Paolo glanced at his phone and grinned before answering in German, “Hey, kid.” He’d been about to get out of his car but settled back into the Ferrari’s driver seat to be comfortable for the conversation.
The animated voice of Xav, his teammates’ teenage foster son, came across the line. “Oh, my God, I just read online that you got called up to the national team. What does that mean? Are you moving? I didn’t evenget to see your last game with our team—”
At the growing volume and disappointment in Xav’s voice, Paolo cut inand soothed, “Whoa, whoa. Slow down and think about it. You should knowthat it wasn’t my last game here. It’s pretty common for players to getcalled up to fill a hole for a game or two, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a permanent member.” Not unless the fantastic goalkeeper Germany had either got injured or retired—unlikely to happen anytime soon, maybe not even in his career since they were the same age. He inhaled to try to rid himself of the familiar and gnawing sense of futility, that he’d reached the pinnacle of his career without any future advancement in sight…unless of course he moved to a different country and started over.
“Oh. Does that mean you aren’t going to be on the World Cup team then?”
“No.” He strove to keep the bitterness out of his voice. The kid didn’t deserve his drama. “Not this time.” They’d announced the roster, so it was unlikely Paolo would go unless something happened to one of the three already named goalkeepers FIFA required. And with four years between World Cups, he’d be lucky to still be playing for two more.
“Huh.” Xav sounded deflated. “I’m not sure if I’m happy or disappointed.”
Paolo had to smile. Nothing like a young person to lay it all out there and keep things in perspective. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“Okay, well, I know you’re probably late to practice as usual, so I won’t keep you.”
“Brat.” It was true, though, so Paolo couldn’t be mad about the tease. “I’m already at the stadium.” Technically. He was in the parking lot. “Don’t worry. You’ll be seeing plenty of me. Can’t get rid of me that easy.”
They said their goodbyes then Paolo reluctantly got out of his beloved sports car—the latest in a long line of favourite high performance cars. His previous Ferrari had been totaled by a one-week stand who had taken it for a joy ride while Paolo had slept off the latenight and too much alcohol. Thankfully the woman hadn’t been injured, but his baby’s frame had been irreparably damaged, so he’d been forced to replace her—the car, not the woman.
The woman he’d cut loose right away, and she hadn’t been replaced, tothe amazement of his friends as well as the paparazzi. There’d been wild speculation about Paolo’s lack of a public love life over the course of this season.
He began the long trek toward the stadium entrance, having left his car, as usual, far enough away that it was unlikely for anyone to park next to him and ding his paint job. Yeah, he was a bit protective of hisride. He glanced at his phone, swore and picked up his pace. At this rate, everyone was going to think he was either hung-over or had just crawled out of bed with someone—neither of which were the case. It had been a while since he’d faced a morning with either of those problems.
That was not to say that he’d been celibate over the course of the season, but he’d been a lot choosier and more discreet than he had been in the past. Part of the new direction his love life had taken was because he’d really cut back on his drinking this season.
Unfortunately, that also gave him a lot more time to dwell on his future as it related to his personal and career shortcomings. It wasn’t exactly a fun place to be.
The locker room was a bit too quiet when he entered and Paolo sighed. Late again.
“Late again, Lancaster,” Coach Kaiser greeted him dryly.
“Sorry, Coach,” Paolo replied automatically, bracing himself for the lecture to come.
The older man approached, but when he simply clapped him on the shoulder then passed by in silence, Paolo couldn’t believe it.
“Um, Coach Kaiser?”
He stopped and turned back to Paolo. “Yes?”
Paolo had no idea what he wanted to say. He was just so nonplussed bythe lack of a fight that he conversely hadn’t wanted Kaiser to walk away without a word. What did that say about him that he hadn’t just letit go and been thankful for the reprieve?
Was he really one of those guys who thought it better to have negative attention as opposed to none at all?
He needed to get a grip.
Trying to pull himself together in the face of the coach’s enquiring gaze, Paolo mentally scrabbled for something to say. “I wasn’t out late or anything. I…just had a hard time sleeping after the call-up news. Then I hit snooze a few too many times…”
Coach Kaiser held up a hand. “You’ll be just fine, Lancaster. If you get to play, you’ll do great. Try not to psych yourself out.”
Touched by the usually taciturn man’s vote of confidence, Paolo swallowed hard. “Thank you, Coach. Sorry again for being late.”
A bit of familiar impatience surfaced on the coach’s face. “Yes, yes.Well, go on and get the hell out there then. I have work to do and so do you.” He flapped his hands at Paolo then rolled his eyes and turned to go.
That was more like it. Relieved, Paolo grinned as he headed over toward his locker. “On my way. Soon as I’m good and ready.”
“Diva.” This lighthearted accusation came from a different, but just as familiar voice.
“Hey, Serge,” he greeted the trainer, who came over to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. Despite his smarting off, he quickly shed his outer layers then sat to exchange his footwear for something more appropriate for the turf. It had been a wet spring and had rained nearlyevery day this week, though it was sunny today. He wondered whether it was still soggy out there, then shrugged and went with the boots he usually wore.
“I haven’t seen you since the big news last night. Congratulations.” Sergio sat next to him on the bench. A quick glance around confirmed that they had the locker room to themselves.