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Offside

Chapter One

His name was on everyone’s lips as soon as second semester started. Rumour was that our previous coaching assistant, Eli, had received a contract from one of the minor league teams and had abandoned his university job immediately. Not that I blamed him, of course. Who would want to be stuck teaching a bunch of girls how to trap a ball?
But this semester nobody cared about Eli and I was pretty sure I was the only one who remembered his name anyway. No, people were talking about Calum Hood. The new assistant, straight out of an Australian soccer academy; he had played as a midfielder and had a reputation for being both mean on the pitch and absolutely incredible at setting up plays.
Yet, as I tucked my shirt into my shorts and pulled my hair up into a ponytail, I couldn’t help but wonder if my team weren’t more concerned with how handsome he was than how invaluable his advice could be.
And he was handsome, no doubt about that.
I watched him now as he leaned over and murmured something into our coach’s ear. He was tall, much taller than I, with a broad back and strong jaw. His hair was unkempt, as dark as a raven’s with a shocking blonde strip through it. It was perfect against his dark, tanned skin though, and I thought I saw the tips of several tattoo’s just about peeking through the arms of his training shirt…
“Checking out our new assistant, ay, Nova?”
My friend Maria had crept up behind me, startling me into dropping my water bottle. Maria was the first team goalkeeper and something formidable for anyone to see: she was six foot four and built like a brick. She was also my second in command and more than happy to whip the team into shape if I wasn’t feeling up to it.
Because I was the captain, MVP three seasons in a row at my previous school with the best scoring record in the county. People relied on me and I delivered.
Meaning I couldn’t afford to become distracted by things like the way Calum Hood’s smile could make flowers grow.
“You’re staring again,” Maria smirked.
“No I’m not,” I said, “I’m thinking strategy,”
“A strategy into getting into his pants?”
I rolled my eyes and threw my water bottle at her. She ducked and sprinted away, cackling to herself. I leaned over, about to begin my warm up stretches when my coach whistled for me to come over.
I jogged to where he was seated on the bench, Calum beside him. It took every ounce of self-control that I had not to blush when I felt his gaze on me. His eyes were dark but not in an unnerving way; they were a comforting autumn brown flecked with gold, reminding me of the way leaves transformed into fires and oranges after summer.
“Nova, good to see you haven’t let yourself slack off over Christmas,” Coach Freeman grinned at me.
I flashed him a smile back and assured him that my training schedule had been adhered to as promised.
“That’s what I like to here!” his grin widened, “I just want to introduce you to our new assistant, Calum Hood. He’s an Aussie so be gentle with him,”
Calum stood, exposing me to his full height. For a football player I was considered small, reaching only 5’5. Calum, however, towered over me, his broadness only emphasising how tiny I was in comparison. He extended his hand for me to shake.
“It’s good to finally put a face to the name. I hear you’re good,” he said as I took his hand and tried to shake it without revealing how I was trembling from head to toe.
“I’m okay,” I said with more confidence than I felt, “I want to win the championship this year, though,”
I was only a first year student but I burned enough fire into the pitch for me to have been given the captaincy in only my second semester. And the hunger never died in me, the need to strive and be the best only furthered by the pressure placed on my shoulders.
And as Calum looked at me then, his eyes flashing mischievously, I held myself steady, my passion for the game and my team igniting something in me.
“I hope I can help make that happen,” he said finally, his voice softening.
Coach Freeman signalled for me to continue with my warmups and I joined the rest of the team. They had all seen me with Calum and were sending a barrage of questions my way:
“What’s he like?”
“Is he single?”
“Did he ask you on a date?”
“Does he have tattoos?”
“Why don’t you just go and get the goals out?” I snapped, staring accusingly at two second team defenders who had been particularly annoying with their interest in our new assistant.
They pouted but did as they were told, pulling the goals from the cubby they were stored in and placing them on either side of the pitch.
I did my sprints with Maria, who had kept a strategic silence. It was when I was cooling down that she finally spoke to me, her voice the most serious that I’d ever heard it:
“He hasn’t stopped staring at you since you came on,” her eyes met mine, a deep blue that colour of winter skies, “Look, I’m saying this as not only your friend but as your vice-captain: don’t let this guy fuck things up for us. We need you this semester to kick butt and we can’t have you gallivanting off with some Australian. Not matter how fine he may be!”
I shook my head at her, smiling a little.
“Don’t worry. My brain is in the game. It always is,”
“That’s my girl,” she winked.

