The footsteps coming up the office stairs, so loud in the otherwise silent after-hours, were at such a quick, jogging pace (but in regular shoes, not trainers, so not Ted) that Rebecca assumed Higgins had forgotten something. So she was doubly surprised when Rupert appeared in the open doorway instead.
“I have got to speak to security,” she said by way of greeting. “Is it a matter of firing everyone who knew you? Because how fucking complicated is it to keep out someone who isn’t supposed to be here anymore?”
“Thank you for seeing me,” Rupert said, his infuriating grin emphasizing the irony. “This won’t take long.”
She felt nauseated, but she squared her shoulders and waved for him to continue as she unlocked her phone. “Do go on, I’m just making myself a note of who I need to sack in the morning.”
“I know what you’re doing,” Rupert said.
She pointed to her phone. “I know, I’ve just told you.”
“Not that. This.” He spread his arms to indicate the office around them.
She waited, an eyebrow arched, and finally said, “You’re going to have to give me more than that.”
“I know why you insisted on taking the club,” he said, pacing toward the window. “A woman scorned and all that. You wanted to hit me where it hurt and I understand that. Hell, I almost respect it. I even understand why you fired poor George; you never liked him. Fine again. But while it may look to the entire country as if you don’t know the first sodding thing about football, I know that’s not true. You’re not stupid. So it’s been driving me completely fucking insane wondering why on earth you hired that moronic redneck. And I’m here to tell you, I know. I’ve figured you out.”
On top of the nausea, Rebecca felt herself going cold. There was no way, she tried to tell herself as she felt the blood draining from her face, even if he suspected the truth, there was no way he could prove it. Well, unless Higgins turned on her, but he wouldn’t, surely? Because even though Ted knew everything and had forgiven her, if it got out what she’d been trying to do . . .
“What do you want, Rupert?” she said, trying her best to sound bored.
From the window he turned to face her, framed in the glow from the lights on the practice pitch. “You’re going to sell,” he said.
“You’re not allowed – ”
“I’m not allowed to own a stake in the club while you own it, and I’m not allowed to buy a stake from you,” he said. “I did read the divorce decree. You’re going to sell to someone else. Who will, after a decent interval, sell to me.”
“Not going to happen,” she said.
“What do you think the alternative is, darling?”
She didn’t even bother to complain about the name. “You do know blackmail is illegal?”
Inwardly, she really was beginning to think she might faint or be sick. Her plot, in her anger and pain and shame, had been so spur-of-the-moment, so fueled by hurt, that she hadn’t let herself think very hard beyond the immediate consequences. But the end of the season, Ted’s forgiveness, none of that meant she was out of trouble. For one thing, she could be sued. By the minority owners, the sponsors, the players, the players’ agents, the coaching staff – anyone who’d lost money or career prospects due to Richmond’s relegation. They could tie her up for years. And the league could probably force her to do what Rupert wanted, all by itself. They could ban her.
Only if they could prove anything, she tried to remind herself. And surely they couldn’t.
The fact that all of those consequences would be perfectly justified was something she and her conscience were working on.
“Blackmail is such an ugly word,” Rupert said. “Anyway this is – transparency. The Richmond community deserve to know why you fucked them all over.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “Well, that’s the operative word, isn’t it?”
Honestly confused, and caught off guard by it, she asked, “What?”
“That is what you did, isn’t it,” he said, grinning unpleasantly. “Fucked over a whole team so you could go on fucking the manager?”
Nausea was replaced by a feeling so unfamiliar that it took Rebecca a moment to identify it as relief. “What?” she said, actually laughing. “Have you lost your fucking mind?”
“You’re not going to tell me I’m not seeing what I’m seeing. I’m not stupid, either.”
“I beg to differ,” she said, standing up. Now that her stomach felt like it would stay put. “You realize we’d never actually met before I hired him? And that he was married? Which I know isn’t a deterrent to everyone, present company being a perfect illustration, but – also, sorry, but I actually wouldn’t have needed to go all the way to America to find someone willing to sleep with me. Nor would I have to pay them millions of pounds. Not to be vain, but really. There are cheaper ways – well, look who I’m talking to.”
