When i need you, p.1
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       When I Need You, p.1
 

         Part #4 of Need You series by Lorelei James  



  One

  JENSEN

  Getting a head-butt to the groin was the perfect capper to my crap day.

  I stepped off the elevator on the second floor of my apartment building, pulling my roller bag behind me. When I turned the corner—wham!—a hard head connected with my crotch.

  Grunting, I crumpled against the wall for a moment, thighs clamped together to try to block out the pain.

  Motherfuck did that hurt.

  When I didn’t hear a “Gee, mister, I’m sorry,” I glanced up to see my crotch smasher sailing down the hallway, long brown curls bobbing as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

  That pissed me off.

  “Hey, little girl,” I yelled.

  The figure spun around and glared at me. “I’m not a girl.”

  “With that long hair I assumed—”

  “You have long hair,” he pointed out.

  “I’m not wearing a dress,” I shot back at him.

  “It’s not a dress. It’s a hakama.”

  “Looks like a damn dress,” I muttered. I closed my eyes and silently willed the throbbing pain in my groin to go away.

  Stupid visualization exercises never worked.

  Sighing, I pushed off the wall and opened my eyes. I said, “Look, kid, we . . .”

  But he was gone.

  Where the hell had he disappeared to so fast?

  He’d probably slipped into an apartment. But I knew everyone who lived in my building, and no one had kids.

  Maybe in the two weeks you’ve been gone someone new moved in.

  That’d be an issue since Bob the building manager was supposed to restrict families with kids to the other building.

  Did this kid’s parents know he was running the halls unattended? Did they care?

  If I ever ran into them, they’d get a piece of my mind about their son’s behavior.

  Why don’t you shake your fist in the air too, you grumpy old man?

  I’d cop to being grumpy, but I wasn’t old. No matter what my body felt like some days.

  I shambled down the hallway to my apartment. After unlocking the door, I dragged my suitcase inside.

  The piney scent lingering throughout the space indicated the cleaning service had been here recently. When I snagged a sparkling water out of the refrigerator, I noticed my personal chef had delivered this week’s meals. Now that I wasn’t on vacation, I had to get back to healthy eating. Training started in roughly eleven weeks, and I already had enough to overcome without showing up looking like a lard ass.

  My damn balls throbbed, so I grabbed an ice pack out of the freezer and hobbled into the living room. As soon as my butt connected with my square-shaped sofa, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. God I loved this couch. Sort of pathetic that I’d rather have it beneath me than a woman.

  I heard my phone buzzing in the outside pocket of my suitcase, but I ignored it. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. I needed time to chill. Yeah, I’d just returned from vacation, but only the last week had been flop-on-the-beach-with-a-beer time. I’d spent the previous week at the clinic in Florida with the doc who’d done my surgeries. He and his sadistic outpatient review team had performed every stress, mobility, agility and functionality test ever invented on my body to gauge the success of my surgeries last year.

  They marveled at the progress I’d made since my last visit. They told me I’d surpassed their initial expectations for recovery. They listed all the medical milestones I’d passed. But they hadn’t told me the one thing—the only thing—I wanted to know: Would I ever play football at the same level as I had before the injury?

  An injury that had kept me off the football field all of last season.

  Actually, it’d been a combination of injuries. A late hit had knocked me out. So in addition to getting a concussion, at some point during the play I’d dislocated my kneecap—not that I’d been aware of that injury at the time. When I’d finally come to in the hospital—that had been freaky as hell—I hadn’t been able to feel anything from the waist down due to paralysis.

  Paralysis.

  Even now I can’t wrap my head around that word.

  When I think back, it seemed as if it’d happened to someone else. My neck in a cervical collar. My arm in a sling. As I lay in that hospital bed, I felt nothing. I’d wanted to scream but I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to even speak.

  Then the drugs kicked in and I drifted back into the black void.

  Upon awaking several hours later alone in my hospital room, I tried to wiggle my toes, roll my ankles, shift my thighs, force any kind of movement, but I just ended up sweaty and frustrated.

  And scared. Holy shit I’d experienced fear in that hospital bed like I’d never known.

  Sleep became my refuge. For twenty-four hours the doctors watched me for signs of improvement or decline. When I groggily complained about the throbbing pain in my right knee, the doctors did another full, thorough and painful examination. They determined the hematoma on my spine had caused the temporary paralysis. When the swelling decreased, so did the paralysis.

