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For Rebecca it’s Nora first, that summer.

She’s been seeing Nora a lot; they FaceTime, she’s come for the weekend, Rebecca even went north for a few days after Christmas. Rebecca hasn’t forgotten how badly she failed, but she’s beginning to feel good about how she’s doing it now. Being a godmother. Nora talks to her, seems to like talking to her.

She comes to Richmond for a whole week after the FA Cup and Rebecca overplans, overstresses, forgetting that just London itself is interesting to a thirteen-year-old, and also that Nora likes watching movies and playing board games and hanging out with Keeley, who she seems to find endlessly fascinating.

But Nora’s kind of unusually quiet sometimes on this visit, especially when she checks her phone, and finally she confesses to Rebecca that her friend Bethany is having to make up her examinations because she got a suspension the last week of school. Fearing drugs or cigarettes or alcohol or sex or all of the above and wondering if she’ll feel obligated to tell Sassy, Rebecca hesitantly asks how Bethany got a suspension.

They’re walking to a café for dinner, and Nora’s eyes are on the ground ahead as she replies, “She kicked George Mellar in the balls.”

“That does sound like something that would earn a suspension,” Rebecca says. “. . . why did she kick George Mellar in the balls?”

“Because he put his hand down my shirt,” Nora says, “and I didn’t want him to.”

Rebecca thinks hard for a moment before she decides what to say. “Did you tell a teacher?”

“No.”

“Did you tell your mum?”

“No,” Nora says, and now she looks up to get a read on Rebecca. To see whether she’s going to insist on telling Sassy, probably.

“Why not?” Rebecca asks evenly.

Nora shrugs.

Okay. “Do you like George Mellar?” Rebecca asks, just in case.

Ew, no.”

“Okay.”

They walk a little further in silence before Nora says, “I didn’t do anything. I just pulled away and fixed my shirt.”

“That’s okay,” Rebecca says, for lack of anything else.

“I feel bad that she did it and got in trouble, and not me.”

Rebecca puts a hand on Nora’s shoulder for a moment as she thinks. “If he’d done it to Bethany. What would you have done then?”

“Probably slapped him across the face,” Nora says without hesitation.

“So. You see.” With a squeeze of Nora’s shoulder Rebecca adds, “I should probably be telling you that violence isn’t the answer.”

“Yeah,” Nora agrees.

“But.”

“Yeah.”

After another few steps Nora asks, “Aunt Rebecca?”

“Hmm?”

“Is it okay to ask you something even if it might be rude?”

“If you’re going to ask if I’ve ever kicked someone in the balls,” Rebecca says, “the answer is no, though I’ve definitely wanted to.”

“No,” Nora says with a little laugh. “Just – when you were married. . .”

To someone that Nora had never once called “Uncle Rupert,” nor had anyone suggested she should. “Yes?”

“He – wasn’t good news. Right?”

“No,” Rebecca says, her eyes now fixed firmly on the ground in front of her. “He was not.”

“But you didn’t know that right from the off.”

“No.”

“Was it just him cheating on you? That made him so bad?”

“No,” Rebecca says slowly. “It wasn’t.”

“But you stayed married to him until he did.”

Rebecca looks sideways at her. “Is there a question in there?”

“Just – everybody talks. About Me Too and the patriarchy and stuff. But like some people talk about beauty standards and being intersectional and, like, everybody should tell men to fu- . . . eff themselves, but then other people are like, empowerment and wear high heels and makeup if you want to, and embrace being sexy because otherwise it’s slut-shaming, and like.” Nora shrugs. “How do you know if you’re smashing the patriarchy or not?”

Rebecca bursts out laughing, and puts her arm around Nora to soften it. “Oh, baby, I don’t know. We’ve been having those same arguments since I was your age and I don’t think anyone’s solved it yet. What does that have to do with Rupert?”

Nora looks up at her and says, “You’re, like, in charge and everything. You always know what to do. But you still . . .”

“Ah.” After one last rub of Nora’s back Rebecca drops her arm. “Nobody knows what to do all the time, and we all make relationship mistakes. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at smashing things.”

“Okay.”

They’re at the door of the café by then, and Rebecca pauses to say, “But you should ask Keeley about all that sometime. I bet she has interesting ideas.”

Nora looks thoughtful and says, “Now that you put the idea in my head, I kind of want to ask Roy.”

“Now that I want to see.” Rebecca files away the question of whether Nora has a tiny crush on Roy, because if she does it’s massively harmless, and leads her charge to a table overlooking the river.