Something in the back of her mind was telling her that this should have been a more painful conversation, but the fact that she wasn’t about to be outed for purposely sabotaging her own club was such an incredible relief that it was giving her strength.
Unless this was all a ruse to trick her into admitting that was what she had been doing? No, he really wasn’t that smart. His manipulation was crude and ugly and right on the surface.
“Maybe you didn’t hire him for that reason,” Rupert conceded, “but that’s why you kept him on while he drove the team into the ground, and why you kept him on after the most embarrassing relegation I’ve seen in years. You don’t think people would be interested to know that?”
He didn’t drive the team into the ground, you fucking bastard, I did. And I actually do regret it. She exhaled and shook her head, decision made so far as it was hers to make. “Do what you want,” she said. “You’re getting nothing out of me.”
“Well I know what that feels like, don’t I?”
She turned her back on him to walk back to her desk, a purposeful power move. “Could you fuck off now, please? I’ve got people to fire.”
“You’ll regret this,” he said. “Soon.”
“Don’t actually think I will.”
“Take that gamble if you want.” He walked to the door with his hands in his pockets, looking around as if he owned the place. “I won’t have time to stop and see Ted – give him my best. When you’re through giving him yours, I suppose.”
“Working on your dad jokes, I see,” she called as he started down the stairs.
When he was gone, and she’d taken a few moments to breathe and stop her hands from shaking, she went to find the other person who did deserve a say in this insanity. He and Coach Beard were in their office in the empty dressing room surrounded by piles of what looked like profiles on potential recruits they’d need to fill the roster once, inevitably, they began to lose players to other clubs. Clubs that hadn’t been relegated.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said as both men looked up. She only hoped she was less unwelcome than her visitor had been. “Coach Beard – would you mind . . .”
“Think we’ve gotten as far as we can tonight anyway,” he said easily, pushing his chair back and standing up. To Ted he said, “Take another look at that kid from Derry. ‘Night, Coach.”
“‘Night, Coach,” Ted echoed. He looked up at Rebecca a bit warily as the other man grabbed his things and left. “You want to sit, or is this a standing conversation?”
She compromised by leaning against the table next to his desk. “I’ve done something,” she said, “sort of, and I want to give you the opportunity to express your wishes on the matter.”
“Is this about Roy?”
“No – what about Roy?”
“Let’s hit that later,” Ted said. “What’s up?”
“Rupert was here,” she said.
Ted did stand up, his face instantly concerned. “You okay?”
“Fine,” she said quickly. “But he – ah – he came to say that he’d figured out why I hired you, or at any rate why I kept you on, and he’s threatening to . . . well, he didn’t say precisely, but I suppose to go public with it. Unless I agree to sell the club.”
“Okay.” Ted’s expression was unreadable, but it was definitely pale and tense. “You’re not – you didn’t tell him you would sell?”
“Good. Okay. Got that out of the way. So.” He put his hands in his pockets, but couldn’t have looked less like Rupert doing the same. “The worst is, he tells people that . . . you wanted the team to lose?”
God, she’d somehow almost forgotten in the last five minutes that there was a real secret about why she’d hired him. “No, Ted,” she said. “He said he’d figured it out; I didn’t say he was right.”
“Oh.” He backed up and sat on the edge of his desk, mirroring her. “So he’s threatening to tell people something that isn’t true anyway? That seems like much less of a problem.”
“Probably,” she said. “But I still thought you deserved the opportunity to decide for yourself. There’s a definite chance there will be publicity, and it could be . . . awkward. To say the least.”
Ted nodded. “So what does he think is going on?”
“It’s a bit mortifying actually,” she said.
“Wait.” His brow furrowed, and he pulled a hand from his pocket to wave it between the two of them. “Seriously?”
“That’s the gist, yes,” she said, grateful that she didn’t have to spell it out.
“Wow, okay.” He thought for the length of a long, slow exhale, looking off into the gym. “How bad is that for you? You know, in a female-owner-type way. If you know what I mean.”
She did, and was impressed that he’d thought of it at all, let alone that it was the first thing he’d thought of. “Not great,” she said. “Not terrible. I think Rupert must actually believe it, oddly. If he was just trying to invent a damaging rumor he could have done much worse. Speaking of Roy, that would have been a good one. Plausible, even. Or someone like Sam – less plausible, but the optics are a lot worse.”
