The Plan by Karla Sorensen

Erik

No one grows up hoping they’ll turn into a cynical asshole.

My brothers and sisters had called me the latter for as long as I could remember—usually as a backhanded compliment—but the former was a fairly recent addition to my personality.

Life had a strange way of doing that, didn’t it? Twists and turns we couldn’t see coming added facets to our personality, usually without our permission.

I didn’t like the cynicism. Didn’t like how I constantly watched the people around me to make sure they weren’t going to do something stupid, something suspicious. I used to do a specific variation of that when I played. I’d watch the quarterback, observing the offensive linemen to see if I could pick apart where they’d block or make space for a receiver or a running back.

It was my job to stop them. And even now, years after I’d worn a helmet and pads and cleats, I was doing the same thing. But instead of studying my opponent, I found myself looking for someone to make a wrong move just about everywhere.

Like now, for instance. Outside the small coffee shop where I was supposed to meet Luke Pierson, I found myself studying a couple as they sat intertwined in a corner booth.

They were young, couldn’t be much older than seventeen or eighteen.

The girl’s body language read as warm and trusting, the way her legs naturally curled over his lap, the way she touched him casually as she scrolled through her phone and drank her coffee. In her giggles and hair fidgeting, I read the full-blown obsession that often gripped newer relationships. Only the young and in love couldn’t fathom sitting in a coffee shop booth without touching.

I took a sip of my own black coffee and watched the guy. He’d yet to reciprocate the easy touches even though his arm was sprawled behind the booth. Someone less cynical would think maybe he wasn’t a big PDA guy.

But when a leggy brunette strolled past their booth—wearing denim short shorts and a flirty smile—his eyes lingered, his head turning without even the slightest attempt to hide it. His girlfriend had her head snuggled into his chest, completely unaware. Into my coffee, I smiled a grim, unsurprised smile.

Someone sat next to me on the bench, lowering his tall body quietly, legs sprawled out in front of him.

Without sparing him a glance because I knew him well enough that I didn’t need to stand on ceremony, I jerked my chin at the couple, visible through the wall of glass that made up the entire storefront of the coffee shop.

“Twenty bucks says this prick gets up and follows the brunette.”

Luke glanced at me. “This what you do for fun now, Wilder?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s a riot.”

In tandem, we tilted our heads when the kid reached under the table and nudged his girlfriend’s legs off his lap. To his credit, he tilted her face up and gave her a monstrously obnoxious french kiss that had her a little starry-eyed when he slid out of the booth. Hands tucked into his pockets, he ambled slowly to the hallway where the brunette had disappeared.

Luke dug into his wallet and handed me a twenty. “How’d you know?”

“It’s my job to peg the assholes these days.” I gave him a brief glance. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“Yeah, I suppose it is.” He sighed, and in that sigh, I heard absolute exhaustion. But instead of answering, he shot me a sideways look. “How you been, Erik? I haven’t seen you since after your surgery. I was surprised you didn’t come back after …”

After.

That sentence could’ve ended right there, but the way his voice trailed off, I knew his wife—the owner of Luke’s and my former team—had told him why I didn’t come back after.

Outside of my family and the people in my hometown, they were probably the only ones who knew.

There were no juicy articles. No online chatter. A small miracle in the day of social media, but I wasn’t one of the headliners. The one percent of players who had their every move tracked. The injury, and year of arduous rehab, was enough in people’s minds that I didn’t renew my contract with the Washington Wolves.

Someone younger and faster had already replaced me on the D-line, sacking quarterbacks and snagging receivers. Fans have short memories, as long as someone’s out there making plays.

They didn’t think about what came after. We were the ones left with that.

It was my turn to heave an exhausted sigh, and I sounded much older than my thirty years when I did. “I just … needed a change.”

“Logan said you’ve been on a job the whole last year, right? A tour with a folk singer?”

I nodded, taking another slow sip of my coffee. The guy in the coffee shop returned to his booth, a smug smile on his shit-eating face and a sweet, trusting girlfriend who cuddled right back up to him, even though he’d probably just saved another woman’s number to his phone.

“Her head of security is a guy I roomed with in college,” I explained. “He hated the bureaucracy of being a cop and found he liked private security better.”

“He hire a lot of former football players?”

I exhaled a short laugh. “Not that I know of. But the job was mostly looking scary and having no problem shoving people out of the way.”

“You were always very good at that,” he conceded easily. “Where’d you travel?”

