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Most people assumed if you were quiet, you were passive, if you were an introvert, you were dispassionate.
That was the farthest from the truth.
Ruaridh, or Rory as everyone called him, was a very passionate man. It just didn’t show on the outside. Or rarely. Even when Rory was in pain, like he was now. He had mucked up the game for the Blues again, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it. They had lost Saturday’s match on a play Coach called the Americana. Not sure if the name was based on the coffee or the culture… Actually, the coffee was an Americano, so no. And did it even matter?
He stretched his neck from side to side, pops and creaks as he did. For the hundredth time, he thought perhaps he wasn’t made for rugby. Maybe it wasn’t in his blood like his father claimed. Maybe there had been a leap in generations, the ball gene bouncing haughtily over the top of his head. All the weight training, conditioning, the protein smoothies, rugby videos for strategy—eating and breathing rugby—and still no results. At least not what was expected of him.
“Bro, grab that other side of the table and help me move it to the far wall.”
“Oh, sure, Del.”
They shuffled and maneuvered the table down the long aisle banked with treadmills and rowers nearest the window, stationary bikes and ellipticals on the other side. It was a Monday at Crunch Fitness Gym, one of the busiest nights of the week, almost every machine taken, and the reason they were here to do a bit of recruitment for the Blues. The bigger the pool of men to play, the better chance of winning the games.
“Right along here, Rory, boy.”
Del placed his side of the table first along the back wall of the core strength area littered with colorful exercise balls. Rory then followed with his own side of the table. “Where’s Irish?”
“He probably waited for Gillian to get home from work for a bit of humpty-dumpty, but he’ll be here. Come on, cuz, let’s grab the chairs.”
Rory followed Del back the way they had come. Padraig, who the team had nicknamed Irish, had been new to the Blues last year but already had landed a woman and a spot on the USA Eagles national team. “I kind of miss him at the house.”
Del gave him a look over his shoulder as though he was completely daft. “We’re talking about the same Irish, right? Moody fucker as fun as a torn ligament?”
“He’s gotten better. You have to admit.”
Del handed Rory three folding chairs and then collected the box with their flyers and sign-up sheets. He grabbed their banner that was still set along the brick wall at the entrance to the gym. “Mate, that’s true. When he first came, never thought I’d see the day.”
Both turned to see Irish standing just inside the door with a gear bag over his shoulder.
“Ah, speak of the devil. Help Rory with one of those chairs, mate, and give us a hand setting up.”
Irish dropped his bag where he stood and offered a hand to Rory, who refused. “Nah, you’re good. Need the extra training. I got this.”
Irish shook his head. “Do you ever stop, like?”
“Not until I get there.” Rory shimmied past both the lads, ignoring the look that Irish had thrown Del. He’d get there. Any day now and things would click, all come together. His rugby stars would align, and he’d be a streak of lightning on the pitch. This Cameron would play for a big European club, just like his da wanted. He’d be a blur on the field, dodging and spinning, one try after another—a champion.
Lost in the beautiful daydream, Rory missed helping with the setup until Del yelled at him to help hang the Blues banner across the front of the table.
The three of them took a chair behind with Del in the middle.
Behind the row of ellipticals and bikes was a wall of weight machines that divided the room between the cardiovascular equipment and the large area for free weights. The gym had become something of a second home to Rory over the years, and although comfortable in the space, he recently found it boring. Always the same people, often many trying to show off, the stench of sweat and body odor now overbearing. Where the noises of a busy gym used to offer him a type of relief, a recognition of who he was in a way, he now found them irritating and abrasive.
They had barely sat down when a couple of girls walked by the table. A blonde with big breasts in a tight gym shirt and leggings slowed as she passed and smiled. Her eyes flickered over all three before they settled on Del.
“Good evening, ladies, you want to play rugby?” Del waved a flyer at them, his smile bright against his darker skin.
Her friend with short, spiky hair and more muscles than Rory tugged on the blonde’s hand until she moved again.
“Aw c’mon,” Del teased. “We could use some fit ladies like yourselves.”
The blonde smiled over her shoulder and shook her head.
