Kip fumbled his cell phone off the nightstand and poked at it. He hit the right button on the third try, cutting off the Flo Rida ringtone before it could start spinning right round again. He peered blearily at the clock: 6:22 a.m. As in six in the morning. Clearly too early to be anyone in the Minnesota clan, given the time difference, and they’d know better than to time a peptalk with the first day of spring break. So that left local trouble.
“Hello?” he said, dropping his head back on the pillow. Fuzzy cell reception answered him. He held the phone up, checking to see how many bars he had, then tried again, a little louder. “Hello?”
Damn it, if Truck Abernathy had busted up some bar, he could call some other sucker from the coaching staff to go clean up his mess. Kip hoped trouble had found somebody else; he’d talked the manager at Suds-n-Duds into letting Truck work off the damage he’d done, but a second transgression could mean suspension from the team.
A voice growled in his ear: “Rigsbee. What the—Rigsbee? Can you hear me? Come and get me.”
The hell? That sounded like… “Coach Browne? Uh… Greg? Is that you? Where are you?”
For a brief, sleep-fogged moment, Kip thought this was it… the long-desired booty call. His morning wood perked up at the thought. What could he say? Terse with a side of taciturn turned him on, especially when it came with broad shoulders and killer quads. Then his higher brain functions pointed out that since Greg’s apartment was right overhead, if he had decided now was the time to act on the long looks and general sniffing around he’d been doing since they met, he could have just walked downstairs and knocked on the door. And he probably wouldn’t have picked the buttcrack of dawn to do it; Greg seemed more like a late-night, possibly hammered, booty caller.
“What? I’m—ow, fuck,” Kip heard Greg say. “What’s that? I don’t want any of that shit.”
“Any of what shit?” Kip asked, yawning. Really, who could be trying to give Greg Browne something he didn’t want at this time of day? Some waitress at the IHOP trying to sell him on the joys of orange marmalade?
“Nothing. Never mind. I’m at South Guilford Hospital,” Greg said, his voice clipped. “Come get me. Please.”
The unexpected courtesy snapped Kip awake. He shook off the last blur of sleep, his hard-on subsiding at the word “hospital.”
“Wait, what happened? Coach?” A mutter of background voices told Kip that the line was still open. “Uh… Greg? You still there?”
“Am I speaking with Coach Rigsbee? Kip Rigsbee?” Another man’s voice, not wound quite as tight. “This is Dr. Llewellyn.”
Kip sat up and transferred the phone to his other ear, tucking it against his neck as he reached for a pad and pen in the nightstand drawer. He found condoms, three quarters, one gray sock, and—ah ha—a birthday card, but no pen. He turned the card over so he could write on the back.
“Yeah, hi, this is Kip. I work with the team, but I’m not a coach. I’m a sports psychologist.”
Dr. Llewellyn didn’t seem to care. “Well, you’re Coach Browne’s I.C.E. There’s been an—hey, Coach, where do you think you’re going?”
His voice faded as background noise drowned him out. Raised voices, beeps, and a snarled “Fuck off,” came over the line.
“I’m what?” asked Kip. He peered under the bed. There, a pencil; a dusty pencil, but it would do. “I’m his who?” He stretched for the pencil, rolling it with the tips of his fingers until he could grab it. “And can you spell your name for me?”
“His I.C.E. ‘In Case of Emergency’. And it’s L-L-E-W-E-L-L-Y-N.”
“Thanks,” Kip said. He scribbled the doctor’s name on the back of the card. Whoa, that was a lot of Ls and Es. “Wait, he put me down? You’re kidding. That’s kind of funny, because—”
“Trust me, there’s nothing funny about this,” the doctor said, and then he bit off a curse himself at another upsurge in background noise.
“Hello?” Kip said. “Dr. Llewellyn?” But the line went dead. Shit.
Kip poked the SEND button to redial the number Greg had called from, tapping the pencil on the bed as the phone rang again and again, but nobody picked up. He jumped out of bed and tugged on jeans and a T-shirt, stubbing his toe on the end of the futon as he poked around underneath it for his flip-flops. He tried the call again from the bathroom while he peed and quickly brushed his teeth, but still no one answered.
