Sacking Austin by Lori Beth Johnson

Chapter One

Austin heard the moaning as he entered the sitting area of the Charleston hotel suite that he shared with his wife. Melanie didn’t always accompany him on road trips, but when she suggested that she could come along to watch him play, in what had turned out to be a real gridiron barnburner, he had been hopeful. Lately she hadn’t shown any interest in his profession, or him at all for that matter, and he appreciated this sudden show of support. After returning to the team hotel from a press conference and meeting after the game, Austin suddenly realized that his plans for taking his wife to dinner had come to a screeching halt. From the sounds emitting from bedroom, she had better things to do.

Feeling his blood begin to boil and his stomach churn, he strode with to the closed bedroom door. This cannot be happening. She promised that the last time had been, indeed, the last time. It was just a fling! she’d cried and swore that it would never happen again. It was always his fault, she’d claimed. “You’re never here! I get so lonely! Forgive me?” Austin could hear her words echo in his head. “Not this time,” he said as his hand hesitated before finally pushing open the door.

“Austin!” Melanie’s voice was shrill as she turned to face him. “It isn’t what you think!”

He had been prepared, or so he thought, to see her in the arms of another man. Yet nothing could have prepared him to watch Melanie’s naked body slither off of Travis Jones, his biggest professional rival who he had just played against a few hours before. “What did you do? Pick him up the minute after we kicked his ass on the field?” His words were clipped, his voice low.

Before she could answer, Austin looked at the man who had scrambled out of the bed and was sliding his legs into his jeans. Travis turned to Melanie, “He’s your…?”

“—Husband,” Austin finished for him, his voice echoing off the walls of the room. His tone was deep and commanding, and Travis’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. As  the other man pulled on his shirt, all Austin could think of was wrapping his hands around Travis’s neck, but his level head fought against it. He could see the headlines now. Louisville’s Austin Cook Kills Rival QB Travis Jones in Crime of Passion. No, as tempting as it was, Austin knew this scene couldn’t play out like that. He held up his hand signaling Travis to stay put as he took out his phone and made a call. He turned his back to explain the situation to the head of team security, and after he was sure that both expedience and discretion would be used, he hung up and turned back to Travis. “Get the hell out of here. Cougar security will get you out without being seen. I don’t think either one of us want this in the tabloids.”

“No, no, of course not.” Travis stumbled over his words, exasperated, “But come on dude, let me explain.” While Travis and Austin had never been friends, per se, their mutual admiration and respect had always shown on the field. They had come into the league around the same time and their careers had mirrored the other’s meteoric rise.

“I said get out,” Austin replied with only a passing glance to Melanie who sat in the middle of the bed with a sheet wrapped around her. His stare bore into Travis, who wisely grabbed the rest of his clothes and hurried to meet security at front door of the suite. Austin barely noticed that he was gone as he looked at the woman that he’d promised to love, honor and cherish as long as they both lived. Not anymore. Not now.  Not ever again.

The months-old memory came crashing into Austin’s thoughts as he turned off the hot spray.  Opening the shower door, he rolled his neck as while stepping onto the black plush mat. Toweling off his sandy-blond hair, he caught a glimpse of himself in the partially steamed mirror and noticed that it was time for a haircut. He usually kept his locks cropped short because of their tendency to curl and because a short style is much easier to deal with come football season. However, it had been quite some time since he’d occupied a barber’s chair. He made a mental note to call and get an appointment. This was something Melanie used to do for him and he was still was getting accustomed to doing these types of things for himself. As he tossed the towel aside, he tried to ignore the mild aches still resonating throughout his body, despite the warmth of the shower. His hard and lean athlete’s body had taken a beating in practice, but he didn’t care. This next game was going to decide who would represent their conference in the biggest game of all, and Coach made the team work harder than normal at practice. Austin didn’t mind, though. His work ethic was above reproach, and when asked to give double or triple effort in practice, he never balked. He was normally the first on the field anyway and the last one off, so he was used to the extra workout.