“Del, you’re off to a bad start,” Irish said.
“What do you mean, bro? I think I’m off to a perfect start.”
“Wrong sex,” Rory pointed out.
Del tipped his chair onto the back legs. “Nope. Right sex.”
“Coach said we can recruit women?” Rory asked.
Irish leaned his elbows on the table and made a point to roll his eyes at Rory. He hated when the bastard did that. Padraig had a boarding school education, just like Rory, but he didn’t have to show it off all the time. “He’s not talking about gender, Rory.”
Ah, got it.
“I’m interested,” a female voice interrupted.
Their heads turned in unison to a petite woman who stood just left of the table. She wore old-style gray tracksuit pants the Americans called sweatpants, heavy cotton and bunched at the knees, and a pink T-shirt with black letters that read I don’t wear bows. I shoot ’em. Rory snorted a laugh. She had her brown hair pulled back with a headband and a water bottle in her hand, but it was her eyes that he returned to again and again in his assay. Big and bold, a beautiful dark blue, like the deepest fathoms of the ocean.
“Uhhh…” Del finally broke the awkward moment, but with nothing that could save their arses. Even with all the swishes of the machines and the clank of weights dropping, an uncomfortable silence had draped itself around their table.
She crossed her arms. “I thought I just heard y’all ask that blond chick if she wanted to play.”
Irish covered his mouth with his hand, most likely hiding the smirk that Rory knew well, and Del just sat there with his mouth open. Rory wanted to say something. Anything to help her. Or maybe not so much help, but break the horrible discomfort that hung in the air. Rory rubbed at his chest to ease the ache.
Hands up in the air, she asked, “Well? Can I play or not?”
All heads turned to Rory.
“What he means to say,” Del continued, “is that the Blues are a men’s team.”
She rocked back on her heels. “Y’all don’t have a women’s team?”
“No,” Rory forced out again. Both Irish and Del directed an irate look at him for taking the lead on this.
“Hold up.” The girl thrashed her water bottle around in the air. “So how come y’all were okay with Big Tits playing, but I can’t play?”
Del waved his hands in front of himself. “Women aren’t allowed on the men’s Blues team.”
She tilted her head and squinted her eyes at Del. “So why did you ask them? I have muscles. Look.” She raised and flexed her right bicep. “Everyone asks me to open their pickle jars for ’em.”
Leaning on the table in front of him, Rory covered a grin behind his hand, but Del didn’t miss a beat. He whistled. “Now that is impressive.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
Ha! She was ripping Del a new one. Usually the girls fell at his feet with all his tattoos and manliness and everything. He loved Del, but everything came way too easy for the man, which irked Rory. Because then there were those like him that worked hard their whole life and didn’t get anywhere.
“I was just kidding, hon.”
“Don’t call me hon.”
Rory didn’t know what to say, but Padraig finally spoke up. “It has nothing to do with you. This wanker next to me was trying to hit on them.” Del pushed him hard before Irish continued. “The Blues are a men’s rugby team. The largess of the club also supports a boys’ and girls’ high school team, but we don’t think that’s what you’re looking for.”
No one other than Irish would use the bloody word “largess.” And Del was struck dumb by her indifference to his flirtations, so it looked like Rory was going to have to save the Blues’ reputation. “No women.”
Irish swore, but Rory ignored him. As cute as she was, she didn’t belong on the Blues pitch. Or on any rugby field. She was tiny and would get herself killed.
“Why don’t you come out to practice to see for yourself?” Del offered with a smile.
Rory ran his hand down his face. What the hell was Del doing?
Her body stance softened, and her arms draped to her sides. “Yeah?” But then she shifted back to skeptical. “Not like a cheerleader or anything, right? Like I can try to play? Because I think too highly of myself to be doing that crap.” She blew out a breath like a bull. “When I go for something, I go for it. Not any of this half-ass shit, ya know?”
Wow, some confidence there. Or craziness. And it all came in a pint-sized package.
“I told myself after years of doing a whole lot of nothing, I was going to do a whole lot of everything. And more. Like Rocky in the second Rocky movie.” She paused, a finger to her lips. “Or was it the first movie? The third? The one where he has to go to the mountains and lugs around logs in the snow.”
