooting. One shot per rack. The whistle will tell you when time’s up. Good luck. Brown! You’re up.”
Hodge took in a deep breath to settle the butterflies in her stomach. Looking around, she could see other women wiping sweating palms on their shorts and shifting nervously foot to foot, anxious to prove their worth to the coaches. Perversely, this made the butterflies in her own stomach vanish entirely.
When her turn came, Hodge trotted up to the first rack and began shooting without an ounce of nervousness.
Dylan took a seat courtside, rather than in the benches set aside for the staff members. She wanted to watch the women play, not sit around and talk about what color new Mercedes some half-assed coach had just bought with a bonus they didn’t deserve. She was here to do a job, not schmooze and eat the free buffet.
The recruiting class was a good one, chock full of talent at all positions. While Dylan carefully scrutinized each woman, right down to her shoe size, she made no bones about the fact that one player in particular drew her interest.
“So that’s Super Girl, huh?”
Dylan had the good sense to roll her eyes and keep her groan to herself before she turned around to face Horace Johnson, the owner of the Badgers. A shade under six feet tall, he fashioned himself a JR Ewing type, right down to the Stetson. His protuberant belly hung listlessly over his belt, and his suit jacket was a size too small. The cologne he all but bathed in was enough to raise the dead, and Dylan found herself stifling a sneeze.
“She’s short.” Johnson observed, past the toothpick he was chewing because his damn doctor told him to quit smoking.
“She compensates for that with her abilities.”
“She’s young.” He plucked the toothpick from his mouth and made a sucking noise through his teeth that made Dylan want to slap him.
“No younger than anyone else here, and older than a few.”
Dylan dropped her head then looked back up at the man, sighing softly before speaking. “She’s gay. And that has no impact on her ability to play basketball.”
“Don’t like queers.”
“I don’t imagine they’re real fond of you either.” Dylan mumbled.
“I said it shouldn’t matter. Her talent is amazing and if you want me to give you a winning team, you’ll let me draft her.”
Squinting his beady, close-set eyes, Johnson made a show of examining the young woman in question.
“Make you a deal, then.”
Dylan tried not to look annoyed. “What?”
“I’ll let you draft the little Sodomite on two conditions.”
Dylan looked over to Mac, who was standing out of the line of fire. Mac shrugged. Dylan glared at him, then returned her attention to the owner. “And they are?”
“First, you’re completely responsible for her behavior. I don’t want her caught in some queer nightclub and I sure as hell don’t want her marching in any gay pride parades.”
“And number two?”
“I want you to go out with Hunter Locke again. This team gets damn fine publicity when you two go out together.”
Dylan's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Since when did I become your corporate whore, Horace?"
The toothpick rolled again. "Why, since the day you signed my contract, darlin. You want that queer little filly in your stable, you gotta put out. Got to give me what I need."
"And a championship isn't enough for you?"
Johnson hooked his thumbs through his belt and pretended to think on it. "Nope. Guess it isn't."
As he turned to her, her fists closed against the urge to slap that smirk off his face.
"So, we got a deal?"
Dylan gritted her teeth. "Fine."
Johnson sniffed, trying to give a superior air that he didn’t have. It was all Dylan could do to keep from quitting her job, punching him in the nose and ramming her booted foot up his ass, not necessarily in that order.
She was very relieved when he jammed his toothpick back in his mouth left the gym, in search of his free meal.
“Asshole.” She mumbled as she turned her attention back to the court.
Mac quietly slid up next to her. “Well, that went well, huh?”
Dylan gave him a look hot enough to smelt metal.
“Or not,” Mac replied, swallowing hard and scratching the back of his neck. “I’m…just gonna….” His voice trailed off as he gestured weakly toward the stands where the others were sitting.
“You do that.”
Hodge listened carefully as one of the camp directors explained the three-on-three drill. The large group had been split into teams of three, two forwards and a guard. They’d play a half court game to eleven points, one point per basket. Four games would go on simultaneously on the two courts.