He thought a lot about the following Sunday as he put on his clothes. It would mean a lot to the Cougar Nation to make it to the Super Bowl, and he knew the outcome of this conference title game rested mostly on his shoulders. They were broad enough to handle it, though. Men who played his coveted position knew they were the go-to players and they were used to it. Austin Cook was no exception. The fact that this would be the first time Austin would meet Charleston, and more specifically Travis Jones, since that ill-fated day back in early autumn also weighed heavily on Austin’s mind. The Serpents would be out to avenge a loss and Travis would surely have something to prove. Austin knew that no aspect of this game was going to come easy, but he was determined to do all he could do to cement a win.

Brianna stared at the open, but blank document on the computer before her. She tapped her manicured nails on the sleek desk as she struggled to find just the right word to fill the page. Her editor was waiting, she knew, for what would be the third installment of her Wild ‘n Ranchy series. This book would show Jake Mulgrew and his bid to find his place both inside his kin’s ranching business and within the family itself. Jake was to be a brooding hero and while she had written him into the second of the series, his personality wasn’t yet well-defined. Making him the star of the book meant that she had to know him inside and out because her discerning readers would know if he made one move out of character.

Pulling her mind from Jake, Brianna tried to focus on her heroine, Janie Lane. A city-girl trying to pull off country wasn’t exactly original, so Brianna knew she had to come up with just the right twist to make it work. Thinking about different ways to weave her story together made her head hurt and something else was nagging at her, as well. She hated her heroine’s name. That was it, she realized. That was what was causing her mind to wander instead of focus. She knew that obsessing over character names was taking away valuable writing time. And she needed to be writing. Deadlines were looming and although she loved being a writer, the pressure to create within a definite time frame was something this New York Times bestselling author still struggled with.

“Crap,” Brianna mumbled as she took a sip of her third cup of coffee of the day. Who was she kidding? She was getting nothing done and forcing it was not the answer. She had written no more than 100 words over the better part of three hours, during which time she kept straying from her purpose by opening her browser and surfing the World Wide Web. Shopping for shoes or looking up dreamy vacation spots was a lot more fun than writing about Jake and Janie’s first meeting at the local café. After ordering a new pair of Jimmy Choo’s and a handbag to match, she surfed back over to the travel site. Photo after photo of the crystal waters and beautiful white sand beaches proved too seductive. Maybe a change in scenery was just what she needed to charge her creative batteries. After all, what could be more relaxing than sunbathing on the beach and looking for a muse while drinking some fruity little drink with an umbrella sticking out of the glass?

Brianna had just written down her reservation confirmation number when she received a text message from her oldest brother, Drew. Rolling her eyes, she smiled as she sent back a text. As if she would forget that this was championship Sunday. Growing up in a family like hers, she had no choice but to watch this game. Sports were important and football was king. Drew answered with a quick text stating that he knew how involved she could get in her writing so he was simply reminding her to kick back from her PC and turn on the television. He was at the game and now she was somewhat jealous. Lucky Bastard. She tried to look on the bright side. Her view would definitely be better than most the 65,000 fans at Cougar Field.

Sending Drew one more text with orders to cheer enough for the both of them, she logged off her computer and quickly changed into her favorite Serpent jersey. Maybe it was silly to wear it in her living room with no one else around, but it made her feel like she was showing full support to what, as of nine years ago, was her favorite team. Grabbing a bottle of beer, she hopped onto her red leather sofa and turned on her 52-inch plasma TV just in time to see the kick-off. Brianna curled her legs under her and settled in for what she knew was going to be an exciting game. Her eyes darted back and forth as the screen showed the field, the players, the crowd. She could almost feel the energy in the stadium that looked to be at capacity. Seeing the dots of Charleston red and white amid all that Louisville purple and black made her smile. However, when the cameras took turns zooming in on each opposing quarterback, the smile fell from her face. She bit her lip and crossed her arms across her middle. The announcers were going on about how was going to be a tough day for the two adversaries. If they only knew.

Austin walked into his sprawling suburban home, slammed the door and threw his keys on a nearby table. He looked around to see nothing out of place. He didn’t really like this house, not the layout or the décor. He had left the details, from finding a place to live to choosing the furnishings, to his wife. Melanie had gone all out, and why not? Austin was one of the highest-paid football players in the NFL. His salary could well afford all this and more.