“Gillian would like her,” Padraig whispered with a sardonic twist of his mouth.
“’Scuse me? Did I miss somethin’?”
The girl looked as if she was about to blow. Bent forward, arms shielded across her chest, fire in her eyes as she glared at Irish. Some serious karate chops and ninja moves were headed their way.
Del finally took over. “Sorry, we didn’t get your name.”
She softened. “It’s Grace…just Grace.”
Only the whir of an exercise bike next to them accompanied the looks shared between the boys. And then she was waving her water bottle in the air again. “Ya know, like the song ‘Amazing Grace’? That’s what my momma says I am. She’s from the south originally, but I’m from Texas.”
“Hon, we have no idea what you are talking about. We’re not from here,” Del said.
“Ah ha! I knew it. I told Mrs. P— Anyway, I saw you guys here before and thought I heard accents. But to these northerners, I have an accent, too. We’re like kindred spirits already.” She smiled then. “None of us is from here so we can all be friends. Ya know, look after each other…all that.”
Rory raised his eyebrows in disbelief. Del and Irish had similar expressions. When none of the boys responded, she made a popping noise with her mouth, a fast and quick sound. Oh bugger, she must be mortified.
Del grabbed a pen and scribbled on the back of a flyer. “Here. This is the place and time we practice if you want to check it out. See for yourself the sport isn’t for everyone.”
Before she could take the flyer, Rory yanked it out of Del’s hand.
“Rory!” Del yelled and tried to grab it back, but Rory held fast. There was a tug of war, back and forth a couple of times before Del finally licked his finger and stuck it in Rory’s ear to get him to let go. Dirty tactics.
Rory fumed, but Del held it out over the table for her.
She leaned in to take it, as if she didn’t want to get physically closer to any of them. “Great, I’ll see you then.”
She stood there waiting for something, which none of them seemed to offer her. “So long, boys,” she said, bounced on her toes once, and then took off to the rowing machines. Rory made eye contact with her when she gave him a pinched smile over her shoulder and then proceeded to strap her feet into the rower.
“What the fuck, mate?” Del had turned to Rory while his focus had been on Grace.
“What’s your problem?”
Rory shook his head. “I dinnae ken, but you shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up.”
“Well, she didn’t want to take no for an answer. When she gets there, she’ll understand. Some people are just like that. They got to see it to believe it.”
“What is Coach going to say? Or all the other lads? They’re gonna tease the crap out of her. It’s not like it’s touch or tag rugby. How we gonna tackle her when she has breasts?” Rory mimicked boobs in front of his own chest as if the lads wouldn’t know what they were.
“I’m sure there is a rule somewhere that doesn’t allow women to play on a men’s team in US rugby,” Irish interjected. “Not only that, but the club isn’t a joke. We want to get better, become more competitive. Not less.”
“Maybe she’s played before. We don’t know,” Del argued.
Rory kept at him. “Beyond all that, you don’t want her to get hurt, do you? I mean, look at her.”
All three of them shifted their gaze over to where Grace was rowing her heart out. No headphones on her ears like everyone else. Just her and the machine. Not too bad of form, either.
When she looked back at them again, Rory raised his hand in a half-hearted wave. “She’s what? One hundred fifty centimeters tall and a little over eight stone? She’d be pulverized. And there isn’t one position on a rugby team that doesn’t get physical.”
Del leaned back in his chair. “Maybe she has the grace and speed of a gazelle, evade the enemy that way. Her name is Just Grace and everything.”
Her row lasted a whole of two minutes, and when she finished, she wiped her brow and looked back at Rory. Or maybe she was looking at all the boys. There was something quite beguiling about her, but unfortunately she was mental. When she stepped out of the machine, her shoe caught in one of the straps and she tripped into the woman on the next rower. Instead of fumbling in apology, she spread her arms wide to each side of the room as a gymnast would do at the end of a floor routine.
Del snorted a laugh out his nose.
Rory turned to him. “I doubt it, Captain.”
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