When the director called out the names for the first two teams, Keisha Brown smirked. “You and me, shorty. You and me. You’re goin’ down, Kitty Cat.”
Hodge didn’t let the use of her nickname bother her. Nor did she so much as flinch when Brown rifled the ball into her belly from less than three feet away. Instead, she grinned, gathered her teammates around her, and planned a strategy for the game.
The two teams were very evenly matched, and after twenty minutes, the score was tied, 10 – 10. Keisha, ball in hand, smirked at Hodge. “Take a look at this face, baby. It’s gonna be famous.”
The whistle blew, and Brown shot a pass over Hodge’s head to one of her forwards. Hodge’s teammates closed quickly, guarding against an easy shot. The forward passed the ball back to Brown, who dribbled it easily, still smirking.
Faking to her left, Brown went right with a lazy, over-confident stride. Hodge waited, backing slowly up and watching the ball like a hawk. Then, using a quickness startling to anyone who didn’t know her well, her left hand darted out and tipped the ball away. Stepping easily around Brown, she gained possession of the ball and brought it back to half court.
A nod, and her teammates went into motion. As Brown, teeth grit tight in anger, came up to guard, Hodge dribbled once, then passed to the forward cutting across the top of the key. The forward stopped, turned, and shot, but the ball bounced off the rim and into an opposing player’s hands.
Brown had the ball again at half court, her grin firmly back in place. “Let’s see if you can do that again, Kitten.”
Brown had one of the fastest first steps in the game, and this time she made it count, blowing by Hodge, who was forced to turn and run. A lane was cleared, and Brown dribbled forward, headed into the paint for what looked to be an easy, game winning lay-up.
Hodge slid into place beneath the basket, and froze. Brown charged into her, knocking her to the ground hard as she shot.
The whistle blew. “Charging! No basket.”
Angered beyond reason, Brown slammed her foot into Hodge’s chest. “Stay down, bitch!”
Hodge rolled to her feet, eyes blazing green fury as she tried to get her wind back. Her arms were immediately grabbed from behind by one of her teammates. Brown was grabbed in a similar manner as the referee stepped in between them, blowing her whistle repeatedly.
“Go home and eat out your girlfriend, dyke!” Brown shouted, struggling to break free from the arms holding her.
Dylan flew over the railing dividing the stands from the court, the sounds of her boot heels slamming on the varnished wood heard even above the yelling of the crowd.
“Grab your things and go, Keisha!” the ref snarled, grabbing the young woman by the front of her jersey. “You’re outta here!”
“You can’t kick me out! You can’t fuckin kick me out!!”
Two of the staff grabbed the young woman’s arms and began leading her off of the court.
“Wait!” Hodge said, yanking herself free of her own set of restraining hands.
The referee looked at her.
“It’s alright. Things just got a little heated, but it’s okay.” She paused, looking toward Dylan, who slowed to a stop some feet away. “Please. Let her stay.”
“We can’t do that, Cat,” the referee said, not unkindly. “She broke the rules. She needs to go.”
“Please,” Hodge said softly, still looking at Dylan. “Give her a second chance.”
Dylan stared into Hodge’s eyes for a very long moment. The gymnasium was silent.
Finally, Dylan looked over to the ref, and gave a slight nod. The referee sighed. “Fine. Go to the showers and cool off, Keisha. You can come back tomorrow, but you’re done for today.”
Hodge smiled. “Thank you,” she mouthed to Dylan, who gave her a short nod before turning and leaving the court.
Hodge stepped out of the shower and into the empty locker room, gingerly toweling her hair. There was a lump the size of an egg on the back of her head and it throbbed like a rotting tooth. As she passed by a mirror, she stopped and looked at herself. A large bruise was forming between her breasts. She winced.
“Way to go, Cat,” she whispered to her reflection. “One day in front of the important folks, and you look like you’ve been through a war. But hey! At least you didn’t break anything vital.” She hissed as her towel touched the knot in her head. “I hope.”
