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Red Zone


Shannon West

TS McKinney


Red Zone

Copyright © 2019 Shannon West, TS McKinney

Published by Painted Hearts Publishing

Smashwords Edition


About the eBook You Have Purchased


All rights reserved. Without reserving the rights under copyright, reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or any other means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. Distribution of this e-book, in whole or in part, is forbidden. Such action is illegal and in violation of the U.S. Copyright Law.

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Red Zone

Copyright © 2019 Shannon West, TS McKinney


ISBN 10: 1-946379-63-8

ISBN 13: 978-1-946379-63-4


Publication Date March 2019

Authors: Shannon West, TS McKinney

All cover art and logo copyright © 2019 by Painted Hearts Publishing

Cover Design by E Keith


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.






A Note from the Authors:



This novel is a work of fiction, one we first imagined one cloudy Fall Saturday while on a trip to the mountains of North Carolina. As it says in the front matter, “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is strictly coincidental.”

But while our characters are fictional, we would like to acknowledge that some of the situations they find themselves in are ones that are shared with thousands each year. In the book, Kingston engages in cutting, the most common form of “non-suicidal self-injury”. Our intention in including this in the novel is to give light to a real issue faced by people his age and the impact it has on their day-to-day lives. One study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine reported that while 4% of adults in the United States engage in this behavior, the risk among college students ranges from 17% to as high as 35% in some areas.

If you or someone you love has or is struggling with self-injury, you may find some parts of this novel to be triggering.

If you or someone you love is struggling, please consider reaching out to one of the many organizations that offer understanding and support. A few such places to find assistance are:

1-800-DONTCUT (800-366-8288), OR selfinjury.com

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255

The Trevor Project, www.thetrevorproject.org, 866-488-7386







Prologue



Kingston Bentley


“This is total bullshit and you know it, Coach! Kingston would never do something like what he’s being accused of and that damn girl is lying!” Caleb Peterson, our Athletic Director, screamed in outrage and frustration.

Me? I just sat staring into space, unable to believe what I’d just heard from the cop who had just pulled me out of practice to arrest me. They said your entire life passes in front of you when you’re in an accident, but I could honestly say it happens just the same when your future and possibly your freedom is swept away right before your very eyes—the future I’d dreamed about and training for since I was only a kid.

Poof. Just like that, I could see it all being washed away, all the hard work and the careful lies I’d built, leaving me floundering around with absolutely nothing to hold onto. The lies weren’t about any crimes I was supposed to have committed—I’d done nothing wrong and Caleb Peterson was right. The girl was either badly mistaken about who had attacked and raped her, or she was flat-out lying.

No, the lies had been about how “perfect” my life had been up to now, when the reality was far uglier. I was terrified that my parents and everybody else was going to find out how truly unworthy I was. I was supposed to be the perfect son, the perfect student, the perfect athlete, the fucking perfect everything. And I’d tried. God only knew how hard. But it was all just a pretty façade, while on the inside, I was a mess. A seething mass of inadequacies. The loss of my football career and the idea that I could possibly be sent to prison for a crime I didn’t commit paled in comparison to that truth coming out for the world to see. All my work, all the hours of sweat in the gym and on the field, and all my efforts to impress my parents and my coaches were ending faster than they’d begun, and I had no idea what to do to stop it.

I slowly looked up at AD Peterson and his gaze pleaded with me to say something to defend myself. Anything. I knew he wanted me to say just one goddamn word, but I couldn’t. My tongue was glued inside my mouth. I stood frozen, unable to do anything other than think about the disgrace I was about to bring down on my family, the team, the coaching staff, the fans. And myself.

So, as AD Peterson silently tried to get me to come up something to say, I quietly accepted defeat. I’d just take my chance in the court system. I hadn’t raped her so there couldn’t be any evidence in existence. I couldn’t get sent to jail without evidence, right? Then again, I’d read somewhere that nobody gets justice in this life. There’s only good luck and bad luck.

Hoping no one else would notice, I gave my head a slight negative shake as I locked eyes with my older friend and mentor. His look of utter disappointment and defeat told me he’d noticed my inability to defend myself. That look nearly caused my knees to buckle.

“Sorry, Mr. Peterson,” one of the police detectives said quietly, “but a charge of rape has been made against Kingston Bentley and we have no choice but to arrest him.” As he spoke, he pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt and held them in front of him. If it mattered—which it didn’t—he did look like he wasn’t enjoying the job of ruining my life. “If he’s innocent, everything will work out properly, I assure you.”

Peterson stepped straight into the armed policeman’s personal space. “You assure us? Really? How the fuck do you figure that? I guess none of you stopped to realize that Kingston is the starting quarterback in the National Championship game in less than seven days or that we’re scheduled to leave for the stadium in three days?” He leaned in closer. “I suppose it never dawned on any of you that this could be a lie in order to sabotage his ability to lead us to our third title in three years?” He whipped his head around to glare at Coach Sawyer, who’d been silent throughout the entire ordeal. “Damn it, are you just going to sit there and let this happen, Sawyer?”

Coach Sawyer stood up. “It doesn’t look like we have much choice, Caleb. None of us believe Kingston would do such a thing, but this young lady deserves to have her allegations handled through the proper processes of the law. If we even attempted to throw our weight around and intervene with the judicial system, we would look sexist and completely dishonest—a team that only focuses on winning instead of one that builds character and wins at the same time.”

