D’Andre Smith, star running back for his seventh grade Midget team, loped toward the locker room. He needed to get home and make his mother dinner. She’d worked an extra shift this week to pay for his new gear.
“Smith,” his coach barked.
D’Andre jerked to a stop. “Yes, Coach?”
“Let’s go back out to the field and repeat your footwork drills.”
“I need to do my homework, sir.”
“I’ll get someone to take care of that for you.”
“Smith.” Coach clapped his hand on D’Andre’s shoulder. “That ain’t your future, son.”
His stomach growled.
“Your mama working tonight?”
D’Andre nodded, holding in the words he wanted to shout. He needed to do his homework. Or at least try. He didn’t understand his books. When he listened he was fine. And once he heard something, he never forgot. He understood everything, but when he tried to make sense of the words on the page, everything got jumbled in his head and he just kept getting further and further behind.
“Let’s put in a couple more hours and I’ll get you some Mickey D’s.” Coach bent his head toward D’Andre. “There’s a scout from up north coming next week. We’ve got to be ready. This could be big. Really big.”
“But I need to keep up my grades, sir.” He needed to figure out what the heck the letters on the page meant. He could sound out some words, but he couldn’t do that in class. If he did, people would make fun of him. He remembered what happened last year when he’d misread a simple poem.
Miss Higgins had finally given him a recording so he could memorize the words. It was their secret that he couldn’t read them.
But that grinding frustration drilled deep in his belly, digging into his gut. His stomach churned and his heart shriveled.
“Listen, son. Football’s your future.” Coach gave him a hard pat on his head. “Don’t worry none about schooling. Your coaches will take care of you.”
And they did.
Elise Putnam needed a life.
She slung her leather briefcase over her shoulder, and headed down the grand staircase of her family mansion. She was stagnating, turning to dust like an old relic consigned to the attic, and she was only twenty-four.
Her footsteps were soft on the Persian-carpeted stairs, masking her approach to her regularly scheduled, awkward morning conversation with her father. At the base of the stairs, she paused, forced a placid expression on her face, and dropped her briefcase on the antique chair that flanked the staircase. She squared her shoulders and girded for the next half hour.
Keith Putnam sat at the head of the massive dining room table, readers perched on his nose. He scanned The Wall Street Journal in his right hand, while to his left a state-of-the-art tablet showed running stock exchange numbers. An empty Wedgewood china plate, sterling silver flatware, and a delicate coffee cup were the remnants of his daily breakfast of scrambled eggs and wheat toast with precisely one cup of high octane java. He perused her critically, his gaze skimming over her business attire, and his lips tightened in displeasure. The small censure evaporated her earlier resolve.
Elise ignored that instinctive ping of hurt, refusing to let him win this round. Using the slotted serving spoon, she placed a small amount of scrambled eggs and half slice of bacon on her plate. Franny, their house maid, served a cup of coffee at the other end of the table, formerly her mother’s spot. She shot Elise a sympathetic smile and left the room immediately.
“What’s on your agenda for today?” her father asked.
Elise tightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and said softly, “I’m going in to the office.” Like she did every day since her father had gotten her this job at Yankee Sports Magazine. Maybe today she’d be given more responsibility than just copyediting someone else’s work. Maybe today she could move into a more active role in the research and crafting of their monthly articles.
“Pfft.” Her father set down his paper with the snap. “When are you going to stop playing at reporter and get down to what you were meant to do?”
Elise didn’t answer. Didn’t want to answer.
Her father wasn’t done. “Your purpose in life is to breed. It’s time to begin working on the new generation of Putnams.”
And now her morning was officially ruined. According to her father, her only value lay in her looks and her ability to pass on his genes. She set her fork on the delicate china plate, her appetite gone. She folded her hands in front of her, noting with a sense of detachment that her French manicure was perfect. “I wish to have a career. And I like working at Yankee Sports.”
She could relate to athletes. Their drive, their push for physical excellence, their goal setting and achievement.
“Your wishes don’t matter.” The great Keith Putnam had spoken.
Her earlier excitement curdled in her stomach, and disappointment rose in a tide of bile. She glanced away from her father, focused on the muted wallpaper and thick velvet draperies, the mullioned windows and arched doorways, before settling on the swinging door that led to the servant’s hallways and quarters. The house’s traditional style hadn’t changed for a hundred years. Kind of like her father’s attitude.
She didn’t want this life. But she had to prove to everyone that she could survive on her own. She didn’t have access to her trust fund until she turned twenty-seven. Three long years from now.
“My secretary has emailed a list of suitable candidates.” Keith adjusted the cuff on his five-thousand-dollar Anderson & Sheppard bespoke suit and folded his paper. “I expect you to begin the process of choosing a husband.”
She didn’t want a husband. She didn’t want to breed. She wanted a life.
“I have an engagement this evening, but I expect you to read the list and get back to me with your choices ranked by end of day.”
There would be no arguing with him.
The only way to stop the procreation train was to start earning enough money so she could escape the rigid and dismissive iron-fisted control of her father.