Chuckling to herself, she toweled dry as best she could, and pulled on her street clothes. Stuffing her uniform into her duffel, she slung it over her shoulder and headed for the darkened gymnasium.
She felt another’s presence before she saw it, and stiffened when Keisha Brown came into view. Brown moved forward until there was less than a foot separating them.
“Don’t think this squares things between us, bitch,” Brown hissed. “You’re just takin’ longer to dig your own grave, that’s all. I’ll get drafted first whether I get kicked out of here or not. Remember that.”
“Why are you doing this?” Hodge asked, careful not to show her discomfort.
“Because I’m the best. You get that? The best, and no two bit wannabe player is gonna take that away from me.”
Hodge held in a groan of pain as Brown pushed a hand against her bruised chest.
“I can take you down anytime I want to, Kitty Cat. Anytime I want to.”
“Think you can take me down?”
Both women started at the deep, smooth voice that floated in from the shadows.
Brown spun, and she gasped as she stared up into the flickering blue eyes of a woman who topped her by over eight inches. “C-Coach Lambert!”
“You didn’t answer my question, Keisha. You wanna take me down?” A smile curled Dylan’s lips.
The kind that made all the spit in Brown’s mouth dry up. “I-we-we wuz just talkin’, that’s all.”
“Is that so.”
“Yeah,” Brown replied, laughing weakly. “Honest.”
Dylan stepped fully into the meager light cast by the locker room, causing Brown to shrink back in fear. “A liar and a bully. Nice. I’m sure some team is gonna consider themselves real lucky to get such a prize.”
“Get outta here, Brown. Now.”
As Keisha scampered away, Dylan looked Hodge carefully over. “You alright?”
“Yes,” Hodge replied. “Just wasn’t meant to be my lucky day, I guess.”
The corner of Dylan’s mouth turned up. “Oh, I don’t know about that. You managed to set a record in the shoot around, won all your three-on-three games, and talked me into breaking the rules and letting that little thug stay on. All in all, not a bad showing.”
Hodge laughed, then stopped abruptly, one hand going to her head while the other covered her chest. “Ow.”
Dylan looked down at her, concerned. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah. The trainer looked me over. I’m just a little bruised. I think I’ll live, though.”
“Alright. Are you headed back to the hotel?”
“I’ll walk you to your car then. C’mon.”
Dylan shortened her strides so that her smaller companion could keep up with her as they walked through the gym and into the chilly Minneapolis night. Hodge stumbled as they stepped from the sidewalk onto the paved parking lot, but quickly righted herself. Her head spun from the effort.
Hodge nodded. “Just a little, when I tripped. It’s okay now, though.”
“Let’s not take any chances. I’ll drive you back to the hotel, alright?”
“No, no,” Hodge demurred. “I’m fine. Really.”
“And I’m driving you to the hotel. You can get a ride back with one of the players in the morning.”
Hodge really couldn’t do anything at that point but give in. “Ok,” she said simply, allowing Dylan to lead her to the rental parked close by.
The ride to the hotel was made in silence. Dylan, by nature, wasn’t much of a conversationalist. And Hodge, who was, found that the close presence of the woman she idolized managed to wither away every single thought in her head.
Unable to speak, Hodge contented herself with catching glimpses of Dylan’s chiseled profile as the car moved in and out of bars of light created by the passing streetlamps. Hodge had always thought her incredibly beautiful—who wouldn’t?—but in person this was even more true. Dylan had a charisma that cameras captured well, but cameras couldn’t hold a candle to seeing her in real life. She had a physical presence that went far beyond her unusual height or her looks. It rolled off of her in waves, and Hodge was quite happy to be caught in the undertow.
Dylan was quite aware of the scrutiny. It had been a part of her life for so many years, she all but forgot what it was like not to be seen as if from under a microscope’s lens. She’d learned very early that to have any type of privacy at all, she would have to hide within the glass bubble of her own popularity. It was a lesson she learned well.
