Touchdown

Book 1

Going Pro: Touchdown, by Ashlyn Hope

Excerpt: Chapter 1

I paced back and forth in the massage suite, the low lights and soothing music not doing much to calm me down. No, I was too busy crunching the numbers in my head and trying to figure out how long I had in here before I got booted for not paying my bills.

I had wondered time and time again if this was the right choice, being my own boss like this, but it was my dream. It was the vision I’d had for myself ever since I’d applied to get my massage certification: to not just be a professional but an entrepreneur. A self-made woman. But in those visions, I had never been trying to decide between paying rent for my workspace or eating dinner that night. I pictured myself becoming a #bossbitch with a down-to-earth attitude despite carrying a designer handbag, having perfect hair, and being able to shop at Whole Foods each week.

I glanced down at my watch again. I had a client arriving in ten minutes, thank God, so at least I’d be bringing in a little money today. It had been a slow week, and with rent overdue, I needed every dollar I could get. I hadn’t worked with the guy before – I half-recognized the name, but I couldn’t place it. Frank Rathbone was his name, but it didn’t mean much to me.

I raked my hands through my hair. It definitely was not perfect. I hadn’t had the cash to get it done again this month, and it was feeling thick and a little crazy. I wondered glumly if I’d ever have the money to get it done again. I knew it was a fatalistic way to think, and not like me at all, but I had been in town for three months and I hadn’t once made rent with ease.

I hated that. I hated feeling like I was scraping and scrounging, hated feeling like I might have made a mistake getting into this career. I had studied history and English at college and had a decent career in academia ahead of me if I’d wanted to take it, but I had decided, on one of those wine-tipsy nights with my oldest friend Natalie, I was going to pursue my massage certification instead. Just to see what happened – that’s what I told her. But with me, it was never half-assed. I threw myself in full-on and wound up here, in a city I barely knew with a business barely off the ground, hoping that my new client might just tip me enough to make my rent for the month.

I took a deep breath, inhaling the faint citrusy scent of the oil sitting in the warmer. That chilled me out a little, which was good, because I didn’t want this place to absorb my stress. My clients came here to get relaxed, not to pick up on all of my neuroses. I needed to get out there, to get my game-face on for when my client arrived. I stepped out of the room, and was greeted by Rena, the woman who ran the reception area in the co-op beauty salon I was renting my room in.

“Evening, Pro,” she grinned in my direction. She was a little older than me and as well-maintained as you’d expect someone who worked as the receptionist for a bunch of beauty professionals would be, with carefully highlighted brunette hair down to her chest and unbelievably perfect skin. We were the only people left in the building that evening, as everyone else had long since gone home. I envied them.

“Hey, Rena,” I greeted her, plastering a smile on my face and hoping that she wouldn’t sense how absolutely wiped out I was feeling. I was too young to feel so old! I felt as though I had been working my ass off and my body was showing the cracks around the edges, with my hands cramped and my legs sore from standing all day, but I still didn’t have much to show for all that effort. It sucked. And it was starting to get to me.

“One more client,” Rena said cheerfully, looking at her computer monitor. “Oh, I know that name!”

“Yeah, I recognized the name too.” I was glad to have something to talk about. “Where do you know him from?”

“Frank Rathbone, he’s…uh, now let me think.” She frowned for a moment, and then her face lit up with realization. “Oh yeah, he plays for the Firemen!”

“Oh, really?” I tried to muster up some excitement. I knew the Firemen were one of the two local professional football teams in this city, but I couldn’t say I paid a lot of attention to sports. I guess I must have absorbed his name through osmosis or something, because I couldn’t remember ever sitting down to watch a game.

“That’s a good one!” She nodded excitedly. “Him, coming here…”

She fluffed her hair and checked her nails, and I couldn’t help but smile. She had a sweet nature, and I was glad she was the one on reception, since she always cheered me up, even when I felt as though I had been through the ringer. “Oh, that’s him!” Rena announced, and I turned to see a man approaching the door. He was my height, lean and built, and you could tell just from looking at him that he was an athlete. He entered the building and Rena practically bounced up out of her seat to greet him.