Peterson reeled back like he’d been slapped. His eyes blazed as he looked at the Coach he’d hired, the man he called a friend. It made me sick that I was the focus of their argument. It also hurt that Coach seemed so calm and collected—like he didn’t really know me as a person or that I’d already led them to two National Championships in the same number of years.

Peterson crossed his arms over his chest and spread his legs in an intimidating stance. “Well, now…aren’t we lucky that you brought your son on as backup quarterback for Kingston? Funny how things work out, isn’t it?”

Sarcasm dripped off his voice as I allowed his words to sink into my skull. Fuck…was there a connection? I’d thought it strange when word had first gotten around the locker room that Coach Sawyer’s oldest son, Memphis, was planning on a transfer to our team. I’d heard about his son—Memphis had been a super star quarterback on a team in the Big Ten Conference up until this season. It seemed ridiculous for him to leave his team to join ours, since we already had a starting quarterback. Me. But maybe there had been a plan all along to get rid of me and let him take over.

I’d only had one real interaction with Memphis—the shocking night we’d met. And that had been plenty enough for me. Ever since that night, I’d lived in fear of what he’d tell his father and the team. So far, he’d kept his mouth shut, but I believed it was only a matter of time until he told everything he knew. It was one more thing I had to worry about, and I felt like I was already drowning in a sea of stress.

We hadn’t exactly done a lot of talking that first night—I hadn’t been in any shape to talk that night. So when I saw him again in the locker room, and his father—our coach—had introduced him to the team, I’d thought I was going to pass out from fear of him outing me. But he hadn’t even glanced in my direction and he’d been with the team for months now, since the beginning of the season. I was still waiting for him to tell what he knew and destroy me. But telling about me would expose him too, so maybe he and his dad had found another way to get rid of me.

My eyes lifted upward, first connecting with Peterson’s furious gaze and then drifting over to look at my coach. My mentor. My friend. His oddly colored gray eyes met my gaze straight on. I could be imagining it, but there did appear to be a tiny amount of sympathy swirling in those stormy depths. Or was it deceit? I hadn’t raped the girl. Hell, I didn’t even know her. Had someone convinced her to make false allegations to weaken our chances at winning? Or had my own coach convinced her to lie in order to kick the door wide open for Memphis Sawyer to take my place as quarterback?

No way. This was football—a sport I loved, but still... This was my fucking life! Could anybody be so heartless as to ruin it because of a football game?

“Please stand up, Mr. Bentley,” the officer said as he opened the cuffs. “I’m sorry I have to do this, but it’s the law.”

Shit, this was really happening. My team was on the field, running practice drills and wondering where in the hell I was while handcuffs were about to be slapped on my wrists. My legs trembled as I stood up and turned my back to the officer, so he could clamp the cuffs into place. The cold metal against my flesh caused me to flinch in shock.

Fuck, I was going to jail.

“I’ll contact your parents as soon as possible, Kingston,” Peterson said quietly. “We’ll have you out before the end of the day.”

I didn’t even turn around. “I’ll be fine, Mr. Peterson.” As for Sawyer, I had nothing to say to the coach who may very well have betrayed me. I heard a roaring sound inside my head when the officer started reading me my rights as he led me out of the office. This wasn’t me. I didn’t break rules. I did as I was told. I was—I had to be—perfect.

As soon as we walked out, the office door slammed shut, and I could hear Mr. Peterson shouting at Coach Sawyer. Funny, as loud as they were, it was the officer’s soft-spoken reading of my rights that echoed most loudly in my ears. The few students bustling around in the locker room hallways stopped and stared…then the whispering started. Before they got me to the car, most of the campus would probably already know about my arrest. At the end of the hallway stood Memphis Sawyer, a strange expression on his handsome face as he watched our approach. He’d only been on the team for less than a season, and in that time, other than our one brief encounter, I’d tried everything in my power to avoid him off the field, but I’d still seen too much of him. And he’d seen way too much of me. Literally.

Sadly, I’d liked what I saw—Memphis’s physical appearance, at least. To be perfectly honest, he was everything I wanted to be—a few inches taller, with the broad shoulders and hard, rangy muscles of a good quarterback. He was handsome and smart too. I’d heard he had a solid 4.0 average, which was incredible, because the school he’d transferred from had a reputation for being academically tough. And he made it all look effortless. I hated him. I hated him with every fiber of my being. I tried to tell myself I only admired his physique as a way to try to convince myself to push harder in the weight room, but I knew the truth, and I was afraid that he did too.

“What’s happened, Kingston?” he asked, when we got close enough to him, his dark eyes expressing what had to be a fake concern.

“Fuck off,” I answered, my voice so full of hurt and hate that it surprised even me. In the short span of time since I’d been arrested, I’d made up my mind that Memphis and his father were behind the lies—just like that. No evidence needed. Hatred that I didn’t know I possessed washed over me as I stared at the man who’d knocked me off my pedestal. The man who had the power to crush me completely if he told what he knew.


****


Two days after my arrest, there was a hearing to see if bond would be set, but the judge, while not outright denying bond, set my bail at such a high amount that he may as well have. The lawyer Mr. Peterson had arranged for me explained that it was because there was a lot of news sensation around the arrest, with rumors swirling that nothing would happen to me because of who I was and the team I played for. So…I sat in jail and endured the humiliating shit they put the prisoners through like constant strip searches and zero privacy. I’m a private person, and that shit played hell with my nerves.