The hotel came quickly into view, and Dylan found a parking space very near the front. Shutting down the engine, she exited the rental and popped the trunk, withdrawing Hodge’s duffle and handing it to her. Together, the two women walked into the nearly empty lobby.
The doors to the elevators opened as if by magic, and they entered, pressing the buttons for their respective floors. When the doors opened on five, Hodge turned to Dylan. “Well, this is where I get off. Thanks…for helping me out back there. And for making sure I was alright.”
Dylan smiled at the slight blush that colored Hodge’s cheeks. “You’re welcome.”
“Well…I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“You will. Be sure to ice yourself down, or those bruises will get worse.”
“Don’t worry. I will.” There was an awkward pause. “Well…goodnight, Coach Lambert.”
“Goodnight, Catherine. Sleep well.”
Dylan walked into her room to see Mac lounging in her living area, in his skivvies, his feet propped up on the table and a bottle of beer in his hand. The television was tuned to a decades old pro game on ESPN Classic, and the door that connected their adjoining suites was wide open.
He saluted her with his beer as she passed.
“How nice of you to make yourself at home, Mac.”
Mac chuckled. “Reception’s better in here.”
Snorting at the lie, Dylan removed her coat and draped it over the ottoman before stepping into the bathroom to change.
“Everything alright with the kid?”
“She’s twenty two, Mac. Hardly a ‘kid’.”
“You know what I mean. Is she alright?”
“She’s fine,” Dylan replied, walking back into the room in her bra and briefs, causing Mac to choke on his beer.
“Jesus, D! You wanna warn a guy before you do that! You trying to give me a heart attack or something?”
Dylan rolled her eyes. “You’ve seen me in a whole lot less than this.”
“Yeah, but at least I was prepared for it! God!”
Walking over to her suitcase, she pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of black sweatpants. “Better?”
Mac looks up at the long, lean, muscled form outlined by the snug clothing. “Not much,” he choked, earning him a swat to the arm.
Dylan eased herself down on the couch next to Mac, propped her feet up, and caged a swig of his beer before handing the bottle back. “Now, television reception aside, why are you darkening my doorstep at this late hour?”
Mac shrugged. “Just wanted to see how the ki—I mean Ms. Hodges was doing.”
“Couple bruises, a knot on the head, but otherwise, alright. Our little thug was sniffing around again.”
“Oooh,” Mac replied, wincing in sympathy. “Did you call the janitors in to hose off the blood spot you turned her into?”
“Nah. She figured it was in her own best interests to take a hike.”
Mac snickered. “Knew there was a brain in there somewhere. I’m glad to know Hodges is ok.”
Dylan grinned. “Growing on you, is she?”
“She’s alright,” Mac allowed. Putting his beer on the table, he shifted to face her, his expression suddenly serious. “What are you going to do about Johnson?”
“I’ll deal with him. In my own way.”
“But what about Hodges? I mean, I get the impression that she’s not exactly in the closet. How’s she going to take to this?”
“I’m going to have a talk with her before draft day. Every team’s contracts have the same morality clause. Hers won’t be any different. We’ll deal with it then.”
“I know you will.”
They settled into a comfortable silence, then, and watched television until they were both yawning. Mac took himself off to his own room, and Dylan slid beneath the covers, asleep almost as soon as she hit the pillow.
It was a week later, and Hodge was curled up in her blankets, feeling warm and safe and very relaxed. She could smell bacon and eggs and fresh coffee, and her stomach growled, reminding her how good it was to be home.
She opened her eyes to find the familiar surroundings of her own bedroom, or at least what had been her bedroom before she moved away to college. Now it was the haven of her oldest brother, who had easily given it up to her for the few weeks she’d be staying. The bedroom she’d remembered had morphed into that of a typical teenage boy, a little messy, and strewn with posters of the latest rock stars and bikini clad sex kittens. But it was still home, and that was all that mattered.
Outside, she could hear the boisterous shouts of her brothers as they pursued their favorite Saturday morning pastime—basketball.