I closed my eyes, tried to see through the blur of the last year. Lots of stages in lots of places. Clubs and bars and festivals, and the historic cities surrounding them. “Twelve countries in Europe and Asia. All the provinces of Canada. Two cities in South America, and to top it off, a month in Australia.”

He whistled. “Favorite city?”

I gave him a dry look. “This part of my interview?”

Luke grinned. “Nah, just making small talk. Should I stop?”

“Yes.” I gave him a small smile because if he got his way, he was about to be my employer. A smile seemed like the least I could do to hide the asshole part of cynical asshole. “What’s going on, Luke?”

Three or four years ago, I never would’ve called him by his first name, but I wasn’t a player on the roster anymore, addressing a former QB and captain. Now, we belonged to the same fraternity.

The former players. The ones who had to figure out what came next.

“Ward said you might be able to help,” he said, referencing my former defensive coach—one of his closest friends.

I nodded slowly. “He gave me a heads-up that you might reach out. I’m no professional, Luke.”

“I know.” He slid his hands up and down his thighs. The guy in the coffee shop watched another woman stroll past their booth, and Luke sighed heavily. “It’s my daughter, Lydia,” he said. “I don’t need to give you a full rundown if you’ve already heard this.”

“Coach didn’t tell me much,” I admitted. Sitting on that bench was a strange turn of fate in my life, one of many that I hadn’t seen coming after that pop in my knee. When my last job wrapped up, and the year of travel that had gone with it, it was one of the first times in my entire life when I couldn’t see anything when I stared down the future.

Going home still didn’t feel like an option.

Football was gone.

And the only thing I seemed to be good at was taking care of people I wasn’t related to. The people related to me didn’t seem to be faring too well under my care. An irony that I hadn’t made peace with. Not in the past couple of years, at least.

A call from Luke Pierson might’ve given me a glimpse at some sort of future, but I still wasn’t sure what it meant. Or how to fix all the other things I’d messed up.

“Lydia is … I don’t know what you’d call it … famous for being famous, I guess. A little bit like my wife was before she took over at Washington.” He wiped a hand down his face, and the motion—like the earlier sigh—showed a worried father, in the lines on his face, the tired-looking eyes. “She’s got millions of followers online, and she’s built a really impressive business doing it too. I don’t know what the hell half of it means, but I’m proud of her, you know? She’s smart, and half the time, she scares the hell out of me with how fearless she is.” He smiled. “When she was ten, I caught her outside a conference room in the front offices, taking notes in her fuzzy pink notebook. Told me it was so she could figure out how to be the boss.”

He smiled at the memory, some of the worry melting off his face as he did.

Those were the things I knew already. In my five years at Washington, I’d seen her on and off, just like all the players had. But not once had I exchanged a word with her.

She was too young. Too pretty. And I’d been, at the time, too married for any of that bullshit. I just wanted to play.

Luke pulled out his phone and tapped on the screen a few times, handing it over so I could see his daughter’s social media account.

“It just … got so big. The more she shared, the more they wanted a piece of her.” He shook his head. “I hate it. I know it’s normal, or for most people it is. But I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with this side of our life.”

I didn’t look at very many of the pictures, but even at a quick glance, Lydia Pierson with her blond bombshell looks and wide smile was fucking stunning. No more poetic words were needed, but I’d known that about her too.

In looking at a few of those pictures, it didn’t take long to get a general idea of why the Pierson family patriarch might be reaching out to me.

The internet—for all its good and bad—was a cesspool for men with a taste for beautiful young women. My molars clenched tight at the one small sample of disgusting comments.

“Stalker?” I asked, handing back his phone.

“Which time?” Luke answered dryly. “Lydia’s never been too bothered by the creeps. I think she’s used to it.”

I had three sisters, and nothing pissed me off faster than shit like that. “No woman should have to get used to it.”

“Agreed.” He sat forward, bracing his forearms on his legs. “But, to my knowledge, nothing dangerous. Just … a little too excited to meet her when they get the chance.”

“So what changed?”

His hands clenched, the skin around his knuckles going white. “Car accident two months ago. A photographer got a bit overzealous trying to get a shot of her driving her new car. She lost control, ran off the road, and hit a tree.”

I shook my head. “She okay?”

“Broke her arm in two places. She’s in a cast now, been living back at home with Allie and me since it happened.”

There was something he wasn’t saying. For my whole life, I’d had an uncanny ability to read people—for good or for bad. Only once in my entire life had someone proved me wrong on my instincts, and even though that had been a doozy, I still trusted what my gut was telling me.