  I’d never welcomed pain like I had that night. I refused pain meds. I wanted to feel every twinge and every burning, stabbing pain—it was better than never feeling anything again.

  Two days after the paralysis scare, my family loaded me into the Lund Industries private Learjet. The medical professionals associated with the Minnesota Vikings organization recommended a surgeon in Florida, so I was off to Pensacola for diagnosis and surgery.

  My shoulder injury required surgery, and the recovery time was four months. It was one of the most trying times in my life, despite the fact that the surgery had gone well and the prognosis for recovery was excellent. While I appreciated the unconditional support my family provided, they’d been extremely smothering.

  During the second week of physical therapy, when I became frustrated with my lack of progress increasing my walking speed, I asked for another set of tests because I knew something else was wrong. The tests revealed I’d ruptured my Achilles tendon. The knee injury had masked that issue, and my knee turned out to be the least of my worries.

  An Achilles rupture can be a kiss of death to a football player. I could name a dozen careers abruptly ended by that particular injury. After the surgery to repair the rupture—which I couldn’t schedule until my knee was one hundred percent—the recovery time was a year. So sitting in the doctor’s office in Florida, I knew I’d miss the entire next season.

  Although I’d signed a three-year contract, this type of injury was a game changer. The team could pay me the remainder of my guaranteed salary and cut me from the team, turning me into a free agent. But if the Vikings released me due to their medical concerns, what other NFL team would want to take a chance on me?

  None.

  Thankfully I’d had the best year of my career prior to the injury, so I’d been placed on the injured reserve list. The big bosses assigned me a sports medicine therapist/trainer. Dante was a cool guy. He knew when to push me and when to back off. He and I spent a lot of hours together, yet I never forgot where his loyalties were. He’d accompanied me to Florida for my one-year postsurgical checkup—so he could accurately report the doctor’s diagnosis back to the coaching staff. I guess they didn’t trust that I’d be totally honest.

  After the week in Florida, Dante tagged along with me to Mexico. While he sampled tequila and women at the exclusive resort, I spent hours walking on the beach and staring at the ocean, trying to figure out what to do with my life when playing football professionally was no longer an option. Because I could be facing that decision in as little as three months.

  Right now I was exactly where I claimed I’d wanted to be the past two weeks: sitting on my comfy couch in m
y apartment. So why was I so restless? Why was I lonely?

  I tipped my head back on the cushion and stared at the ceiling.

  You’re lonely? Call your brothers. Or your sister. Or your parents. Or your cousins. They’d be here, or ask you to meet them someplace in a heartbeat.

  But my feet didn’t move. My will was as lazy as my body today. When I held out my hand toward my suitcase, my phone didn’t magically fly into it like Harry Potter’s broom did when he called out, “Accio!” That’d be a cool power. It’d be even cooler to have a magic wand that fixed everything.

  I shifted the ice pack on my groin. I must’ve been sitting there longer than I’d been aware of because the gel had become gooey and warm.

  Don’t be a brooding asshole. Do something productive.

  Maybe my neighbor Martin would be up for a video game marathon. If nothing else, the dude made me laugh, especially when he talked about the things he’d seen and heard around the apartment complex. I’d bet he knew who the nut-smashing kid belonged to.

  Since Martin lived across from me, I didn’t bother to put on a shirt before I stepped in the hallway. If he bitched about me being shirtless, I’d point out that my brother-in-law Axl—former tenant of my apartment—had strolled around buck-ass naked most of the time. At least I had my bottom half covered.

  One other thing about my buddy Martin? He took mellow to a whole new level on account of he liked his weed. He never pressured me to smoke with him, not only because I had random drug testing through the team, but I suspected he preferred a higher-end product and wasn’t inclined to share. But Martin was a great guy and a nonjudgmental friend. He wouldn’t demand the details about my medical visit in Florida; he’d just be happy I was back.

  I knocked. And waited.

  And waited.

  Sometimes forcefully pounding on the door was the only way to catch Martin’s attention when he had his earbuds in. But if he didn’t answer within a reasonable time frame, I figured he and his lady, Verily, were banging the headboard.

  So I knocked louder.

  No response after several long moments.

  Rather than returning to my apartment, I used both hands, rapping my knuckles against the wood in staccato bursts—machine-gun style.

  I heard the chain on the inside of the door rattling and couldn’t stop my enormous grin, or from saying, “It’s about fucking time, man,” when the door started to open.