Due to my so-called celebrity status, I had at least been kept in solitary confinement, away from any other prisoners. While I wasn’t allowed to watch television, not even during the one hour I was allowed out of my cell, some of the guards taunted me about how well Memphis had stepped into my shoes—winning my team’s third National Championship with his outstanding passing and magical feet. Fuck Memphis Sawyer! Fuck his father. Fuck the team. Fuck the school. Fuck my life. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Other than my parents and my lawyer, the only person who contacted me at all was AD Peterson, calling daily to check on my welfare. My parents had also hired the best criminal law attorney in the state to add to my defense team and had already hired a private investigator to dig into the girl’s allegations against me.

The girl’s name was Macy Bennett. I hadn’t realized it at first, but I did know her. She was in my Calculus class…which was the extent of my interaction with her. When my father found out I knew her, he had looked at me like he was wondering if I could be guilty after all. I’d been crushed by that look, physically and mentally.

One of my attorneys visited on the second day and told me I had nothing to worry about. He’d already filed the appeal papers to have the judge’s ruling to keep me in prison overturned and felt very confident I’d be out before the end of the month.

A fucking month!

“Hey, Bentley!” The guard called out as he slid the key into my cell lock. “Stand up but don’t come near the door!”

They said the same damn thing every time they came to give me my hour of imprisoned freedom. Bastards.

As always, I did as I was told but my mind screamed that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t time for my hour out of my cell. What the fuck? Were they taking me somewhere to kill me? Surely that shit only happened in the movies?

“It…it…isn’t time for my hour, is it?” I asked quietly, figuring I was wasting my breath, because they rarely answered my questions. Sure, they loved feeding me information they knew would hurt me, but other than that, they remained tight-lipped. I knew this officer’s name was Adam because I’d heard the other guys call him that, and he was marginally nicer than the other guards. At least he didn’t look at me with disgust.

He stared at me for a few long seconds and then said, “No, Bentley, it isn’t. You’re going home. Don’t worry about your belongings. They’ll have them waiting for you at the gate by the time you finish checking out. Follow me.”

He turned to walk away, offering me his back which was something they never did. “Home? Why? Did my appeal go through the courts without me knowing about it?”

“No, the appeal didn’t go through the courts. The girl dropped the charges, said she made the whole thing up because she had a crush on you, but you never paid her any attention,” he said as he motioned for me to go through the cell door in front of him.

I stumbled over my own feet and stumbled to a stop. “What? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“We don’t usually joke about those things around here, son,” he answered dryly. “They’re working on your release papers now. Be thankful she finally came to her senses, and you’re getting out of here.”

I was thankful. I was also very pissed off. “What will they do to her?” I asked as we walked through the maze of boring concrete walls and floors.

Adam shrugged. “Unfortunately, probably not a whole lot. She’s already got a lawyer who alleges the girl is mentally unstable. She’ll probably be ordered to pay a fine, maybe do community work. That’s probably about it. You didn’t hear this from me, but you could probably bring a civil suit, though that might seem to some folks like the big football star is beating up on some poor little girl.” We reached the door and he pushed the buzzer that would tell the guards on the other side to open it for us. It was the room where I had been strip-searched, so my gut twisted in distress.

“Not a lot? Yeah, sure, that sounds fair,” I said, feeling worn out and sarcastic.

We walked into the small room and my personal belongings were in a clear plastic bag on a desk in the corner. There was also a bundle of clothes, jeans, a button-up, and some boots next to the bag. I recognized them as my own clothing.

“Your family brought you some more clothes and are waiting outside. Get dressed and go through your personal belongings to ensure everything’s there. You’ll have to sign for it before you leave. If anything’s missing, tell the next officer. You have ten minutes to get dressed before they’ll be in to escort you out.” He stuck out his hand. “Good luck, Bentley. I’m sorry this happened.”

Sorry this happened? I had a feeling an apology was probably going to be the only thing I’d receive before the end of this shitshow. What did it matter anyway? For the first time in my life, I felt like someone had dumped disgrace, shame and me all into a blender and turned it up on high. I hadn’t always been the golden child—that had been my late brother—but after his death, I tried so hard to never get in any trouble or break any rules, because my parents had been grieving so much. I didn’t want to add to their heartache.

I began trying hard to make the best grades I could and be the best at everything I did. Especially sports, because that’s where Eric had excelled. Trying to do anything I could to make up for the fact that I was still alive and my brother Eric wasn’t. When my coaches, or classmates looked at me, it had always been with awe and a tad of envy. My father wasn’t always on board. He had always pushed me to be better, score more, and be…more. But that just pushed me to try harder.

Well, I was no longer the golden boy now, that was for sure, and I couldn’t help but wonder how my parents, especially my dad, would look at me now. It wouldn’t matter that I was innocent and that the girl had lied—they’d only worry about the damage to our reputations and my place on the team.

The paperwork for my release took much longer than necessary, but the moment I’d walked outside the doors and sunlight blasted my face, causing me to blink several times to try and adjust my eyes, one look at my father’s scowling face told me all I needed to know.

He was angry and even worse, he was ashamed. Of me. I dropped my gaze and slowly walked toward him.





Chapter One



Memphis Sawyer

A few months later


“Why, Dad? Why are you doing this?” I argued for the hundredth time. “Kingston Bentley led this team, your team, to two National Championships. He deserves better from you.” I’d been pacing the polished floors of my father’s home office with frustration oozing off me as arrogance radiated off him. He was a fucking good coach and an even better father, but when he thought he was right about something, everybody that crossed him had better stand down because he wouldn’t budge. Right now, I was smack dead center of that stand-down zone, but I couldn’t make myself end the discussion before I somehow managed to get him to understand what a colossal mistake he was making.