“No one would believe you’d do that,” Ted said.
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you mad? Everyone would believe it. Except possibly for you, Keeley, and my mum; and I’m not sure about my mum.”
“Okay, so. Sleeping with me – not great, but better than one of the players.” The light was dim, but he almost looked as if he were blushing a little.
“I wasn’t hoping to be branded as the kind of woman who can’t keep her hands off her employees, but it’s better than being branded as the kind who can’t keep her hands off younger men. And you and I are on comparatively equal footing, really. Delia wouldn’t do it, but Delia’s about eighty. And her manager looks like a Saint Bernard.” She shifted, changing the cross of her ankles. “I’m not crazy about everyone thinking I’ve put my sex life ahead of the team, but I suppose winning is the answer to that.”
“Great,” Ted said. “So we add ‘saving the boss’s reputation’ to the list of reasons we have to win promotion this season. No pressure.”
“It’s your reputation as well, before you get carried away being Mr. Darcy.”
“I’ll stay out of ponds,” he said, smiling. “So you told him to shove it and say whatever he wants to anybody he wants?”
“Well, I agree with you, that’s the way to handle it. Guess we better warn . . . anyone who should be warned.”
He was looking carefully at her, not asking, and she didn’t want to dredge up the whole thing, but – “No one on my account,” she said. “That’s all . . . anyway. No.”
Ted’s concerned face was back. “Do you want to talk about it, or – ”
“No,” she said.
“Okay.” He gave her a moment in case she wanted to say anything else, but finally said, “Well I guess I better let Michelle know, just in case anybody she knows – you know, they don’t get this stuff over there, but I wouldn’t want her to hear about it from somebody else and think I wasn’t telling her something.”
“I’m really sorry about this.”
“No, hey, not your fault.” He gave her a smile that he probably didn’t even know was dazzling. “Hell, this’ll be the nicest thing the English press has ever said about me.”
The press didn’t say anything, though. For long enough that Rebecca started to think Rupert was purposely drawing it out, giving her time to change her mind or just letting her dangle and enjoying the tension. She was so focused on the press, on scanning the tabloids every morning looking for an exclusive on AFC Richmond’s den of iniquity, that she somehow forgot that the upcoming event for Championship owners and coaching staff included all owners. Including the current Mrs. Rebecca Mannion, and by extension her husband. And a captive audience.
He waited until after dinner, dragging it out and letting the former Rebecca Mannion watch him nervously all evening.
He and New Rebecca weren’t seated at Rebecca and Ted’s table, but he came over as the dessert plates were being cleared and seated himself in the chair left empty by, coincidentally, Delia Smith’s husband when he’d gone to the bar. Rupert had obviously been there himself a few times; the glass in his hand was full and his eyes were glassy, his attitude loose and laughing.
“Evening all,” he said as he sat down. “Delia, looking lovely as ever. Rebecca!” He raised his glass in her direction with a sardonic smile. “I see you’ve decided to brazen it out in public. Good for you.”
She knew, or was pretty sure she knew, what he meant, but admitting that would make her look guilty. “Brazen what out?” she asked.
“Your new flame,” he said, smile widening. “I’d have thought you’d want to be a bit more discreet about – well, let’s not beat around the bush, darling, about the fact that you’re not exactly keeping our friend here on your payroll because of his coaching experience.”
Norwich’s manager, who really did look like a fucking Saint Bernard, tilted his head in curiosity.
“No one is interested in your bizarre insinuations,” Rebecca said calmly. Or at least she hoped she sounded calm. Really her entire body was readying for battle, now that the moment had finally arrived – not, as she’d foolishly expected, in the form of a headline and shouted paparazzi questions that she could ignore, but live and in person and surrounded by their colleagues.
Rupert ignored her, rolling his gaze lazily over to Ted and saying, “Better you than me, mate. Talk about a difficult woman to satisfy.”
Delia muttered something Rebecca couldn’t hear which, judging by the look on her face, was a reproof. Beside Rebecca, Ted was sitting up rigidly straight but all he said was, “Weird flex, Rupe.”
Someone on Rebecca’s side of the table snickered.
Rupert must have sensed that his audience was not entirely on his side, because he went for the kill. “I’m just saying, blink twice if you need help. Or just sleep with someone else, that got me out of it. Once she finally figured it out.”