“Welcome!” She was exuberant, and Frank cocked an eyebrow at her and then slid his gaze over to me. I extended my hand towards him.

“Frank Rathbone?” I greeted him, and he nodded. “You’re my next appointment.”

I made light conversation with him during our appointment. Sometimes, clients wanted complete silence with not a word from me, but he was different. He was a tight end for the Firemen (whatever that meant) and was married. He was personable and charming and the two of us actually got along pretty well, his whole body shaking under my hands a couple of times after I cracked a joke. It was a nice way to finish up the day, and it pulled my attention away from the number crunching that had been going on in my head since I realized I was a whole week late with the rent.

“That was perfect, thank you.” Frank peeled himself up from my table at the end of our appointment. “I’m glad I could come here. My usual guy moved, and I needed someone to work out the kinks.”

“Well, please come back,” I smiled at him warmly as I headed for the door to give him privacy to get dressed. “I sure will,” he flashed me a smile, and I felt something close to relief sweep through my system. Maybe he’d become a regular client. A well-off, moderately famous regular client. That was precisely the kind of shit I needed right now.

“How did it go?” Rena asked as soon as I stepped out of the small suite.

“Yeah, I think it went pretty well!” I smiled at her.

“You look a lot less stressed than when you went in,” she winked playfully. “Sure something didn’t happen in there?”

Oh, come on.” I waved my hand. “That’s not my thing. You know that.”

“If I got my hands on a man as fine as that,” Rena shrugged and smirked. “I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions.”

“Well, I could,” I replied firmly. “And he’s married, anyway. He can’t stop talking about his wife.”

“Fair enough,” she shook her head and laughed. “Maybe see if you can get him to bring along some of his single football player friends next time.”

Before I could reply again, Frank emerged from the room behind us, thanked me again, and went to settle his bill with Rena. I bid him farewell and ducked back inside to get the room clean for tomorrow, and when I stepped out a few minutes later, Rena was giving me a look that told me that something big had just happened.

 “What is it?” I asked. She handed me an envelope – my cash and receipts for the day.

“Oh, thanks!” I opened it up, looking to count the cash to see how close I was to actually making rent. Then my jaw dropped.

“Holy shit, there’s over two-hundred dollars in tips in here!” I gasped.

“Almost all of that’s from Frank,” Rena said with a grin. “Did you say anything about your rent needing paid or something?”

“Nothing.” I shook my head. “But I’ll leave this here for Jackie to pick up tomorrow.”

Jackie was the woman who owned the place, and she had been sweet enough not to harangue me too hard for the money I still owed her. But now that I had it, I didn’t want to wait any longer to pay up. I felt a weight lift from my shoulders and a grin cracked over my face.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I called back to Rena. I practically skipped out the door once I was done counting out the money for Jackie. I tucked the fifty or so bucks left over into my pocket and wondered what I was going to treat myself to that night. Sushi? Yeah, sushi sounded seriously good.

I arrived back at my small one-bedroom apartment with a fresh box of takeout sushi, and I called up Natalie. I hadn’t spoken to her all week – and I hadn’t seen her for months. I was starting to miss her. Now I had actually paid my rent, I could focus on something else – I had some bitching to do and tea to spill.

“Hey, Pro,” Natalie said cheerfully. She picked up the phone after a couple of rings, sounding a little warn out under her warm greeting. “How’s things going?”

“I just got an enormous tip from some football player and paid off my rent for the month,” I replied. “So I’m doing pretty good.”

“Ugh, want to send him in my direction?”

“You’re doing fine,” I reminded her. “I need him more than you. Keep your hands off.”