He leaned forward in his leather chair, and propped his elbows on the desk. “Because you’re the better quarterback, Memphis. I’m not at this school to babysit a bunch of crybabies or over-sized boys who pout when they don’t get their way. I’m head coach in order to win games, bring home championships, and make money for the school. That’s what my decisions are based on.”

After huffing in frustration, I countered with my usual, “Kingston Bentley is a fucking good quarterback.”

“I agree. He just isn’t as good as you. I’m sorry if that hurts his feelings or pisses the team or students off, but the facts are the facts. I’ve made my decision and you’re the one who led this team to its third championship.” He stood up and looked at his watch. “You’re a leader, Memphis. Prove it. Make the team follow you. Once they respect you, they’ll do what needs to be done.”

“And Kingston?” There was no way Kingston Bentley would ever respect me. Following his release from jail after the charges were dropped, he’d quietly finished his junior year. The team had gotten a short break, and I’d only seen him once during those months. One memorable time that we both would just as soon forget for a variety of reasons. When we had our first official team meeting three days ago, he’d looked like a different person than the Kingston who had been the school and team hero. He’d stayed in shape, gotten even leaner with impressively defined muscles, but there was an emptiness to him that wasn’t there before. He went through all the motions, doing everything he was told without question, but the spark in his eyes had diminished to a dimness that troubled me.

Considering how he felt about me, I wasn’t sure why I cared, but I did. Hell, who was I fooling? I cared because of the night we’d met—the one I still hadn’t been able to forget. I worried about him, and I couldn’t seem to turn that off. He’d been given a raw deal and I felt to blame. Maybe if the school and the team had accepted me, I’d be just like my father—focused only on winning. I just didn’t think so.

My father sighed. “I’m tired of arguing about this! What can I tell you, son? I believe in keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. You and Kingston will be sharing a suite of rooms in one of our condos. Play nice with him and maybe some of those bullseye posters with your face in the middle will disappear from the cheerleader’s sorority house.” He shrugged. “Or maybe not. I don’t really care. You’re here to play ball and win games, not to try and get a fan club started.”

I stopped pacing. “There are posters with my face in the bullseye? In the cheerleader’s sorority house?” Hell, I loved cheerleaders. They usually loved me. Fuck this stupid drama. I should have stayed where I was in the Big Ten—I’d been happy there.

He chuckled. “That’s one of the nicer things I’ve heard about.”

I glared at him and wondered for the hundredth time why I’d listened to him and come here. I understood that he was the winningest college football coach in the nation and had seven National Championship titles under his belt —which easily made him the best of the best and boosted his cocky level off the charts…but about this one issue at least, he was dead wrong in every way.

Hell, convincing me to move from a college I loved and where I was idolized to one where I was viewed as a pariah was the first of his mistakes and definitely not the last he’d made in this whole debacle. It was like he was on a slippery slope of stupid and was sitting on one of those round snow sleds lubed up with whatever Clark W. Griswold had used on Christmas Vacation.

His first mistake was moving me to his team when he already had a damn good quarterback that had given him two championships and had been working on his third. The media immediately started buzzing nonstop about nepotism and some even went so far as to check the rules to see if my father was in violation. He wasn’t, but that still didn’t make it a good idea for either of us.

His second mistake was not publicly standing behind his former quarterback when the shit hit the fan. Third—sliding me into his position without the slightest hesitation or showing the least bit of guilt. Fourth, and arguably the biggest of all—announcing to the team that I would be the starting quarterback for our new season and not Kingston Bentley, even though he’d been completely exonerated, and the girl had admitted she’d lied.

In my opinion, it was Kingston’s job to lose—not to have taken away from him because the girl had lied about him and opened the door for me to waltz straight through. Sure, I’d played a hell of a game—I had no false modesty about that. We’d easily won, beating our opponents by over twenty points, but there were so many other factors involved with the win. The other team had prepared their defense to face Kingston, not me. Kingston was a running quarterback. I ran when I had to but mostly stayed in the pocket and launched the long ball. They’d been caught with their pants down, and we’d taken advantage of the situation. End of story.

“Oh, man up, Memphis,” my father said. “I raised you to be stronger than this. Handle Kingston and handle the team. If you can’t master this situation, you’ll never be able to play for the NFL.”

The NFL—that was his dream, and I wondered if it had become mine because of that. At the moment, I was simply trying to survive my last year of college without the students and football team finding a way to make me disappear—permanently. I was being overdramatic, but in spite of my royal status because of my father, I didn’t enjoy walking over people because of my last name and family football history.

“I think you’re missing the big picture here, Dad. Half the students believe that either me or you paid that girl to lie about Kingston in order to set me up to play the championship game. The other half simply hate me on principle. Hell, the entire team dislikes me, because they’re all loyal to Kingston. Even I don’t think Kingston is being treated fairly. I’m not afraid to fight for my rights as starting quarterback, but you handed it to me on a silver platter in practice today and did you see the look on his face? How the hell do you think that looks to everybody?”

He stalked over into my personal space, the way he always did when he was intent on getting his way or trying to prove a point. After years of practice, I stood my ground and looked down at him. At some point, he needed to realize I had three inches and about sixty pounds of muscle mass on him. Obviously, today wasn’t that day because his eyes darkened with determination and a trace of anger.