Rebecca felt herself going cold, but she didn’t have to respond.
“It was a couple more than ‘someone,’ wasn’t it?” Ted asked. Rebecca wondered if he was twirling his dessert fork that way on purpose. Like a cross between a weapon and a – dart. “More like – how many was it, boss?”
“Eighteen,” she supplied, her eyes still on his hand. She wondered if she should take the fork away from him.
“Eighteen,” Ted repeated, shaking his head. “Whew. Those are like serial killer numbers. And that’s probably only the bodies they found, right?” He turned to Rebecca, still twirling the fork. “Not to be insensitive,” he said, not quite just for her.
“No, no,” she said. “Nothing you can say that Ernie Lounds hasn’t.”
“I really do hate that guy,” Ted said.
“Yes,” she replied, “everyone does.”
“Sorry,” said the confused-looking Italian – a minority owner of Brentford, Rebecca thought – sitting beside the Norwich manager. “What is happening? I am . . . got lost.”
“She ran a Premier League club into the ground so she could go on fucking a cowboy,” Rupert said, spreading his arms wide and nearly hitting Delia with his drink.
To the sound of horrified gasps and people at other tables turning around, Rebecca put her hand over Ted’s, pinning the fork to the table, and stood up. “I really must apologize for my ex-husband’s boorishness,” she said, looking around the table and then mostly at Delia. “I believe the best way to spare the rest of you would be to take myself off. Probably ourselves,” she amended, looking down at Ted.
“Oh, yeah.” He stood up too, extracting his hand from under hers and keeping (she noted with some nervousness) his grip on the fork. “By the way,” he said, directing this across the table at Rupert. “Boss here had a talk with security, but I had a talk with legal. Turns out there’s nothing stopping us from taking that big old ‘Rupert Mannion Training Centre’ sign off the building so we don’t have to walk under your goddamn name every day. So just so you know. Ain’t a single part of that building, or anything in it, you have any right to.” He tossed the fork onto the table, landing it neatly beside Rupert’s elbow, and then brushed past Rebecca to walk away. She was so busy trying to keep her jaw from dropping that she barely managed to remember to nod to the rest of their tablemates before she followed him.
They walked through the lobby in silence, and Rebecca waited until they were outside on an empty street before she grabbed Ted’s arm and said, “Oh my God. I am so sorry. That was – ”
He turned and took her by both upper arms. “Are you okay?”
“I think so. I don’t know. I might still pass out.” Without pulling her arm out of his grip, she lifted one hand to his shoulder. “Somehow I didn’t think he’d do that in public. I don’t know why I didn’t think that, he’s done it enough times before. Thank you for not planting that fork in his eye; I really thought you were going to for a moment.”
“Well you were keeping your cool so well, the least I could do was the same.” He let go of her and ran a hand through his hair, turning and walking a few steps away. “I know the car is coming, but can we walk a bit?”
“Of course. The car won’t be here for a while anyway.” She caught up with his quick stride and matched him as they crossed the street. “Did you really talk to someone about taking his name off the building? I can’t believe I never thought of it. I think I sort of forgot it was there.”
“I did, and soon it won’t be.”
“You do know how to pull off a mic drop. I mean fuck me, that was satisfying.”
“He’s madder now,” Ted said, looking sideways at her.
“Yes, he is. But he also knows he’s not invulnerable. I’ll take it.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“I don’t even know, honestly.” She happened to glance down, and saw that his hand was flexed into a fist. If he was still fantasizing about punching Rupert she could sympathize – but then she saw him shake it out, and clench it again, and the gesture pinged a memory deep in her brain. “But you’re not,” she said. She stopped him by grabbing his sleeve, and then wrapped his hand in both of hers. “Stop and breathe. It’s done, we’re alone out here. Everything’s fine.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” He shook his head, but he wasn’t looking at her and he was still flexing and shaking the hand she wasn’t holding.
“You are fine, just slow down and take a breath.”