Rubbing his neck, Austin thought about the first night they’d spent in the house. None of their furniture had been delivered but they hadn’t cared. They’d spent the entire night on the plush carpet in front of the gas fireplace making love. An ancient heat spread through him as he thought of that night, and of her. His mind raced with the events of the last several months, and he wondered if it all really happened. But as the sounds of an empty home surrounded him, he knew that it was all too real.

He let out a satirical laugh as he pushed off his size 13 Italian leather loafers. Home. What a joke, he thought as he took off his navy suit jacket and walked to the kitchen. It used to be a home. Long time ago it seemed to the happy home of a young couple full of youth and promise. Austin reached into the refrigerator for a bottle of water and shook his head he looked around. An empty house. A great big, ridiculously expensive empty house. He was at a professional low and as much as he hated to admit it, he wished he wasn’t alone. His Cougars were supposed to win today. They were the favorites. He wasn’t supposed to lose to Charleston in the conference title game. He wasn’t supposed to get a divorce. Screw the water. Vodka was calling his name and he answered by grabbing the half-empty bottle from the fridge.

He was just settling in the oversized taupe leather sofa as his cell rang. Now who was it? He was in no mood to speak with ESPN talk show pundits about the next week’s game between the Serpents and the Seahawks. Okay, yes, he was a student of the game and modern-day expert, but didn’t they all realize that talking about the Super Bowl was like rubbing salt in his wounds? Give him more time and he would be happy to chat about football with Mike and Mike in the Morning, or Colin Cowherd, but for now, they could all go to hell as far as he was concerned.

Thanking his Lord above that the stupid phone stopped ringing, he picked up his remote control and began to surf through the channels. “Damn,” he muttered as it was now his landline ringing off the hook. He looked at the caller ID. “Hey, Rachel. What’s up?” He knew his big sister worried about him and that she probably just wanted to make sure he was alright after a tough day at the office.

“Just checking on you, kiddo.”

Austin grinned. Only Rachel could get away with calling him a kid. “Thanks for calling, but I’m alright.”

“Really? I hate it that I wasn’t there. We were all going to come next week.” Austin couldn’t help but feel queasy at the irony.

“Don’t worry about it. Today’s game was a terrible. Besides, you have my new nephew to take care of. How is he, by the way?”

“He’s awesome.”

“How’s mom doing?”

“Healing. Her knee already feels better after the surgery. She’s worried about you.”

“Tell her I’m fine, will ya?”

Rachel laughed. “You better call her and tell herself, or dad’s gonna fly up there and whip your best player in the NFL’s ass.”

“I don’t have Travis Jones’s ass.”

“Stop the wallowing, Austin. I mean it.” They both knew she was referring to more than just a lost game.

“You know,” he said, “I have to keep up the professional, stiff upper lip bullshit in public. Can you give me a break and at least let me have a few weeks to lie around in my underwear while watching old sitcoms on TV?”

“Sure, why not?” Rachel smirked. “Bet that’s an attractive sight.” Austin laughed and Rachel said, “You coming home soon?” Much of Austin’s family still lived in Texas and they expected him to come around as often as he could, especially in the off-season. And this, as of that afternoon, was officially the off-season for Austin Cook.

“Jeremy and I will be there again in a few months, with the Foundation.”

“Good. I’ll get to see both of my little brothers. So what all will y’all be doing when you come down this spring?”

“I’ll be participating in a couple golf tournaments, and other events, too. Auctions and such. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, I know.” Rachel smiled. “You’re a good guy and the people down here appreciate it.” His small hometown had been hard hit by the nation’s struggling economy and Austin did what he could to help the community any way he could. He was one of them, even if he didn’t represent them directly. Sure, there were two NFL teams in the Lone Star state but Austin Cook didn’t play for either of them. He had traveled to Kentucky to get a starting gig and the Bluegrass state had been thankful for nearly the decade that he’d worn their uniform.

“Well, it’s the least I can do.”

Austin looked up to hear someone rapping on his door. “Someone’s here. I’ll call you soon, okay?”

“Alright. Take care. Love you.”

“Love you, too, sis.”