Rolling out of bed, she moved to the window and lifted it, sticking her head out to confirm that there was a mean game of Horse going on below her. “Morning guys.”
“Hey Kitty Cat!” Her father stopped in mid shot to greet her.
She smiled; the only person on the planet who could get away with that nickname was her dad.
Her bothers all joined in yelling at her, encouraging her to come down and play ball with them.
“In a little bit. I need coffee.”
“You shouldn’t drink coffee, big sister, it’ll stunt your growth.” her oldest brother, Michael called up as he stole the ball from his father.
“Don’t give up your day job, Mike,” was her droll reply as she closed the window and turned to grab her clothes.
Once dressed, she headed downstairs to the kitchen, drawn on by the savory scents of her mother’s cooking. As soon as she entered the room, her mother pressed a steaming cup of coffee in her hand, and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“Good morning sweetheart.”
“Did you sleep well?” the older woman asked as she went back to preparing breakfast for her troop.
“Like a rock,” she replied, taking a long sip of coffee. “Mm. This is good.”
She slid into her seat at the table, and immediately noticed the morning paper, which was opened to the employment page. Her mother had obviously been hard at work. Various teaching jobs were circled in bright red ink. With a silent sigh, she shook her head and put her cup down on the table, deciding to ignore the blatant hint until she’d woken up more.
Hodge’s mother frowned as she placed a plate of bacon and eggs before her daughter, noticing the ignored paper. Turning, she made her way back to the stove. “I ran into Mrs. Culpepper today at the beauty parlor,” she mentioned in an offhand voice.
Hodge winced, then dug into her food. “How’s she doing?”
“As well as can be expected, given her age.”
“Mom! She’s hardly ancient.”
“No, but she’s getting close to retirement age. She’s going to need a good, dependable teacher to take her place when she leaves.”
Hodge shoved another forkful of eggs into her mouth, refusing to be baited. “And I’m sure she’ll get one, when the time comes.”
Marion Hodges laid down her spatula and turned toward the table. “Catherine, you’ve been home for almost a week now. I’m not trying to push you out of the nest or anything, but don’t you think it’s time you thought of your future?”
“Mom, I am thinking about my future. Every minute of every day. Believe me.”
“Mother, we’ve been having this argument every day since I’ve gotten home. I know you only want what’s best for me, but you have to realize that I want that too.”
“I know, honey, but basketball….”
“Is what I want to do with my life, Mom. If I can.” Laying her knife and fork back down on the table, she faced her mother directly. “Mom, Dylan Lambert herself came down to invite me to camp. She thinks I’m good and you know she was the best.”
“Yes she was the best and look what happened to her. She was injured and now…”
“And now she’s a head coach. Besides that’s not going to happen to me.”
“Do you suppose the great and mighty Dylan Lambert had the same conversation with her mother?”
“Mom…” Hodge whined and let her head drop to the table.
To her great relief her dad and bothers came charging into the kitchen in search of food. The need to feed her family soon distracted the elder woman from nitpicking at her daughter.
Matthew, third eldest at 14, sat down and nudged her with his elbow. “What’s wrong sis?”
Hodge jerked a thumb over her shoulder at her mother.
“Oh,” Matthew said, knowingly. He too had been the focus of his mother’s loving, but annoying attentions. “Sorry.”
“S’okay.” She lifted her head and smiled at his. “How’s it going Pee Wee?”
“Not bad. I got an A on my Trig final, so I’m pretty pleased.”
“That’s great. It’s nice to have one math whiz in the family. I’ll hire you to be my accountant when I turn pro.”
“It’s a deal.” He scooted closer to his sister and whispered, “So did you really meet Dylan Lambert?”
“Please tell me she’s really beautiful.”
“Oh little brother, you have no idea.”
Matthew’s cheeks reddened. “Man. Think you can get me tickets to come see you play?”
Hodge smiled at her brother’s simple and unquestioning acceptance of her dream. “As close to the court as I can get ‘em, Pee Wee.”
“Thanks, sis. You rock!”
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