“I’m just so . . .” He swallowed, still looking off to the side somewhere. “I did want to plant that fork in his fucking face, I was so mad and I didn’t even know how to – how does somebody do that, just get up every day and choose to be the biggest asshole in the room and hurt people on purpose and just not even care what kind of absolute fucking filth he’s saying in front of anybody he feels like, to anybody he feels like!” He was close to shouting now, pulling away from Rebecca and pacing toward the little alley they’d been about to cross. “And you take it from him, and I know you feel like you have to and of course everybody has to stay calm, but staying calm means he just keeps fucking doing it and I’m not saying that wasn’t a Helen Mirren level performance from you in there just now, because it was really impressive and I’m proud of you, but I’m so fucking tired of having to watch you take that shit from him and I have no idea what to do about it.”
Rebecca just stood staring at him, her eyes wide.
“God, I’m sorry,” he said, most of the anger draining out of him as he turned back to look at her. “I’m sorry, I just – I couldn’t get mad at him and – ”
“No need to apologize,” she said. “On any score. You’ve done more to help me with Rupert than anyone on earth, not counting my lawyers. And you’re allowed to be angry when someone’s been an absolute shit to your face.” She shrugged. “Let it out.”
“I shouldn’t be taking it out on you,” he mumbled.
“Is that what you were doing? Sounded like perfectly healthy venting to me. Kind of nice to hear you sound like a proper football hooligan, actually.”
“I just – ” He was shaking his hands out again, shaking his head, and if Rebecca had been surprised by his ranting and swearing a moment ago, she was stunned when he surged forward, took her face in his hands, and kissed her so hard that she stumbled back. It was a bruising, probing kiss, his mouth opening hers with irresistible force, his teeth bumping hers, his tongue exploring her mouth as one hand dropped to her lower back and pulled her into him. The instant answering pulse between her legs shocked her almost as much as the kiss.
All of that happened in seconds; then he pressed her back so hard that she hit the brick wall behind her, and instantly he was pulling away and apologizing again. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Rebecca. That was absolutely unforgiveable, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what the hell I was doing, I – ”
“Ted, Ted!” She took hold of the lapels of his suit jacket to pull him back to face her. “Stop. For one thing, I don’t think the word ‘unforgiveable’ is very useful between you and me, hey? Second, if you think I couldn’t have stopped you just then, you’re delusional. Third – just calm down, all right?” She lifted one hand to his cheek and held it there gently. “All right?”
He nodded, meeting her eyes for only a breath before dropping his gaze to the ground between them.
“Okay. Come on, the car’ll be here in a moment.” She turned to walk away, but he didn’t follow her, so she went back and took his hand to tug him after her. “We’re all right, Ted, come on.”
“I’m really – ”
“For fuck’s sake, stop apologizing.”
The car was waiting, and they got into it in silence, but when the barrier was up and they were pulling away into the London night, Ted said, “I am really sorry. For getting so mad and then losing control like that, I – ”
“Stop it,” she said. “If you want to know, it was actually rather thrilling.” Seriously, no one had ever shouted about Rupert like that in her hearing.
Ted looked sideways at her and asked, “Which part?”
And, oh. Right. “Well,” she said honestly, “. . . both.”
“Oh,” he said.
She nodded, staring straight ahead at the back of the driver’s head.
By the time they reached her flat she’d made a decision. She tapped Ted’s hand and said, “Come on, get out.”
His eyes widened in the glow from the overhead light. “Um – ”
“We’re going to sort this before it gets weird. Come on.”
“Okay.” He slid out, looking nervous, and called, “‘Night, Mahmoud,” to the driver before slamming the door himself.
“Would you like me to wait?” the driver asked.
“No, man, it’s getting late, you go on home,” Ted said. The driver said something in response, but Rebecca was too busy fumbling so much with shaking hands that she could barely unlock her door.
Because she needed the normalcy, she let Ted trail after her to the kitchen and started the kettle. “I’m going to make tea you’ll actually like,” she said, pulling cups from the cabinet.
“We’re tilting at windmills tonight, cool,” he said.
She rolled her eyes.
“You know, I figured out why he’s so mad,” he said. “Rupert.”
“I took his club?” she said, opening the tin of tea.
“Well, yeah. But torturing you isn’t going to get it back for him.” He leaned his hip against the counter beside her. “He still wants you.”
“Evidence suggests he didn’t even want me while we were still married,” she said dryly. “Let alone now.”