  But my grin vanished when I realized the person framed in the doorjamb wasn’t Martin, but a redheaded woman with fire in her eyes.

  What the hell? Who was this chick answering Martin’s door? I gave her a very thorough head-to-toe inspection—lush lips, killer rack, curvy hips molded by a tight black skirt and bare toes—before my gaze zoomed back up to meet her angry eyes.

  I said the first thing that popped into my head. “Who the hell are you?”

  Two

  ROWAN

  Jensen Lund didn’t have the first freakin’ clue who I was.

  Not that I should’ve been surprised. He was exactly like every other high-achieving jock I’d dealt with: exuding an air of entitlement and ignoring the “little people” outside his sports stratosphere.

  “Who are you?” Jensen demanded again.

  I’d had a crap day and all I wanted was a few moments of peace while my son watched Netflix. I didn’t owe this man anything. Especially given his rude behavior.

  “I’m none of your damn business. Don’t bother me again or I’ll call the building manager and report you.”

  I slammed the door in his face.

  It felt good. Maybe more dramatic than the situation called for, but good nonetheless.

  Still . . . it did surprise me that The Rocket lived in this apartment complex.

  Maybe he’s slumming while construction on his mansion is under way.

  That had to be it.

  Besides, my brother would’ve told me that the lauded Vikings tight end was his neighbor. Then again, my rocky past with another football player might’ve convinced Martin not to even mention it to me.

  No matter. We’d probably never see each other, and that suited me just fine.

  As a single mother with two jobs, I needed a mental reset at the end of my workday to switch from dealing with college students to becoming Mommy to my six-year-old son. I felt zero guilt for letting Calder watch cartoons for fifteen or twenty minutes while my transformation took place.

  After I slipped on my wireless headphones and hit play on my cell phone, I opened the sliding glass doors and stepped onto the balcony. Spring had definitely arrived in Minneapolis. Buds on the trees. Tulips, crocus, hyacinth and peonies poking up from the ground. Grass greening up. Birds twittering. I drew in several deep breaths. Music. Fresh air. I could feel the tension seeping out from my pores.

  I’d already started dinner when Calder finished his TV show and scrambled onto the barstool, setting his elbows on the breakfast bar. “What’s for supper?”

  I finished chopping the onions and slid them into the pan. “Right now it’s just cooked hamburger so the options are endless. Spanish rice, goulash, tacos, beef and rice or sloppy joes.”

  “Sloppy joes.”

  “Excellent choice, Chef Michaels.”

  He giggled.

  That sound always made me smile. I glanced up, noticing for the first time what he had on. “Why are you wearing that?”

  He shrugged. “I was playing ninja-samurai.”

  “With who? Alicia?” Alicia worked for me as a nanny during the week, picking Calder up from school and staying with him until I got home.

  “Didja know these pants make a cool flapping noise when I run really fast?”

  “I imagine so, but where were you running really fast?”

  A beat of silence. Then he answered, “Uh, around.”

  “Around where?” This apartment was much smaller than our last one and there wasn’t room to run.

  When my son avoided my eyes, I knew something was up. “Calder Adam Michaels. Tell me where you were. Right now.”

  His words rushed out. “Alicia was on her phone again and I was bored so I went out into the hallway and ran the whole thing like three times. Then the last time this giant came around the corner and I ran into him with my head—bam!—right in his pee-shooter. He yelled a bunch of grown-up words and closed his eyes real tight. So I ran to the end of the hall and hid behind the door to the outside but he didn’t find me so I musta hid real good, huh?”

  There were so many, many, many things wrong with this scenario I didn’t know where to start.

  Stay calm. Do not yell.

  “Did Alicia know you were gone?”

  Calder shook his head.

  All sorts of worst-case scenarios ran through my head, and I fought back my panic. How could I let it slide that she’d ignored Calder—he’d snuck out and she hadn’t noticed?—when her only job was to watch him?

  “Oh, and the guy called me a girl too,” Calder added.

  “What do you mean he called you a girl? I thought you ran and hid?”

  “Umm, after I started to get away from him he said, ‘Hey little girl’ and I turned to tell him that I wasn’t a girl.”

  “What did this guy look like?”

  “A giant. With lots of muscles.”

  “Light hair? Dark hair?”

  “Light hair. Long, kinda like mine.”

 
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