He went out to the living room and picked up his backpack from the floor by the couch, pawing through it for his car keys. When he realized his hands were shaking, he stopped, took a breath, and then blew it out, pushing down the panic. Greg had called himself, so he couldn’t be in too bad a shape, right? They wouldn’t let a head injury make his own call. He patted his back pocket to make sure he’d picked up his wallet and headed out.
As soon as he got the car backed out of its narrow space outside the apartment house, Kip tried the number again. Finally, a woman’s harried voice answered.
If anything, the background noise had increased. Kip raised his voice and said, “Hi. Can I talk to Dr. Llewellyn?”
“He’s busy right now,” she said. “You’ll have to call back.”
“Wait,” Kip said. “This is Kip Rigsbee. I was just talking to him. Can you please tell Coach Browne that I’m on my way?”
“I can try,” she said doubtfully.
“Please,” Kip urged her. “It’s important.”
“I’ll try,” she repeated.
It looked like that was as good an answer as he was going to get. He thanked her and ended the call. He coaxed his old Honda to go a little faster along the dogwood-lined streets and mulled over the mystery: why would Greg call him instead of one of his buddies on the coaching staff?
He downshifted as he turned a corner and sped past the stadium, its long rows of seats empty in the morning air. He’d run bleachers with the players his first week and puked right along with them when Coach Turner finally blew the whistle. The players appreciated the gesture; the assistant coaches seemed to think he’d been sucking up. They’d pretty much circled their wagons with him standing on the outside, setting the tone for the rest of the season. Greg, the defensive coordinator, usually walked a fine line between the two; he didn’t dismiss Kip’s approaches out of hand. He listened and then dismissed them. But he must have had some reason why he’d picked Kip as his… what had the doc called it? Right, his I.C.E.
It could be an explanation as simple as being his closest neighbor, but Kip hadn’t given up entirely on the idea that maybe it really was a booty call cleverly disguised as a plea for help.
“Touch me with that thing and you’ll pull back a stump,” Greg warned as another hand with a hypodermic in it approached him.
The voice attached to the hand said, “Sir, if you’ll just let me—”
“Leave me alone!” he shouted, his voice ringing in his throbbing head.
He had staked out high ground on the exam table, and he had no intention of relinquishing it. He lifted his bad leg up on the table with him; leaving it dangling had been excruciating. He could see both flanks, and his rear was covered. There were worse places to wait out a siege.
The walls felt like they were closing in on him, even though there weren’t any walls, just curtains that opened and closed according to some complex formula he was too tired to figure out. Every time he opened his eyes, more people had crowded into the partitioned space where they’d put him.
When he first arrived, they’d taken him down a hall with yellow walls, wheeling him along a bright green stripe on the floor, like one of those maps on the History Channel where they traced the route an army had taken. They’d gotten him from the chair up onto a bench and taken what seemed like a million X-rays, and then they’d shoveled him off to this little hellhole with its floating walls and multiplying needles.
A hand with a pair of scissors in it appeared. Greg growled deep in his throat.
“I need to cut your pants for the cast,” someone said.
Yeah, they said that now, but Greg didn’t trust them for a minute. He didn’t intend to let anyone anywhere near him with anything sharp. Christ, he hated hospitals. Hated doctors, nurses, and if that big dude in the corner didn’t stop glaring at him, honestly, he couldn’t be held responsible for his actions. They all looked at him like he was some kind of freak, like they thought he might go postal on them. He couldn’t tell the doctors from the nurses; the ER staff all looked alike in their green uniforms. What did they call those? Shrubs? No, that didn’t sound right. Scrubs, that was it. He couldn’t tell by looking who would be content to talk to him and who would want to poke him with something. Consequently, every time anyone got close enough to touch him, he flinched.
“What the hell is taking Rigsbee so long?” he asked the scissors.
“He’s coming,” the scissors told him. “He called to say he’s on his way.”
The relief that flooded through Greg left him dizzy. That pissed him off too.
He had never had any trouble separating his personal life from his life on the field; he’d been downright ruthless about it until Rigsbee showed up. Okay, it was true, Rigsbee had a great ass and hot, dark eyes that seemed to say one thing while his mouth went a mile a minute about something else, but that stuff should have been offset by his incessant patter and wacko ideas. The involuntary aspect of the attraction irritated Greg as much as anything: he didn’t want to want Kip Rigsbee. He didn’t need the aggravation.