­­­­­
Whenever the team hit the showers, I stayed out an hour longer. That was how it had been since I was fourteen and putting more goals away than any other district. I was a machine, programmed to score and never failing. And even at eighteen, with enough experience under my belt to stop me from working so hard, I couldn’t stop the need for self-improvement.
It was a drug, an addiction – I had to win.
So I stayed on the pitch, doing runs and practicing my shooting technique. I hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t the only one who had remained outside until a voice spoke quietly in my ear:
“You need to strike with your whole body,”
I froze, recognising the voice immediately: Calum freakin’ Hood.
I took a breath to calm myself and turned to look at him; the sky was lit up behind him virgin pinks and purples, the dying light that filtered through giving him an air of grandeur that I hadn’t noticed before.
“I do strike with my whole body,” I said.
To demonstrate, I took one of the balls from my feet and whipped it quickly into the goal.
“See,” I said.
He laughed and ran a hand through his hair, his eyes creasing in amusement. I didn’t know why but his delight irritated me, and I pushed past him haughtily to retrieve my ball. When I returned to him, his face had gone blank, as though the artist had not liked what he had created and wiped it clean.
I practiced for a few more minutes in silence, the only sign that he was still on the pitch with me being the eyes I felt boring into the back of my shirt.
Just as I was about to hit my fourth ball, I felt hands on my hips. They were large hands, bass-player hands with wonderfully prominent veins popping up and over the cartilage of his fingers. And they were on me, wrapping tight around my waist now and pulling me slightly to the right so that my body was angled. I felt myself reddening as his body pressed against mine, the heat from his skin setting mine alight.
Finally he let go and I had unwittingly frozen myself into the position he had put me.
“Shoot with your whole body,” he said, “From this angle, with your hips and your core. It will be powerful enough to stop the goalkeeper from challenging you,”
He handed me a ball and I straightened myself up. When I looked over at him I saw that his cheeks had flushed pink, a fact that he was trying to disguise by pulling on his jacket and flicking up the hood.
I put the ball on the grass, aimed, and struck in the same way he told me to. To my own amazement, it soared through the air like an eagle racing to catch its prey. It struck the net with such ferocity I thought it would tip the entire goal over. I stared, open-mouthed.
“Bloody hell,” I said.
I turned around to thank him, to ask him how he knew that would happen, but he was already walking off the pitch, his sports bag slung over his shoulder.
“Wait!” I said before I could stop myself, “Wait a second!”
I rushed over to him, my heart pounding not just from overworking but from the adrenaline rush that had just kicked in. With that technique the other teams in the area wouldn’t stand a chance against us. Calum had given me the key to something remarkable, something that would raise us up above everyone.
He was still striding away from me when I caught up to him so I grabbed his hand, forcing him to stop. It was softer than I imagined it would be, not callused at all but warm and inviting. I held onto it a second longer than I should have before letting it drop.
When he met my eyes, they burned gold, flames brought to life in a kerosene lamp.
“Thanks,” I said, “For the technique,”
For a moment he stared at me and I wondered if I had said something wrong. Did Australians not like being thanked? Was he still mad at me for brushing past him like I had?
Instead, however, he did something I wasn’t expecting; he leaned over to me, his face hovering inches above mine and I thought he was going to kiss me. Instinctively I leaned in, our lips just millimetres apart now…
Until he reached down and took the thin gold chain I wore beneath my shirt in-between his fingers.
“This is illegal in the game,” he said gruffly.
If I hadn’t been blushing before, I certainly was now. I felt the fire in my cheeks, as I tucked the chain back under my shirt and began gnawing on my thumbnail. It was a childish habit and I should have grown out of it years ago, but it was my go-to thing whenever someone made me feel uncomfortable or sad in public.
“Don’t wear this to practice,” he said.
“Then I won’t come to practice,” I replied automatically.
He stared at me, his face contorted into a look of surprise for a moment before it returned to its neutral state. I could feel the knot in my stomach tightening, the presence of the chain on my bare skin like hot water scalding my flesh. When I played I forgot it was there, but without football it always hung as a painful reminder. It was my albatross and I wore it proudly.
“You’ll let your team down over some silly gold chain?” Calum made a guttural noise of disgust and I felt my mood dark instantly.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but it’s important to me,” I said, my mouth suddenly dry.
“Important enough to cost you your football career?”
“It was my father’s. It was the only thing he left me that I could keep always when he died. And he was my biggest fan, so don’t you dare lecture me on a football career. It reminds me of what I am. It reminds me of what’s at stake,” I blurted out, very much aware of the tears that were burning the backs of my eyes like holy water.
I took the chain in the pads of my fingers and closed my eyes, willing myself control.
When I opened them again Calum was bending down, his hands pressing gently on my shoulders and shaking his head.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Nova. I really am,” he bit down on his lip as I shrugged his hands away.
“Nova…” he started towards me but I held out a hand to him, palm flat so that he would stop.
“Just focus on the game, okay?” I said, although I wasn’t sure whether I was speaking to him or to myself.
“Nova.” He said it more pointedly now, a coach commanding his captain to attention.
But I was already hurrying away, barricading myself in the changing room. I stripped, taking the shower furthest away from everyone so that I didn’t have to be part of their phatic conversations. I could hear the faint sounds of their peals of laughter and talk and I just couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear anything beyond the game.
The water poured from the shower and my soul poured out with it.

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