“And I suppose you’ll be keeping your hands on,” she remarked, and I could picture the mischievous twinkle in her eye. “So, outside of work? Any excitement? It’s been a boring week over here; I need you to spice up my life.”

“I went out on another date with Kieran a few days ago.”

“Oh?” She sounded curious and a little concerned. I knew why. Kieran hadn’t exactly been the best so far.

“Yeah…” I sighed, casting my mind back to the end of the evening when I’d last seen him, to how I’d felt after he’d said that. “It was a pretty good night, but before I left he made this comment about me eating a lot.”

“Oh, fuck that,” Natalie snapped back, angry on my behalf. “What did he say?”

“Uh, he wanted to pay less than half of the bill because I’d eaten more than he expected…” I was embarrassed to even say it. I wasn’t a waif, but I definitely wasn’t fat. I was more of a Serena Williams than a Naomi Campbell or Bella Hadid – a bit big boned, with feminine curves, and thick with muscle.

“He took you to dinner, and he didn’t expect you to eat?” She sounded incredulous. “What kind of asshole is he?”

 “I don’t know. Maybe he just didn’t know how it would sound,” I protested, not sure why I was defending him. Kieran hadn’t explicitly told me that I was too thick for his tastes, but he had already gotten the message across.

“You didn’t sleep with him, did you?” She sounded pissed.

“Not yet,” I assured her. I would have that night, but after what he said, I just couldn’t get in a sexy mood.

“You could do better than that, Pro, seriously,” she implored me. “I don’t like him. It’s not the first time he’s made a comment about your weight.”

“Yeah, I know,” I sighed, knowing she was right and just not quite feeling up to accepting that right now. “But it’s not like I’m seeing anyone else at the moment…”

“That doesn’t mean you have to put up with his crusty ass,” she replied. “Go hit up that football player of yours. I bet he’s something.”

“Yeah, he’s married,” I replied with a laugh – it sounded tired, forced.

“I bet you not all of his teammates are,” she pointed out, and I rolled my eyes skyward.

“I know I’m relatively new at adulting, but I feel like hitting up clients for dates is about the most unprofessional thing I could possibly do,” I pointed out. “Besides, I only just got him, I don’t want to scare him away…”

We spent the rest of the night talking, maybe a good three hours on the phone. She was my oldest and best friend, and she was utterly, completely fearless and bold in a way that I often found myself longing to be. Bright, funny, and almost as ambitious as me, Natalie was a dreamer. She was always the one with a dozen new ideas in the works and the wherewithal to make it happen.

I thought about what she’d said about Kieran after we’d hung up, as I was getting ready for bed. Standing in the shower and running my hands over my body, I couldn’t help but run through all the comments he’d made to me the few times we’d seen each other. They weren’t much, and I had been happy to dismiss them at the time as nothing more than him being a stupid dude who didn’t know how the words that came out of his mouth sounded to me, but they had started to add up. As if I wasn’t insecure enough about my body as it was – I was tall, sure, but I was also thick, with large, solid thighs and a tummy that would never be quite flat and arms that were a bit more than toned from all the time I spent massaging my clients. In my heart, I knew I wasn’t fat, but sometimes, when someone like Kieran dropped a comment about how much I was eating or the outfit I was wearing, I found myself eyeing my body with distaste and dissatisfaction.

I climbed out of the shower and pulled on my biggest, baggiest top, not wanting to see or feel my body for the rest of the night. I checked my phone before I slid into bed, hoping I might have a last-minute booking coming through, but instead I found a message from Kieran waiting for me.

“Hope you had a good night,” it read. “I’ll see you soon.”

It was closed off with a single kiss emoji, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it waiting there for me. It was nice to at least feel wanted, especially when I’m all alone in the city. And maybe Natalie had been wrong. She didn’t know him like I did, and it was clear that he just didn’t know how all these comments came across to me. His skull was possibly as thick as my body. I texted him a goodnight response, set my alarm, and slipped into bed.

 

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