Austin walked to the door wondering who was on the other side of the thick wood. When he opened the door to see his brother standing in front of him with a silly grin, he let out a long breath. “Oh, great. This….is all I need.”

“Seriously?” Jeremy said, walking past Austin and into the home. “I fly in from New York for the day and this is the welcome I get? Come on, you knew I was at the game. You didn’t think I’d just go home without stopping by, did you?”

“Sorry,” Austin shrugged. “I’m just not sure I’m up to company, especially if you want to talk contract negotiations.”

“First of all, I’m not here as your agent. I’m here as your brother. And besides, we might want to wait a few weeks before bringing up raising your salary after that game today.”

“Gee, thanks. Rub it in.”

“Sorry.” Jeremy’s eyes twinkled mischievously.

“So, how are you?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing. I know you’re upset about the game, but how are you, otherwise?”

“I’m fine,” Austin assured him.

“Yeah, right.” Jeremy followed his older brother into the massive great room. He looked around. “This place is disgusting; it even stinks in here.”

“It’s not that bad,” Austin replied, picking up some papers and discarded clothes. When his eyes shifted to several pizza boxes and take-out containers, he sighed.

“What did you do? Let the maid have like a hundred days off?”

“Camille’s in Florida visiting her niece.”

“Hope she gets back soon.”

“Next Tuesday.”

“Good. Not a moment too soon. Hey, I think I know just what you need to perk you up.”

“What?”

“A vacation. Right now. This week. With me. Just the two of us.”

Austin let out a laugh. “Yes, a vacation with you sounds like so much fun.” His dry humor was not lost on his younger brother.

“Stop it. You know I’m always the life of the party.”

He thought about it. A change of scenery. A chance to get out of this city that would be mourning their team’s loss. “Let’s just say I agree to this. Where would we go?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think of something. Let’s see….”

Austin pointed at him. “If you say Phoenix: I’ll kill you.”

“We’re not going to the Super Bowl. Way too depressing.”

“Where then?”

“Somewhere warm. How about Miami?”

“No,” Austin said. “It’s too busy, too many people. Unlike you, if I go on this vacation partying to all hours of the night is the last thing on my mind. We could just go to Texas to see mom and dad.”

Jeremy frowned. “We’re going there in May, and we just saw them at Christmas. I love mom and dad as much as you, but visiting them is hardly conducive to you getting laid.”

A small grin settled on Austin’s face. “Who said anything about me getting laid?”

“I did. Or I am now.” Jeremy answered. “You are so fucking uptight. When was the last time you had sex?”

Austin ignored the question. “I’m not uptight; I’m depressed.”

“I think you’re both.” Jeremy’s grin widened. “And with either, getting a little action is the perfect solution.” He watched as his brother’s eyes went from amusement to a far away stare. “Mel’s not coming back,” he said, his tone serious.

“I know,” Austin sighed.

“You wouldn’t want her to, not after all that happened.”

“I know!” Austin snapped. “I know that.” He paused. “Of course I don’t want her back, but that doesn’t take the pain away. We had hopes, dreams.”

“She had sex with numerous men while married to you. Sorry to break it to you, but her hopes and dreams rested on your bank account and nothing more.”

“It wasn’t like that.” Austin felt his brother’s glare. “Not in the beginning, but maybe it turned into that. I guess I was just an idiot to take so long to finally see the truth.”

“You’re not an idiot.” He smiled. “Well, not usually. You were just in love and you’re a loyal kind of guy. You wanted to see the best in her when everyone else knew she was trouble.”

“Yeah.” Austin thought back to that last night in Charleston. The picture of his soon to be ex-wife straddling another man was burned into his brain. “Okay, fine.” He looked outside onto the crisp, cold winter day. “Yes. Somewhere warm. Tropical and secluded.”

“Not too secluded.”

“No,” Austin agreed. “Not too secluded.”

Jeremy nodded as in victory. “I’ll make the reservations.”

4 Responses to “Sacking Austin by Lori Beth Johnson”

  1. ecbabe January 26, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    loving this chapter; can’t wait to read more.

  2. Jacqueline K January 27, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

    Love this chapter, can’t wait to find out what happens! Got to get to know these characters better.

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