First Down (Sharks Football #1) by Leslie North



1





Is there anything louder than a rowdy, home-game crowd after a touchdown? Even though he’d only been the Savannah Sharks’ rookie running back for a few months, Mark Coleridge’s knew the deafening sound well. He was often the cause of it. His focus was already causing a stir in the league and it’s exactly what had helped propel him to where he was standing at that very minute; midfield during a preseason game in Sharks Stadium, surrounded by his new teammates and a roaring crowd. He could thank his focus for the touchdown he’d just scored, but the truth was sometimes his laser vision kept him from seeing the big picture.

Which was exactly why he still couldn’t believe that he’d sweated his way through two quarters.

It’s halftime already?

“Damn, rookie, nice play,” quarterback and team captain James Sullivan shouted to him, a smile visible under his mask. “Who you trying to impress with that flashy TD?”

Mark grinned back but didn’t answer as they jogged off the field.

Oh, no big deal. Basically everybody. The hometown crowd that’s cheered me on since high school, my grandpa aka my biggest fan, and maybe, just maybe … her.

He snatched his helmet off hoping he could banish the thought from his brain before it was fully formed.

Nope. Don’t go there. Not now.

There was still so much to get used to in so little time, it was practically an alternate dimension. And though he was still getting to know his teammates, Mark was nervous about making a wrong move. He didn’t want to screw this opportunity up. The dream he’d held since childhood. The professional break he’d been counting on since college.

A few other teammates clapped him on the back as they started filing along the sidelines toward the tunnel to the locker room. Fans collected behind the railing, screaming the last names of their favorite players. Mark didn’t hear Coleridge among the chorus—yet. But he would soon enough, if he had his way. As long as he could show America that he was the rising star he’d promised to be.

The Jumbotron at the end of the field snagged his attention as the camera began panning through the audience. Excited grins and cheeks streaked with the trademark jade and black colors of the team flashed across the 160-foot-wide screen. And then the cameras focused on the Sharks’ mascot, bouncing near the sidelines with a group of children.

Mark paused on his way in to watch. This was one of his favorite parts of live games—the memories made, the way kids could get involved with the sport. A dark-haired kid jumped up and down beside Sharky, a friend hopping right beside him. Just as Mark was ready to follow the last of his teammates to the locker room beneath the stadium, an eager mother came into view.

Glistening blonde hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail, fair skin despite the fact that the sun blazed stronger than ever at this point in the Georgia summer. And that smile—the beautiful mouth that Mark knew he’d never forget, not in the six years since the last time he’d kissed it.

It was Tessa.

His first love. The girl he’d been ready to get down on one knee for. And his only heartbreak.

Seeing her again, larger than life on the screen, hit him harder than any tackle could.

“Come on. Keep it moving.” A voice barked at him, and then he stumbled forward. His teammate Maxwell walked past, smirking over his shoulder.

“I’m coming,” Mark said, unable to look away from the Jumbotron. The cameras were back on the boys, the blond one coming into view. Mark blinked a few times. Was he imagining all of this? Not only had he seen Tessa on the big screen, but that child…

“Coleridge!” Maxwell shouted from further up the sidelines. “We’re late. Coach is gonna be on your ass.”

Mark drew a deep breath but felt like a hand was clamped around his lungs. The sensation had nothing to do with his conditioning and everything to do with her. But he couldn’t allow himself to be thrown off his axis during such an important game. He sprinted to catch up with Maxwell. One of the benefits of being the fastest running back on the team: he could outrun anyone.

But once he caught up and was tucked into the locker room with his teammates, it was hard to focus. The room was sauna-warm to keep muscles loose and the music was cranking to keep spirits high. There were bodies everywhere; splayed on the floor to stretch, changing out of ripped pants and torn jerseys, and lining up for taping and numbing agents. As the clock ticked on the players filed to opposite corners of the room, offensive players huddled in one and defensive in the other, all waiting for the coaches to emerged from their locked door meeting with final strategies.