“I don’t care how it looks to everybody, Memphis. I care about developing a winning team. You’re the better quarterback.” He stepped even closer. “Use your head and make this work. That’s why I’m putting you and Bentley in the same suite. The answer’s there. Find it and make it happen.” He looked at his watch for the second time, which meant I was being completely dismissed. As he started walking toward the door, he said, “And another thing—stay away from your Uncle Nicholas and those clubs that I know you and he enjoy going to. If the media was to get wind of something as…immoral as what you and your uncle participate in, they’d have a field day with it. One year, Memphis—that’s all I’m asking of you.”

Immoral? He thought my actions were immoral?

I chuckled to myself. Dear ole dad had no idea just how immoral I could be, especially with a flogger in my hand. My uncle, who was a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company and my favorite relative in the family, had introduced me to his favorite activity when I was just out of high school, after he’d caught me watching porn on the internet. Porn that involved a Dom and his sub during some intense play time. Since then, he’d seen to it that I had been properly and expertly trained. That had been three years ago, and there was no way I was about to agree to stay away from the private clubs I enjoyed. My father might refer to it as immoral, but I called it making someone scream with pleasure…pleasure I had given them. One way or another, he was going to have to learn to accept me for what I was. He called that deviant. What could I say? I liked what I liked and I made no apology for it.

“I’m confident I explained to you that I wouldn’t give up that part of my lifestyle when I agreed to come down here, Dad,” I answered as calmly as possible. “I know how to be discreet, so get off my back about it.”

Between the shit storm going on with Kingston, my father’s obvious lack of concern as to how his game decisions affected people, and my love of BDSM coming into question—I was about to hit my tolerance wall. Actually, I was about to slam straight into it, head first.

He growled in frustration. “Keep it under wraps, Memphis. That’s all I’m saying. We seriously don’t need the press to get wind of that kind of bullshit.”

His shitty decisions were fine but my bullshit was off limits? What-the-fuck-ever.

He handed me a sheet of paper. “That’s your new address. Make nice with Kingston. Act like you’re his buddy whenever any media is around. Do whatever it takes.”

“Does he know?” I asked, fury burning in my gut as I stared at the address. I recognized the numbers immediately. It was the penthouse suite in our nicest condo unit—always reserved for the team captain and co-captain. But I had a sickening feeling my father didn’t intend to make Kingston co-captain. He intended for the ex-star to stand on the sidelines, cheer for me, and make nice for the cameras. When my father wanted something, he felt like everyone else should get in line to see what they could do to help make it happen.

“No, I’ll leave that to you. He moved in three days ago. I’m sure he knows he’ll get a roommate—everybody does. Practice starts on Monday, Memphis. You and Kingston had both better be there, ready to support my team for the season.” He started to walk out of his office but then turned to face me again. “And be thinking about how you’re going to handle Stallone. He’s out of control and I won’t be at all surprised when I get a call telling me that he’s been arrested for something. And in that case, he’ll no doubt be guilty as charged.”

Jet Stallone. Perfect. Yet another problem with my father’s fantasy football team. Stallone wasn’t the best running back in the conference, but he was the best on our team. I didn’t much care for him. Actually, there wasn’t much about my life right now that I didn’t hate.

Welcome to the SEC.


*****

Kingston


I twisted the knob that would send music blaring through my new suite’s sound system, switched the station until I heard music similar to what the rest of the guys on the team listened to, and then slipped in my earbuds. As I flipped through my own playlist, hunting for something dark and dangerous, a soundtrack more fitting for what I was about to do, I couldn’t help but notice that my hands already trembled. The endorphins hadn’t actually kicked in yet, but my body knew what was about to happen, and it was trembling with anticipation.

With the hate-filled music blaring its way into my head, I walked to the door and doublechecked the locks to ensure I wouldn’t be interrupted. After that, I made my way toward the bathroom inside the bedroom I’d picked for myself—since I didn’t have a roommate as of yet. As I walked, I refused to allow my mind to focus on anything except what I was about to do. I didn’t have time and couldn’t make the effort to wonder how my well-structured life had become so fucked up…so damn quick. I’d already wasted too much of my energy on that clusterfuck.

I’d spent months struggling with trying to find myself again but had eventually come to the realization that Kingston Bentley was truly lost…gone forever. The man who’d thirsted for structure, adoration, and being as perfect as humanly possible was nothing more than a ghost of a memory. The pain of having to accept I was no longer that person had nearly killed me… And then I lost the only other outlet I’d found to give me relief. That all ended the night I met Memphis Sawyer, and I was too scared of exposure to try that again.

I’d had to resort to the one thing that never let me down. The one outlet for my stress that was always there, always at hand when I needed it the most. I was a cutter, only not really in the past tense. My psychiatrist from when I was a kid had told my parents I always would be, much like an alcoholic never really recovers. The chance would always be there that I’d start to cut again. More evidence of just how broken I really was, just in case my parents needed it. Pain soothed the pain deep inside me; it was the shameful secret I tried to hide.

It had been six long years since I’d last cut myself. Not since I was fourteen years old, and I’d actually thought I’d been able to leave it in the past, no matter what that doctor had said, because I’d found a new way to get my pain fix. A more adult way. But then when my life had imploded the night Memphis found me, cutting had been there waiting in the wings for me, just like an old friend. The old craving had still been there too, the urgent need for the endorphins racing through my veins, filling me up with pain until all the other feelings were crowded out, and all I could concentrate on was that thin red line of torment. Of blessed relief.