But even if he didn’t eat up Rigsbee’s namby-pamby positive-thinking crapola with a spoon like Coach Turner did, he couldn’t deny that the guy always seemed to know the right thing to say. Much as it chapped his hide to admit it, right now Greg needed him. That. Needed that about him.
Greg’s eyelids felt incredibly heavy, but he struggled to keep them open. Who knew what they might shoot him up with when he wasn’t looking? But God, he was tired. Maybe he’d just rest his eyes for a minute.
“Coach Browne,” he heard a voice say. It sounded young and male, but it wasn’t the right voice, so Greg ignored it. He’d know Rigsbee when he got there. He’d certainly heard his voice enough to recognize it; all the guy did was talk. Yak, yak, yak, blah blah blah. You couldn’t shut him up for love or money. He talked to the players, the coaches, the fans, the field crew, and if he wasn’t talking to someone in person, he had a cell phone attached to his ear.
He had answered when Greg called, though. He’d actually picked up the phone. It was barely light out on the first day of spring break, but he’d picked up the damn phone.
“Coach.” The voice had a pissy edge to it now. Somebody didn’t like being ignored.
“While we’re waiting for the X-rays, I’ve got some forms for you to sign.”
Greg opened one eye, the one that didn’t hurt. One of the men was looming over him. When did he lay down? Had he slept? Jesus, things were spiraling out of control.
“I don’t have a pen.”
The doctor or nurse or whatever he was showed him some teeth. Was that was supposed to be a smile? “We can get you a pen, Coach. Sign the forms, and then we’ll get to work on a cast for your ankle.”
“I want a lawyer,” Greg said. Wait, that wasn’t what he’d meant to say. Criminals said that, people who’d been arrested and jailed, even if they said they were innocent. He’d meant to say he wanted Rigsbee, but that wasn’t right, either; he couldn’t want Rigsbee, damn it. Hadn’t he just decided that?
Ruthless. Be fucking ruthless. “Get out of my face and take your goddamn forms with you.”
“There’s no need—”
“I’m not signing the goddamn forms!”
The guy backed down, and Greg closed his eyes again. He could hear them talking about him; he wasn’t deaf. There was some discussion of sedating him, but nobody volunteered to be the one to try to give it to him. Maybe they were finally catching on; they could lead the horse to water, but they couldn’t give him tranquilizers.
Rigsbee would be there soon. He’d make them see reason.
A shift in the air raised every hair on his body. He jackknifed up, and the pain that arced up his leg made him see stars. He blinked them away in time to see another goddamn hypodermic hovering just inside his field of vision.
“Don’t you fucking people listen?” he roared.
Kip skidded into the lot outside the emergency entrance to South Guilford Hospital and slammed on the brakes at the sight of Greg’s Sebring convertible leaning drunkenly against a concrete parking barrier, listing to one side with its front fender plowed in.
That wasn’t good. Understatement: that really, really wasn’t good. Greg loved that car; he hand-washed it in the driveway outside their apartment house, rubbing it down until the paint shone and the chrome gleamed. His enjoyment seemed vaguely sexual, though that might just have been Kip’s projection. The man had good hands; leave it at that.
Kip pulled carefully into a parking space and then jogged into the hospital.
No need to stop at the desk; he could hear Greg bellowing all the way down the hall. As someone who spent most of his waking hours around a football team, Kip thought he’d heard it all, but Greg’s language could have stripped paint. Then he rounded the corner and saw just how bad things were: Greg sat on an exam table with both arms straight out, keeping the staff at arm’s length. He looked like a cornered animal. Holy crap. If three RNs, a couple of MDs, and a lab tech the size of a linebacker couldn’t handle Greg, how in the hell was Kip supposed to?
“Oh, thank Christ,” Greg said when he caught sight of Kip. “Get me out of here, Rigsbee.”
Kip stepped into the curtained area and made his way cautiously closer, wincing when he saw Greg’s left leg. Greg wasn’t going anywhere until that leg got tended to, that much was clear. Besides the leg, the left side of Greg’s face was darkening into one big bruise. He looked like somebody had hit him with a baseball bat. The side of his face that wasn’t turning nine shades of purple looked chalky gray.
