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The Foxhole Court (All for the Game #1)
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Neil Josten is the newest addition to the Palmetto State University Exy team. He’s short, he’s fast, he’s got a ton of potential—and he’s the runaway son of the murderous crime lord known as The Butcher.
Signing a contract with the PSU Foxes is the last thing a guy like Neil should do. The team is high profile and he doesn’t need sports crews broadcasting pictures of his face around the nation. His lies will hold up only so long under this kind of scrutiny and the truth will get him killed.
But Neil’s not the only one with secrets on the team. One of Neil’s new teammates is a friend from his old life, and Neil can’t walk away from him a second time. Neil has survived the last eight years by running. Maybe he’s finally found someone and something worth fighting for.
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Neil Josten let his cigarette burn to the filter without taking a drag. He didn’t want the nicotine; he wanted the acrid smoke that reminded him of his mother. If he inhaled slowly enough, he could almost taste the ghost of gasoline and fire. It was at once revolting and comforting, and it sent a sick shudder down his spine. The jolt went all the way to his fingertips, dislodging a clump of ash. It fell to the bleachers between his shoes and was whisked away by the wind.
He glanced up at the sky, but the stars were washed out behind the glare of stadium lights. He wondered—not for the first time—if his mother was looking down at him. He hoped not. She’d beat him to hell and back if she saw him sitting around moping like this.
A door squealed open behind him, startling him from his thoughts. Neil pulled his duffel closer to his side and looked back. Coach Hernandez propped the locker room door open and sat beside Neil.
“I didn’t see your parents at the game,” Hernandez said.
“They’re out of town,” Neil said. “Still or again?”
Neither, but Neil wouldn’t say that. He knew his teachers and coach were tired of hearing the same excuse any time they asked after his parents, but it was as easy a lie as it was overused. It explained why no one would ever see the Jostens around town and why Neil had a predilection for sleeping on school grounds.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have a place to live. It was more that his living situation wasn’t legal. Millport was a dying town, which meant there were dozens of houses on the market that would never sell. He’d appropriated one last summer in a quiet neighborhood populated mostly by senior citizens. His neighbors rarely left the comfort of their couches and daily soaps, but every time he came and went he risked getting spotted. If people realized he was squatting they’d start asking difficult questions. It was usually easier to break into the locker room and sleep there. Why Hernandez let him get away with it and didn’t notify the authorities, Neil didn’t know. He thought it best not to ask.
Hernandez held out his hand. Neil passed him the cigarette and watched as Hernandez ground it out on the concrete steps. The coach flicked the crumpled butt aside and turned to face Neil.
“I thought they’d make an exception tonight,” he said.
“No one knew it’d be the last game,” Neil said, looking back at the court.
Millport’s loss tonight booted them from state championships two games from finals. So close, too far. The season was over just like that. A crew was already dismantling the court, unhinging the plexiglass walls and rolling Astroturf over the hard floor. When they were done it’d be a soccer field again; there’d be nothing left of Exy until fall. Neil felt sick watching it happen, but he couldn’t look away.
Exy was a bastard sport, an evolved sort of lacrosse on a soccer-sized court with the violence of ice hockey, and Neil loved every part of it from its speed to its aggression. It was the one piece of his childhood he’d never been able to give up.
“I’ll call them later with the score,” he said, because Hernandez was still watching him. “They didn’t miss much.”
“Not yet, maybe,” Hernandez said. “There’s someone here to see you.”
To someone who’d spent half his life outrunning his past they were words from a nightmare. Neil leaped to his feet and slung his bag over his shoulder, but the scuff of a shoe behind him warned him he was too late to escape. Neil twisted to see a large stranger standing in the locker room doorway. The wife beater the man wore showed off sleeves of tribal flame tattoos. One hand was stuffed into his jeans pocket. The other held a thick file. His stance was casual, but the look in his brown eyes was intent.
Neil didn’t recognize him, which meant he wasn’t local. Millport boasted fewer than nine hundred residents. This was a place where everyone knew everyone’s business. That ingrained nosiness made things uncomfortable for Neil and all his secrets, but he’d hoped to use that small-town mentality as a shield. Gossip about an outsider should have reached him before this stranger did. Millport had failed him.
“I don’t know you,” Neil said.
“He’s from a university,” Hernandez said. “He came to see you play tonight.”
“Bullshit,” Neil said. “No one recruits from Millport. No one knows where it is.”
“There’s this thing called a map,” the stranger said. “You might have heard of it.”
Hernandez sent Neil a warning look and got to his feet. “He’s here because I sent him your file. He put a note out saying he was short on his striker line, and I figured it was worth a shot. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know if anything would come of it and I didn’t want to get your hopes up.”
Neil stared. “You did what?”
“I tried contacting your parents when he asked for a face-to-face tonight, but they haven’t returned my messages. You said they’d try to make it.”
“They did,” Neil said. “They couldn’t.”
“I can’t wait for them,” the stranger said, coming down to stand beside Hernandez. “It’s stupid late in the season for me to be here, I know, but I had some technical difficulties with my last recruit. Coach Hernandez said you still haven’t chosen a school for fall. Works out perfectly, doesn’t it? I need a striker sub, and you need a team. All you have to do is sign the dotted line and you’re mine for five years.”
It took Neil two tries to find his voice. “You can’t be serious.”
“Very serious, and very out of time,” the man said.
He tossed his file onto the bleacher where Neil had been sitting. Neil’s name was scrawled across the front in black marker. Neil thought about flipping the folder open, but what was the point? The man this coach had researched so carefully wasn’t real and wouldn’t exist much longer. In five weeks Neil would graduate and in six he’d be someone else somewhere very far away from here. It didn’t matter how much he liked being Neil Josten. He’d stayed here too long as it was.