When I realized where my head was going, I cranked my music up even louder, forcing all thoughts of the past out of my head. This wasn’t a time for rehashing what couldn’t be changed. It was a time for escape. My attempt to create a place where I didn’t have to feel worthless anymore. I didn’t have to feel anything at all except the pain I gave myself.

I shut the bathroom door behind me, clicked the lock in place, and then slowly removed my t-shirt. While every nerve inside of me screamed that I toss the clothes aside and dive head-first into escape, I forced myself to neatly fold the shirt and lay it on the spotless countertop. My shorts and underwear followed the same procedure. Completely naked, I climbed into the oversized tub and lay there, waiting for my body heat to warm the chilly porcelain. Making myself wait was also part of the satisfaction. It had been a long time—far too long—since I’d allowed myself to enjoy the pain that, paradoxically, also brought me relief. Cutting myself wasn’t as good as submitting to a cruel Dom—nothing was as good as that. But it was the next best thing, and all I could allow myself to have. Anything else was far too dangerous.

I clung to the blade like my very life depended on it. Hell, it probably did.

After three songs played—all part of my careful ritual—I picked up the sharp blade and passed it between my fingers, like it was some sort of fucking magic trick. Three times I turned the thin metal between my fingers, slipping it in and out, building the anticipation like foreplay. The need to cut myself rose up in me like a thin column of smoke, dark and suffocating. I took three deep breaths, the calmness flowing through me. My eyes closed as soon as the blade kissed the flesh below my waist. The bright, savage pain consumed me, and left no room in my head for anything else. I could feel the tension and stress and pain in my soul receding, falling back against the onslaught of the blade-induced endorphins rushing through my bloodstream. They burst through my system as I pulled the blade upward with a short even stroke. Even with my eyes closed, I had no trouble picturing the beautiful thin red lines of blood that marred my skin. My endorphin high was different than other cutters. While the self-harm made some of them feel high on life, mine gave me peace and calmness—structure where it no longer existed. If anything, it was more like what subspace was. Whatever—I didn’t give a fuck. I needed it.

Peace seeped into my brain like the blood oozing from my skin.

With my second swipe of the blade, I found the control that I’d thought I’d lost. Warmth and security settled into my soul. All my worries and the shame of losing everything I’d worked for my entire life vanished and was replaced with a sense of power. For once, I was in charge—not my parents, not the psychiatrists, not the school, not even some Dom. Just me.

The music, which had been loud enough to make my head hurt only seconds before, drifted away until it was nothing more than a whisper that danced erotically inside my mind. The endorphins flowed freely, causing both a physical high and a sweet calmness to overtake the misery. For this short span of time, I was in control and the pleasure belonged to me. I hurt myself, and I pleased myself and no one else, and it made me feel fucking powerful. Nearly lost in my web of pleasure, it was a struggle to even remember the current troubles that consumed my soul when I was anywhere except right fucking here.

Pure pleasure, better than even the best sex I’d ever had in my life, overtook me as the slide of the blade sliced through my skin with the same ease of a butter knife cutting through softened butter. Three songs, three breaths, three cuts. My own special web I made to bring me relief and power.

I felt a hand close tightly around my wrist and my cocoon of happiness exploded. Because my body had been teetering on the edge of what I refer to as my own personal nirvana, my response to the intrusion was sluggish. Actually, I wasn’t able to react at all before the attacker ripped my precious blade from my fingers and then tore the ear buds out of my ears.

When my eyes finally fluttered open, I found myself looking up into the face of one of the men who helped destroy my life. Memphis Fucking Sawyer! The furious scowl on his face would have intimidated most people, but the best I could manage was to sputter out a soft chuckle. How fucking ironic! My deepest, darkest secret—one of them anyway—and the one thing left in my life that belonged only to me—had just been exposed to my nemesis. That made him the only person on earth who knew both my deepest, darkest secrets. He could destroy me so easily.

I shouldn’t have been laughing but there wasn’t enough energy in me to do much else. Why was it he always found me in the most humiliating positions possible? As a last-ditch effort to salvage a sprinkle of dignity, as if any existed, I reached up and tried to bat his hand away.

Memphis responded in a thundering voice, “What the fuck, Kingston? Are you seriously trying to kill yourself? Over fucking college football?”

Following that outburst, he reached into the tub, yanked me up, and tossed me over his shoulder like I’d seen him do with his gym bag…yeah, the same amount of effort. Mortification burned through my soul but since my body still felt as limp as a noodle, I could do nothing more than silently vow that I’d see him dead for this.

As we passed through the bathroom door, even hanging upside down and my eyes struggling to stay open, I noticed that the wooden door was splintered in places, indicating that Memphis had kicked the damn bathroom door down to violate my private space. Fucking bastard—one more reason to hate him.

As if I needed any more.

A part of me wondered if he wouldn’t stalk straight over to the balcony doors, walk outside, and toss me over the railing of our eighth-floor suite, but when he gently laid me on my own bed, I realized there was no reason for him to kill me. I wasn’t a threat to him. I’d already lost the battle and the war for the coveted quarterback position. He was first string now and I was second. He probably viewed me as nothing more than a nuisance. A pathetic one, since he thought I was trying to kill myself. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I didn’t have the fucking courage for that.

Suddenly panic gripped my heart when I realized he’d laid me on my pristine white sheets. Blood would be everywhere and there’d be no way to hide what I’d done. When he turned to walk away, I tried to find the strength to slide off the bed before too much blood stained my sheets but my movement caused him to whirl back around to face me.