“Rough start to the day, huh, Coach?” Kip touched one of Greg’s arms, gently nudging it down.
Greg blinked rapidly and lowered his arms. “Yeah.”
From what Kip could glean from the cacophony of voices babbling at him, they’d tried to numb Greg’s leg to put a cast on it, and he’d lost it in a big old way, railing about how pain medication went against his religion or his Boy Scout code or who the hell even knew what. He wouldn’t take it. Period. He kept saying so, even now, with blasphemous clarity.
The scene gave Kip a massive Suds-n-Duds flashback, but Truck had been drunker than a skunk; Greg looked furious and, though Kip would never tell him this, petrified. Still, he figured the same principles applied. He put one hand on Greg’s shoulder and then cased the room for the person in charge. “Dr. Llewellyn?”
A young man with no-rim glasses separated himself from the crowd and came over. Under Kip’s hand, Greg’s shoulder muscles tightened into rock. Kip squeezed once, then took his hand away, and moved in front of Greg, drawing the doctor’s attention with him.
“Hi. Kip Rigsbee,” he said, injecting as much calm as he could into his voice. He put out his hand, and when the doctor shook it, the tension level in the room dropped from Code Red to Code Orange.
“We need to put a cast on that ankle, and there are certain protocols to be followed—”
“No, I get that,” Kip said, nodding. Greg stirred behind him, but Kip kept his focus on the doctor. “I’ll help however I can.”
“I don’t want—” Greg hissed at his back, but Kip cut him off with a slicing motion of his hand.
“I got it,” he said, looking at Greg over his shoulder. Damn, the guy looked a mile of bad road. “I hear you. Settle down, okay? You’re scaring people.”
Greg subsided, muttering under his breath, so Kip turned his attention back to the doctor.
“Maybe if you break it down for him, tell him what steps you’re taking, it’ll be easier,” Kip said. “Use small words.”
He heard Greg suck in an outraged breath.
“And you,” Kip said, moving so Greg could see the doctor, “pay attention.”
Greg looked up at him, misery written clear on his face.
Kip leaned in and said quietly into his ear, “Whatever you’re worried about… don’t. I’m not going to let them fuck you over.” He set his back to one of the curtains, watching as the staff got down to business. Greg still looked like a thundercloud, but he let them do their job. Half an hour later, Greg had traded one leg of his sweatpants for a drying plaster cast.
The final kink in the works turned out to be a handful of prescriptions that the doctor tried to press on Greg. When that didn’t get him anywhere, he motioned for Kip to join them.
The doctor said, “It’s in his best interest to—”
“Oh, like I haven’t heard that before,” Greg huffed under his breath. “Fucking jackals.”
Kip pivoted to face him. Greg met his gaze for a second and then dropped his eyes. “I don’t believe in that shit,” he said, his voice so low that Kip had to lean forward to hear him. “Never have. Trainers tried to pump me full of it when I played.”
Kip sighed. He’d seen it happen, too, from time to time, and had seen the injuries that could result.
“They’ll do anything to get a player on the field,” Greg said, pointing his finger accusingly.
Kip wondered if Greg might be hallucinating; it would explain a lot.
“You know nobody’s expecting you to play, right? You’re a coach now.”
Greg lifted his chin and stared at him, his blue eyes sharp in his bruised face. “What the hell is wrong with you? Of course I know I’m a coach. I’m not brain-damaged.”
“Okay, okay,” Kip said, putting both hands up. “Just checking.”
He glanced over at the doctor, then back at Greg. Maybe he could soothe the savage beast. “I think trainers forget sometimes that pain is a message the body’s supposed to listen to,” Kip said quietly.
“Which you did,” Kip pointed out. “You drove yourself to the ER so they could help you. They’re just trying to help. That’s all.”
“Don’t use that tone on me,” Greg said, moving the accusing finger in his direction. “It doesn’t work, and it’s really fucking annoying.”
So much for soothing. “Greg.”
“Forget it. I didn’t take that crap back then; I’m not taking it now.”
Fair enough. Kip turned back to the doctor. “You heard the man.”
The doctor had to push it one step further, spouting something about his responsibilities as a physician, but Greg wouldn’t even look at the forms, so Kip finally took them and tucked them in his pocket, a move that didn’t earn him any points with Greg but pacified the doctor, so he called it a win.