It’s Keeley herself next. Not with a question, or anything she wants Rebecca to fix, just with a vent.

“And can you believe,” she says, waving her martini dangerously in Rebecca’s direction, “when I said something to the director, he accused me of being jealous? Jealous. Because that shithead photographer groped an eighteen-year-old instead of me? As if I was mad because I wanted to be sexually harassed?”

Rebecca makes a sympathetic noise and asks, “What did you do?”

“I stood two fucking feet from his face the entire rest of the shoot and watched him. Every time he even put out a hand in her direction I shouted. Probably stupid – they’ll blame me and they’ll blame her, and she’ll probably blame me if she can’t get hired again. But I just couldn’t . . .”

Rebecca thinks of Nora, and says, “I know.”

Shit.” Keeley pulls the little sword stacked with olives out of her drink and savagely stabs it back in. “What’re you supposed to . . .”

“Yeah.”

“Ugh.” Flinging herself back on her stool so that her shoulder hits the bar, Keeley says, “I can’t believe I hired that useless fucking director.”

You hired the director?”

“Not for this. For the promotional shoot next week.”

That takes a moment to sink in for Rebecca. “We’ve hired him for the club?”

“Yeah. Pisses me off but we signed all the contracts. I did tell him not to even think about working with Oscar again. I mean I doubt he’s going to grope any of the boys but it’s the principle.”

“Sack him,” Rebecca says.

Keeley looks at her. “He’ll sue.”

“Let him. We’ll say it was for cause.”

“Really?” Keeley’s wide-eyed face is so hopeful it almost hurts.

Rebecca nods. “If we can’t line up someone else quickly enough we’ll postpone the promos. It won’t matter much, it’s not as if people don’t know who we are. Actually.” Rebecca lifts her chin, thinking. “Could we get a woman? Do you think?”

“Maybe,” Keeley says slowly. “You’re really, properly serious?”

“Got to stand for something, don’t we?” Rebecca mutters into her drink.

“I love you,” Keeley says.

It’s Sam next.

He comes into her office smiling, as he always does, but this time he seems nervous. She has to ask him to take a seat, which normally he would do without being invited.

“It’s about . . .” He takes a deep breath in and out, through his nose. “It’s about kneeling.”

Rebecca’s nose wrinkles for a few moments before she catches on that they aren’t talking about there being something wrong with his knee. “Before the matches?”

“Yes.” He folds his hands on his knee as he continues. “I’ve talked to some of the others. They want to do it, too.”

“Okay.” Her mind immediately goes to Ted, who’s still in Kansas for his long summer visit. It’s not a decision she should really make without him, but on the other hand, is it a decision at all? “You don’t need my permission, Sam.”

“I know, but – I’d like to have it anyway.”

“Well, then you have it, but . . . I’d like to know more.” She leans back in her chair, giving him her full attention. “Would it be the whole team, or just some of you?”

“We haven’t talked to the whole team yet, but we will.”

“It should be the whole team,” she muses, mostly to herself. A united display is one thing. A display of division is another. “If anyone is – certainly, if anyone is worried about it at all, send them to me.”

“I will,” Sam says, brightening.

“You . . . you didn’t want to do this before? During the season?”

“I did,” he says. “Maybe this is wrong, but we thought – we thought the impact would be different now. If we did it when we were losing, people would say, oh, why should we care what a losing club does. Or why are they putting their energy on this kind of thing instead of winning matches. But now.”

Rebecca nods slowly. “And a new season is a good time to make changes.”

“I thought that, too.”

Thinking it out as she speaks, she says, “I’d like to think about whether there’s more we should be doing. I know in the States some of the teams have been wearing something for their warm-up kit. . .” With a wry twist of her mouth she says, “I wish we could afford to move the sponsor’s name off our kits, but . . .”

He laughs.

“I’ll speak to Coach Lasso, too. He may have better ideas.” She smiles at Sam, feeling the way it softens her mood. “Thank you for speaking to me about this. I do want to reiterate that you could have just done it, and no one in this building would have faulted you for it. But thank you for bringing it to me.”

“Of course,” Sam says, his usual sunny expression firmly in place.

She does speak to Ted later that night – still afternoon for him – and he responds about the way she expects.

“Of course they should do that.”

“That’s what I said.” She hopes he knew that, but it bears saying. “I’m honestly surprised he asked at all.”

“Oh, I’m not,” Ted says. “Sam likes you. It’s a gesture for him. And he wants to make you part of things.”