“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” he roared as he stalked back to the bed and shoved me back down.

“I’m gonna get blood on the bed.”

A scowl marred his features. “Seriously? You’re worried about getting blood on the sheets?” He shook his head in what I guess was amazement or confusion. “I’d say that should be the least of your worries right now, Bentley. I just walked in on you trying to kill yourself and you’re worried about stains on the sheets?”

He crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at me, daring me to argue with him.

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself, asshole,” I answered weakly. “I was just taking the edge off my day. No biggie.”

It was a biggie, actually, and I knew it. I just hoped I could convince him to keep his huge mouth shut about it. One word to his father, His Royal Fucking Majesty, and I’d be off the team and my scholarship would be revoked. The last thing I needed was to ask my parents, who were already deeply disappointed in me, for the money to finish college. I’d do anything to keep from having to face them again. I didn’t want to see on their faces that they knew all along how I’d turn out.

“No biggie?” he mocked. “Kindly explain that bullshit to me, if you don’t mind.” When I started to open my mouth, he held out his hand in a stop gesture and said, “You know what? Never mind. Shut the fuck up. I don’t want to hear whatever pathetic excuse or lie you’re about to try and sell me.” His hand ran through his inky black hair and then he pinched the bridge of his nose. It was the exact replica of what he’d done the last time he found me in a compromising situation.

“I’m going to go back into the bathroom and get a wet washcloth and try to find some bandages for your…your…wound or whatever the fuck that is. You are to lie on that damn bed and not fucking move. Do you understand me, Kingston? I’m not playing. This shit is serious. Even worse than the last time I got you out of that mess you got yourself into.”

With the endorphins disappearing from my system, I felt energy, and the shame, begin to return. “No, Memphis, you don’t get to boss me around like you do everybody else. And as for the ‘last time you found me in a mess,’ you can just stop throwing that shit up to me!” As far as I’m concerned, you can go fuck yourself. And get out of my bedroom and leave me the hell alone!” My eyes narrowed at him. “Now.”

He returned the few steps he’d taken and towered over me. “Kingston, shut your smart mouth and keep your ass in the goddamn bed until I get back or you’ll find yourself tied to it. Understand me?” When I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what I thought about his bullying tactics, his eyes narrowed dangerously, and he added, “I’m not playing. You know I will do it. Don’t push me if you aren’t capable of handling me pushing back.”

Something on his face told me he would…and I knew he could do it. Having reached my humiliation level for the day, I decided to choose my battles, and this wasn’t going to be one of them. I was too weak from the adrenalin drop and too fucking tired. Obviously there came a time in life when shit kicked you in the balls a bit too hard to bounce back from it without a significant recovery time, and I’d hit that point.

And, most of all, when the endorphins wore off, the shame always kicked in. This situation wasn’t anything different, but it was even worse since my nemesis and my replacement was there to witness it.

“Fuck off, Memphis,” I grumbled as I pulled my legs back onto the bed and rested my head on the pillow, facing away from him. Sure, it might look like something an angry kid would do, but I didn’t really give a fuck about trying to impress Memphis Sawyer. If anything, I’d like to make him hurt at least half as much as he’d hurt me—him and his manipulative father.

“Good choice, Kingston,” Memphis countered as he returned to his task of finding bandages. “Oh…and try to cover up your junk, will you? This shit is fucked up enough without having to add your dick and balls into the mix.” He looked me up and down and shook his head. “Not that I haven’t seen them before.”

Remembering, for the first time, that I was completely naked—again— in front of Memphis Sawyer, I snatched the end of the blanket and pulled it up to the middle of my chest. Fuck, fuck, fuck! How could I have not realized I was naked? It wasn’t as if I was overly modest, but I didn’t make it a habit of flaunting my package. I had been so out of it when he’d first carried me in the room, and afterward…hell, I had no excuse. I must truly be out of my mind.

The sound of his soft chuckle mocking me, pissed me off even more, and I hadn’t thought that was possible. Who the fuck did he think he was? Barging into my suite—kicking in doors and invading my privacy? As far as I was concerned, his royal status didn’t extend off the football field, so he needed to apologize.

Better yet…maybe I should just kill him? That would be loads of fun. As I listened to him rummage around in my bathroom, through my personal items, I pictured the many different ways I could make him suffer before finally snuffing his life out. Ripped apart by wild dogs? Eaten by rats? Squashed with huge boulders? Crushed by a train. Shredded with a sharp knife? Frozen solid? All of those fantasies would bring me great joy.

Joy…something I hadn’t had the privilege of feeling for a long time.

Maybe I should hate him instead of myself? It made more sense. All my current problems stemmed from him or a member of his family, so it would be easy to shift the hate from one person to the other. No, no, it wouldn’t. I hated myself more. I hated my weaknesses. I hated that he’d had to rescue me a second time. I hated that the praise of others meant so damn much to me that it tore me up inside when I didn’t have it anymore. I hated how the entire time I’d been home during semester break my parents couldn’t even look at me. At the moment, I hated about every damn thing about myself.

Memphis returned from the bathroom with an arm load of medical supplies. Lunatic. They were just small scratches—though, admittedly, these had bled a hell of a lot. Usually I was more careful, because anything deeper would alert people to what I was doing. I looked down at myself and winced. I’d gotten a little deep on those cuts. Maybe a simple band aid wouldn’t have been enough.

