The All-Star Antes Up (Wager of Hearts #2)(17)

by Nancy Herkness

Luke dropped back into the pocket with the ball still in his possession.

“He’s going to throw!” Dennis sounded incredulous. “Who’s open?”

Miranda tensed as a mountainous Cardinals player shook off two Empire linemen and charged toward the quarterback. “Oh, no, I can’t watch,” she whispered, closing her eyes.

“Brooks is open!” Dennis was screaming. “He’s throwing to Chaz Brooks.”

Miranda peeked through one eye just as Luke drilled the ball down the field right into the hands of number twenty-five.

“He has it! And he’s got a clear field!” Her brother was on his feet.

Miranda stood, too, watching as the blue-shirted ballcarrier extricated himself from the grip of another gigantic Cardinals defender and took off toward the goal line.

“He’s gonna score!” Theo squeaked with excitement. “Touchdown!” He threw his arms up and smacked Miranda in the face with his foam finger, but she didn’t care.

She was screaming along with the rest of the Empire fans as Chaz Brooks did a dance in the end zone.

“Oh, no, Archer is down.” Patty’s voice cut through the celebratory racket.

Miranda scanned the field to find a ring of players and trainers standing around a fallen player. She checked the big screen to see a close-up view of the top of Luke’s helmet resting on the turf behind a wall of cleats and ankles.

“Is he conscious?” she asked, concern extinguishing the thrill of victory.

“I can’t tell,” Patty said. “Oh, yeah, there. He moved his foot.”

Suddenly, one of the standing players bent down and offered his hand to the quarterback. The player straightened and brought Luke to his feet.

Cheers and applause filled the stadium again as the clot of players followed Luke off the field.

“Is he limping?” Miranda asked, trying to distinguish Luke from the crowd of blue jerseys surrounding him.

Patty was watching the big screen. “I can’t tell. Dennis?”

“I think he’s okay,” her husband said, his attention locked on the sideline, where activity swirled around the quarterback. “They’d have a lot more trainers working on him if he wasn’t.”

Luke had taken off his helmet, making it easy to spot his matted blond hair. Miranda flicked her gaze back and forth between the sideline and the big screen, which was focused on the quarterback as he sat on the bench, drinking Gatorade and talking to one of the staff members. If he was in pain, he gave no indication of it. Relief washed through her. Muscles she hadn’t realized she had clenched suddenly relaxed, and she sat down hard.

She barely registered the successful kick for the extra point and the running out of the clock for the Empire’s win.

Theo whooped and danced on his seat, while Dennis gave his wife a hug that lifted her off her feet. He held up his hand to Miranda for a high five.

“Your boy did it,” he said, shaking his head. “That was a frozen rope he threw to Brooks.”

“A what?”

“A really good pass,” Patty translated.

“So he’s not at the end of his career, after all?” Miranda asked.

Dennis shrugged. “At least not until the next interception.”

Chapter 5

Back inside the suite, the televisions were tuned to the postgame show.

“I can’t believe Archer went for it,” one of the commentators said.

“You can’t tell me that was Coach Farrell’s idea.” The second one shook his head.

“No, that was all the Iceman,” the third commentator chimed in. “Archer had that play in his back pocket and was just itching to pull it out when the Cardinals weren’t expecting it.”

“He had something to prove today after throwing interceptions in back-to-back games,” talking head number one said.

“I guess that puts to rest the rumors about a shoulder injury,” the second man added. “You don’t throw like that if you’re hurting.”

Miranda had never in her life paid any attention to sports commentary, but she found herself enthralled by the discussion of Luke Archer’s performance and health. Her interest faded when they moved on to an analysis of the Empire’s defensive brilliance, so she accepted the glass of wine Milt brought her with gratitude.

“I never knew watching football could be so exhausting,” she said to Patty.

Her sister-in-law gave her an appraising glance. “So how well do you know Luke Archer?”

“I’ve probably spent a total of fifteen minutes in his company. But you get kind of invested when you know one of the players.”

“He’s not just one of the players, honey,” Patty said. “He’s a superstar. What’s he like in person?”

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

“No, I mean when he’s not being Mr. Football Player.”

Miranda considered her impressions of Luke Archer. Other than the ones she wouldn’t talk about. “Well, he’s surprisingly low-key. Or as low-key as someone who looks like a combination of the gods Thor and Apollo can be.”

Patty grinned and fanned herself. “You said it, sister.”

Miranda didn’t want Patty to think she only cared about Luke’s impressive physical attributes. “He gets involved when his brother needs help, and he was very generous to me with all of this.” She waved her hand around the suite. “And that’s about all I can say.”

“You’re as bad as a lawyer with all your confidentiality rules,” Patty said, but she was smiling.

“Hey, ladies, they’re interviewing Archer.” Dennis drew their attention back to the television screens.

Luke’s sweat-darkened hair clung to his skull. He wore some sort of athletic undershirt that hugged his muscular shoulders, and his chin bore a smear of what looked like dried blood. Yet Miranda wished she were the one standing close to him as the quarterback bent his head to catch the reporter’s question.

“So I guess that final touchdown pass proves all the rumors about a shoulder injury wrong,” the willowy brunette reporter said.

The quarterback’s attentive expression didn’t change. “I don’t know how the rumors got started.”

“They started because you’ve thrown interceptions at critical times in two games,” another reporter pointed out.