By the time Greg signed the discharge papers, the put-upon staff had a wheelchair ready and waiting. While they moved him from the table to the chair, Dr. Llewellyn filled Kip in as if he were family; must be more of that I.C.E. privilege at work. Kip did his best to look I.C.E.-worthy while behind him Greg snapped at a nurse who jarred his leg.
“Use ice on his face. I know it looks bad, but it’s mostly superficial,” the doctor said. “I’m more concerned about the ankle. Keep him off that leg as much as possible until the cast dries.”
“Okay,” Kip said.
“No stairs. No weight on his leg for three days,” the doctor continued. “We’ll see about a walking cast then.”
“Anything else?” Kip asked. “How about some valium for the driver?”
The doctor gave him a wry smile and shook his head. “Good luck, Coach.”
“I’m not a—” but he’d already moved on.
Greg bitched the whole way out in the wheelchair, cursed Kip’s name as he wedged himself in the passenger side of Kip’s Civic, and then snapped in increasing decibels the whole way back to the house. It didn’t seem to dawn on him until Kip pulled in the handicapped space out front that things weren’t going to go his way.
“Okay, out you go,” Kip said, wedging his shoulder under Greg’s arm as he heaved himself out of the car. Greg probably had three or four inches on him; the difference in height made it easy for Kip to shove his shoulder in Greg’s armpit and serve as a living crutch. They hobbled through the front door, but Greg stopped when Kip started to steer him toward his downstairs apartment instead of toward the staircase.
“No. No way,” Greg said, putting his foot down. Just the one, mind you, but still surprisingly solid; Kip couldn’t budge him. “Just get me some crutches from Sports Med. I’ll be fine.”
“No stairs,” Kip reminded him.
Kip sighed. “It’s only for three days. I think you can take it.”
Greg resisted Kip’s tug on his arm, his mouth set in a thin line of pain and discontent. “I’ll scoot up the steps on my butt.”
“Uh huh. Okay, go ahead,” Kip said. “I’ll bring you a bowl you can piss in.”
Greg looked at him in disbelief, and Kip shrugged. “You heard the doc. Stay off the leg until the cast dries.”
Red color crept up from Greg’s neck into his face, blotting out the grayish tone. An improvement of sorts, if you discounted the bloody murder coming out his eyes.
“I’m just following orders,” Kip said. “Suck it up, Coach.”
Greg stared at him for a minute and then clenched his jaw tight enough that Kip could see the muscles bunch in his cheek.
“Fine,” Greg said shortly, turning toward Kip’s door.
Kip made sure Greg had his balance set before he unlocked the door and pushed it open. “Mi casa es su casa.”
Greg frowned at him but hopped forward just the same.
Kip stepped in behind Greg and closed the door. The apartment floor plan probably looked familiar; Greg had given him his landlord’s number when Kip was looking to get out of the student slums after finishing his doctorate. Kip ended up directly under Greg. The Freudian implications of that were about as subtle as a brick to the face.
“I, uh, wasn’t expecting company,” he said.
Greg glowered at him, then at the room. “I can tell.”
Seeing the place through Greg’s eyes didn’t improve it any: a living room with a slip-covered couch and boxy TV, books stacked in precarious towers, laundry everywhere, his unmade futon visible through the bedroom doorway. He’d gotten permission to paint the walls, so he’d picked a nice rich maroon and gold, good Minnesota colors, but he hadn’t had time to do much more than that. Greg seemed like the kind of guy who’d have matching furniture grouped around a fifty-two-inch plasma, and his plants were probably green instead of brown. Kip wouldn’t know, since he’d never been invited upstairs.
Not that he was bitter or anything.
“I’m still getting settled,” he said, hearing a touch of defensiveness in his voice.
“Look, I owe you, big time. If it weren’t for you, I’d still be at that Roach Motel over by student housing,” Kip said, “but if you think I’m spending the next three days running windsprints up those stairs or doing bedpan duty, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Nuh uh. No way, no how. He’d carry Greg to the john if need be. That was a pretty funny picture, Kip bent over, carrying King Greg to the throne. He was still enjoying it when Greg glared at him. He bit his lip, trying to quash an entirely inappropriate grin at the scowl on Greg’s face.
Okay, okay, got it. No smiling for the duration. Geez.