When he dropped his treasure on the side of the bed, I still rolled my eyes mockingly. “It’s a few fucking scratches, Memphis. I hardly think it calls for the entire first aid kit. I lifted the sheet and glanced down. I forced myself not to grimace from the bright red bloodstains on my sheets. They’d have to be destroyed before anyone had a chance to see the damage I’d done. “They’ve already mostly stopped bleeding. Like I told you, it’s no big deal.”

He picked up a washcloth and answered, “Sure, I believe everything you say because you’re obviously thinking clearly right now. Cutting, Kingston? Seriously? I thought I had plumbed the depths of your bullshit, but apparently not!” As he talked, he gently pulled back the sheet enough to reveal the wounds on my stomach and began swabbing away the dried blood. It amazed me that someone like Memphis, so big, brawny, and arrogant, could demonstrate any type of gentleness or empathy. At the moment, it only made me hate him more.

I also felt my entire body go into full-blown panic because somehow, in the few minutes, he’d been scrounging around in my bathroom, he’d figured out that I was a cutter. A part of me wished he still thought it had been a suicide attempt. Somehow that idea didn’t feel quite so…like I was incapable of coping with everything. It wasn’t weak to just end it all. Was it? I knew I had been getting out of control and I had promised myself just this one more time. My way of coping was a demonstration of my deficiency and it needed to stop. I just had to find a way to do it.

He’d pissed me off with his ‘cutting, Kingston?’ remark and the disgusted tone of his voice—as if he had any room to judge me. I knew things about him too that I could tell if I were so inclined. I’d never done the first damn thing to him, but he’d waltzed into my world and knocked it so off-kilter that it would never be stable again, so it wasn’t like I owed him anything. Since stability was something my mind desperately craved, Memphis Sawyer had earned a big fat fuck you from me. As if the fucker had any right to judge me ever.

“Don’t mock what you don’t understand, asshole,” I answered as I yanked the warm cloth from his hand and finished cleaning the so-called wounds. Shit! There were only a couple of slits and one small hesitation mark. OCD nibbled at my brain, begging me to finish that third cut. It wouldn’t be right. I wasn’t finished yet. He needed to get out of my suite, so I could do the whole ritual.

Wait a minute, what was he doing in my suite anyway? A horrible thought occurred to me and I groaned out loud. Oh hell, he was my new roommate. It would figure that my bad luck would only get worse.

He crossed his arms over his muscular chest and stared at the fresh cuts. “Help me understand, then. I’m all ears. Tell me how taking a razor blade to yourself could be a solution to anything.” He handed me the bandages. “Finish it.”

I couldn’t finish it…it wasn’t finished! My hands hesitated, frozen in some emotion that I couldn’t begin to explain. Three songs. Three breaths. Three cuts. There was structure to my actions. I wasn’t fucking finished!

I paused as my mind searched desperately to find a solution. An answer he would consider. Stalling for time. I looked up at him, I decided on distraction. “Help me understand why the hell you’re in my suite. Why don’t we start with that instead of what I do to my body on my time?”

A sinister grin spread across his face and, once again, I found myself forced to acknowledge how utterly gorgeous he was. His long, thick eyelashes were fucking insane, not to mention those broad shoulders. Perfect—just another reason to hate Memphis. I could also add incredibly good looking to the list of qualities I hated about him.

It was a fucking long list.

“I’m here because my father has formally declared before the palace that we are to be roommates this year. All hail the King!” He reached down and jerked the bandages out of my hand and started covering up the marks. “So, I’ve answered your question; now answer mine. Help me understand the cutting, Kingston.”

“It’s none of your damn business, Memphis,” I snapped. “None. You may have waltzed in and taken over every other portion of my life, but you don’t get to own me. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.”

I watched as something darkened in his blue eyes. It wasn’t anger, but it wasn’t something I could identify either. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. Chills raked up and down my spine, and I couldn’t decide if they were from Memphis’ indescribable expression or from the fact that he was doctoring my wounds before I’d finished the cuts. I decided to blame it on the latter.

“Put some clothes on, Kingston. After that, you will try to help me understand what the hell you were doing, or I’ll go straight to the AD and tell him about what I saw. I haven’t read all the fine print on our scholarships, but I feel confident self-harming is probably frowned upon.” He shrugged. “I mean, it may not matter to you. Maybe you don’t need the scholarship to remain in school? Maybe you don’t care if the entire school hears about what you’ve been doing behind closed doors? Maybe you don’t give two shits about the fact that you just scared me to death? I don’t know you well enough to determine what gives you the drive and determination to lead your college football team to two National Championships while carrying more hours than anybody else on the team, maintaining a solid 4.0 GPA, and doing community service in your spare time.” He shrugged again. “I would have thought it would have been a strong backbone and dedication to what you believed in, but maybe it’s been self-harm and being a pain slut the entire time.” He turned and walked toward the bedroom door. “You decide. If you want to stay on this team and maintain your scholarship status, you’ve got three minutes to get into this living room and convince me to keep my mouth shut.”

“Oh yeah?” I called after him. “Well, I know things about you too! I could tell people what I know!”

He never even turned around. I lay back down unmoving on the bed, wanting more than anything to tell him exactly where to shove his ultimatum, but knowing that really wasn’t an option. Sure, I knew stuff about him, but his shit wasn’t nearly as humiliating as mine. He’d come off as macho and tough, while I’d look like some pathetic loser. Pain slut? He didn’t know the half of it.


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