“Your period of mourning is over.” Her father stood, staring at her as if his gaze could incinerate her feelings and leave her as an unemotional robot who churned out his mini-heirs.
It didn’t matter what she wanted, and that was the worst of all.
“While your mother’s death was tragic, it’s time to get over it.”
After caring for her terminally ill mother, after putting her life on hold for years, now when she was ready to experience everything, what she wanted didn’t matter to him.
For over two years, she had been the one to stay with her mother as she declined, her body and soul ravaged from the effects of cancer. Not that they couldn’t afford extra help. A live-in nurse had also been on call. But Elise’s duty was to her parents (as her father saw it) and that was that. She’d been trapped here since she graduated from college.
“There’s a good girl.” Her father smiled, and she swore if she’d been closer he would’ve patted her on the head like a faithful dog.
After years of verbal criticism, his castigation bordered on abuse, although in his eyes he would never be guilty of anything so crass. He was merely head of the household exerting his will on his offspring.
But one constant settled in her heart: his dismissals hurt.
“You will do what you are told.”
Elise left the dining room after a short goodbye without acknowledging his edict. She had no intention of picking out a husband from a catalog like he was her favorite of the latest Bergdorf offerings.
Her father just assumed she would fall in line with what he wanted. It never occurred to him that she would disobey his wishes. She never had before. But what he wanted wasn’t temporary.
While she’d tended to her mother, she’d read romance novels. She wanted a grand passion, not some clinical union based strictly on money and genetics. She wanted love. Romance. And she had no intention of settling for anything less.
Her father was in for a rude awakening. She was just too stubborn to give in. She’d talk to her boss, press him for more opportunities to show to the world and especially her father, that she had what it took to be a successful reporter.
Right now, she didn’t make enough to support herself on her miniscule salary. Her friends from prep school were all living in New York or Boston with high-powered jobs in finance and real estate, and she had lost touch with her college friends. Sure, she kept up on Facebook but they had these amazing interesting lives and everyone had left her behind. In her mind, she didn’t have anything to add, and she’d languished for the past few years, almost a recluse in her family home. But no more.
She had to get out and start to live her life on her terms. She had to.
One of the feature reporters tilted his head over their shared wall of the cubicles. “Elise, boss wants to see you.”
“Me?” She had just set down her briefcase on the extra chair jammed into her six-by-six space. Her heart picked up a little. She hated to get her hopes up but maybe she’d finally get an exciting assignment.
Maybe this would be her opportunity to get out of the untenable position her father put her in.
“Yeah. But just a warning, he is in a mood.”
With that her hopes plummeted. “Going now.”
She rubbed her damp palms down her pinstriped pants and breathed deep. Closing her eyes, she settled her thoughts, squared her shoulders, and strode confidently to his office.
“Elise.” Her boss’s voice slithered over her name. Dick Johnson called everyone else in the office by their last name except her. His smile was tight, not his usual smarmy with a touch of sleaze. “Come in.”
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
He didn’t look happy. And Elise wondered if maybe she was getting fired.
“You know Jason Hollingsworth?”
Inside she was having a mini-freakout. She couldn’t get fired. She needed this job.
“The fourth?” he clarified.
“Jay?” She finally tracked back into the conversation but she was definitely confused. Why in the world would he be asking her about Jay Hollingsworth? “Um, yes. We went to prep school together.”
He jerked his chin up. “He’s requested you for a story.”
She still didn’t have any idea why Jay would request her or what a venture capitalist would have to do with a sports magazine but she kept her mouth shut and waited.
Dick Johnson skipped his gaze around his office, stopping on the various accolades and photos with famous athletes hanging on the wall before he turned back to her.
“What do you know about D’Andre Smith?”
“Ultra-famous wide receiver, retired early because of concussions or he would have likely become one of the best receivers in football history. Intensely private. Never gives interviews.”
He slapped a folder on his desk. “Apparently he’s willing to give an interview, but only to you.”
D’Andre Smith? And he would only speak to her? She couldn’t process what her boss was saying. D’Andre Smith was the ungettable get. And he wanted her?
A fierce pride rose inside her.
“I tried to convince Hollingsworth that Smith should go with someone with more experience, someone who could actually pull off this interview. But he refused to consider anyone else.”
With that, her confidence blew out like a hiss of air. Elise was used to hiding her emotions, so she lifted her gaze to her boss, the Dick. “When?” She needed serious prep time for this interview. This was literally the opportunity of the decade.
She needed to read everything she could get her hands on and she needed to watch film and she had to find the angle for the story. Her mind was racing with all the things she needed to do to prepare for writing the profile of her career.
Dick twisted his wrist. “You’ve got two and a half hours.”
“We need to come up with a news peg.” Dick said, “You know what that is?”
Elise’s temper rose. “Of course, sir.” She may not have much, okay, any real world experience but she’d worked for her university paper and gotten her degree in journalism.
“Find an angle to make this newsworthy.” He shoved the folder at her. “I’ve got final approval over every word in the article. And see if you can convince Smith to agree to a photo shoot.”
“Don’t fuck this up.”
Or you’re fired was implied.
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