And it was telling me that Luke wasn’t giving me the full story.

“If you’re gonna hire me to help keep her safe, I’ve got to know everything.”

“She’s scared,” he said bluntly. “She doesn’t like leaving the house. Won’t get behind the wheel of a car. She’s lost a handful of her biggest brand sponsorships in the past two months because she missed appearances, and my smart, driven daughter is … she’s not herself.”

“Car accident can be tough to get over,” I said slowly. “Nothing wrong with that.”

“No,” he agreed. “But I can’t do nothing either. Lydia has so much fire in her. I miss seeing it, even if it is the sole cause of my lost sleep the last decade,” he said with a sad smile. “I can’t force her to feel better any more than I can control asshole photographers who think she owes them a piece of her private life. But I can find ways to make her feel safe enough to take baby steps back to being herself. That’s all Allie and I want. For her to get back to her life because it’s killing me to watch my fearless daughter feel like she has to hide.”

I nodded. “And that’s where I come in.”

“You’re a known entity. Sort of. You understand the world she comes from, and not many people do. She and her sister Faith were raised in that practice facility. They’ve got NFL hall of famers as surrogate fathers and uncles and friends.”

“Lydia doesn’t know me, though,” I pointed out. “And I’m no professional bodyguard, Pierson.”

“What did you do for that singer all last year?”

I raised a hand in concession. “I’ve got some of the training, yeah, and my instincts are good, but I’m no warm fuzzy therapist who can tiptoe through the bullshit she’s dealing with.”

“She doesn’t need someone warm and fuzzy. She needs someone who looks like they’d rip out the throats of anyone who hurt her,” he answered dryly.

That drew a laugh from deep within my chest. I hadn’t laughed in a long time. Not much cause for it in the past couple of years. But about that, he wasn’t wrong.

He smiled. “When you used to line up, Wilder …” He shook his head. “You looked like you were about to take the quarterback’s head off.”

“Not his head. Just his arm.”

“To those of us throwing the ball, there’s not much difference.” Luke gave me a quick glance. “You miss playing?”

No one had asked me that. Not once.

My family had been so busy dealing with the fallout of my divorce and my stepdad’s health—all the reasons I’d stayed away from home for so long. The reasons I still couldn’t bring myself to go back, even though I was Stateside again. They loved me, of that I had no doubt. But no one had ever asked me how I felt about saying goodbye to the game I loved.

There were too many other things to deal with.

The answer hurt coming up, the words sharp with glass edges against my throat. “Every fucking day.”

Luke didn’t reply because as a guy who’d played at his level, who’d hoisted a trophy over his head at the end of his career, knew exactly how I felt. Instead, he let the silence rest as it was, and I respected him even more for not offering me trite platitudes or some Hallmark bullshit cliché saying that was supposed to make me feel better.

Because no matter how much I missed it, the thought of ever going back on a field was impossible.

After a moment, Luke reached into his wallet again and pulled out a card.

On it was his address, his cell phone number, and a scrawled dollar amount with a shit ton of zeroes behind it. My breath escaped my lips in a slow hiss.

Luke Pierson and his wife Allie cared a lot about making their daughter feel safe and whole again.

I had a healthy savings account. Money in the stock market. I could pay my bills and then some. But what he was offering was more than I’d been given as a signing bonus when Washington drafted me.

Even the cynical asshole in me had trouble finding reasons not to do it.

“I know you said on the phone that you weren’t sure this whole security gig was a long-term thing for you,” he said quietly. “I love my daughter. She just … she needs a little help to feel safe again. And I think you can do that for her. Give us a few months, Erik, please.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and tried to imagine how different this would be from my last job. I wasn’t one of a team. Wasn’t someone who could fade in the background and scan the horizon for potential threats.

But on the flip side of the coin, what did I have waiting for me if I said no?

Nothing. Except facing a past that I wasn’t quite ready to face. And that wasn’t a good enough reason, not if I could step in and help.

I could do something to make someone feel better. If I shined a spotlight on all the things I was avoiding, I knew why that was so appealing. It dulled the cynicism … just a little. And that was something I could hold on to.

“I’ll be by tomorrow to meet her.”

This was my sisters’ fault. For existing. For creating the most troublesome sort of protective instincts. Because even if Lydia Pierson was a big-ass paycheck that would manage to keep me away from home for another few months, I had a gnawing sensation in my gut that this job, this client, wouldn’t be quite as easy as he was making it out to be.