“All the evidence suggests is that he has a hard time focusing,” Ted said. “Plenty of people are bad at fidelity. That doesn’t mean he wanted you to leave.”
“It hurt his ego, that’s all.”
“I’m sure it did, but he also still wants you. And it really pisses him off.”
For the time it took for the kettle to heat, Rebecca let herself consider that. It . . . did make sense. If you ignored the bruising Rupert had been giving to her ego for the last thirteen years, it did make sense. “Maybe,” she allowed. “I have a hard time seeing it, but maybe.”
“I don’t have a hard time seeing it,” he said, his voice low and husky. He was very close, and then his hip was brushing hers and his hand was at her chin, and his gaze dropped to her lips.
She put a hand on his chest and said, “Ted. No.”
He backed off immediately, but before he could look too crestfallen she said, “Go and sit down, I’ll be there in a minute.”
“I should go,” he said, looking away.
“You should do as you’re told,” she said.
His eyes lifted back to her face, eyebrows lifted. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and went out to the living room.
When she followed a few minutes later and handed him a cup of tea, he gave her a frankly hilarious look before sighing and taking a sip. His eyes widened and he said, “Holy cow, now why isn’t it like this all the time? What’d you put in it?”
“Milk and sugar.” Enough of both, in his cup, that it was basically warm milk syrup with a slightly teaish tinge. “And whiskey.”
He blinked. “I guess that’s why you don’t make it like that all the time.”
“The situation seemed to warrant, in this case.” She sat next to him and sipped her own, significantly less milky and sugary, tea.
He was looking at her with heavy-lidded eyes, and she’d sat a bit too close; their knees were almost touching. She wasn’t worried about him; she’d said no and she was willing to bet that Ted Lasso treated a woman’s no as carved in stone. But another warm swallow of whiskeyed tea and she was beginning to trust herself less and less. “Understand,” she said, breathing in the steam from her tea and trying to be brave. “I only mean I can’t let you – not after all this drama, when you’re this keyed up. Not that it wouldn’t feel very, very good.”
“You could maybe stop saying things like that,” he mumbled into his own tea. “Just – for a while.”
She couldn’t help smiling a little. “It’s not that – you know, you’re an attractive man.” Almost immediately she reevaluated. “No, that’s a cop-out. I find you attractive, if I’m being honest.” She could feel her face reddening.
“Can I ask,” Ted said, “so is that a permanent no or a, the stakes are really high, take our time and do it right, no?”
“That one,” she said, swallowing a sip of tea to avoid meeting his eye.
“Okay. Okay.” He cleared his throat, took a sip of his own tea, and said, “I may be, mildly, changing my stance on tea.”
“Okay, really stop saying things like that.”
She laughed, and couldn’t help it if her eyes dropped for a second to the front of his trousers. Which were too dark anyway for her to see anything. She stole another glance at his face and said, “If everyone’s going to think we are anyway . . .”
That was the wrong thing to say; she knew it as soon as he lowered his cup. “That’s not the only reason – ”
“No, of course it’s not. Don’t be bloody ridiculous.”
“Okay.” He took another drink of tea and looked at the cup thoughtfully. “Y’all have something here. I do feel less – what’d you say, keyed up?”
She burst out laughing and said, “Nice try.”
He frowned for a beat, then he got it and laughed along with her. “I wasn’t, I swear.”
“I know,” she said, smiling fondly at him.
“This is less weird?” he asked.
Half an hour and another cup later, he called an Uber. She walked him to the door to wait, and when he cupped her cheek with his hand and asked, “Is this . . .” she looked down, saw his other hand relaxed at his side, and nodded. He kissed her much more gently this time, exactly as she expected, but it was still sparks and tingling and teeth and tongue, his shirt fisted in her hand and his hand daringly low on her back, her pulse throbbing and her breath quickening.
She pulled her mouth away from his only to say, against his jaw, “See, we had to wait long enough to make absolutely sure that had nothing whatsoever to do with Rupert.”
“I see your point.” He kissed her temple, then ducked to kiss the side of her neck, then returned to her lips as his phone lit up with the notification that his driver was outside. “‘Night, boss.”
She closed the door behind him, pictured Rupert’s stupid grinning face just one more time, and thought, fucking take that, you bastard.