“A gesture,” she echoes.

“In this house we respect the boss,” Ted says, his tone as sunny as Sam’s face. “I mean – I’m currently standing on the edge of a softball field in Kansas, but you know what I mean.”

“I do,” she says. Funny how Ted’s voice relaxes her, makes her feel like she’s been wrapped up in a warm blanket. “It’s been sort of a strange week . . .”

* * *

For Ted, it doesn’t exactly start with Michelle, but Michelle kind of kicks it off.

He’s been in Kansas for a week and he’s sitting on the porch of his old house, waiting for Henry to hose off after softball practice and get his stuff together for the weekend at the hotel, and finishing up a call with Rebecca while he waits. She’s telling him about the plans for the summer clinics, which won’t start until after he gets back, and about their plans for a big promotional photoshoot to drum up attendance when the season gets going again. Keeley’s hired this guy she’s worked with before and is apparently planning something spectacular that Ted secretly hopes will involve actual greyhounds.

Behind him the door opens, and he expects Henry so he says, “Think the little guy’s ready to go, boss, so I gotta sign off.”

“I hope you have a wonderful weekend,” she says.

“You too,” he replies, smiling into the distance as if she could see him. “I’ll talk to you in a couple days.”

“You will!” she promises.

He hangs up and looks over his shoulder, his Rebecca smile morphing into the one he uses to let Henry know it’s great and fun and fine to be going off with dad – probably not necessary, but he catches himself doing it anyway. But it’s Michelle standing there. “He’s packing,” she says. “I convinced him to actually use soap in his shower, so that took a whole extra minute.”

Ted nods, standing up from the steps where he’s been perched but staying a step down, so they’re closer to eye level. “While I’ve got you,” he says, “there’s something we should maybe start talking about.”

Michelle raises an eyebrow and says, “If it’s about you having a serious thing for your boss, we don’t have to talk about it, but we can if it’ll make you feel better.”

He’s so taken aback that he almost takes it literally, stepping one foot heavily down onto the next step behind him. “Wh– uh, no. That’s not what I – I don’t.”

“You do,” she says. “But okay, if you don’t want to talk about it we don’t have to.”

“Wh– ” He’s torn between protesting, feeling weird about the guilty pang that says he might be lying, and what he actually needed to discuss without Henry around. “No – I meant, can we start talking about Christmas. Maybe if we start thinking about it now, we can come up with a way . . . I mean I’d really like to see him this year.”

Michelle’s face softens around the edges at the same time her expression goes from relaxed to firm, which is a neat trick. He doesn’t remember if she could always do that. Rebecca can only pull off the opposite, as far as he’s seen – she has no control over the look in her eyes, however stern she’s trying to appear. “I know it was hard last year,” Michelle says. “Yeah. We can start to think about it.”

That’s definitely not a promise to move heaven and earth to get Henry to England, and it’s not like Ted doesn’t notice that, but he nods and thanks her anyway. It’s laying the groundwork.

Then Henry comes running out and Ted almost forgets to think about all of it, until a hot afternoon when he’s sitting with his old neighbor up the street. Colt’s an EMT so he has funny hours, and he’s off today, so they’re having a beer – well, beers – while Ted waits for it to be four o’clock so he can go get Henry. The day’s been dragging out pretty slowly, and they’re both moving slow, too; not moving much at all except to keep shifting their chairs out of the sun.

They’re talking about Henry and Michelle, and about Colt’s family – not the way the Diamond Dogs would, but it’s still good, it’s a connection to his old life, when he and Colt ran the grill at the block party every summer and Colt’s kids (two boys, one girl) chased Henry around with water balloons. They probably still do that. A beer and a half in, Ted confesses that Michelle thinks he has a thing for his boss.

“She didn’t sound upset or anything, just, like.” He waves his beer. “Like it was a given. That’s weird, right?”

“That’s real weird, man,” Colt says.

“I mean maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s fine, maybe that’s the way people are supposed to be after they’re divorced. I guess it just threw me ‘cause – it’s not the first time?” Ted takes a sip of his beer, which is already getting warm after maybe ten minutes out of the cooler. “Me and the boss. People have said stuff before, and I’m starting to wonder if maybe they have a point. But that’s not – I mean it’s not exactly uncomplicated, is it?”

“No,” says Colt in a funny tone that Ted can’t read. Then he shifts in his chair and asks, “Are you comin’ out right now?”

Between Colt and Michelle Ted’s starting to get conversational whiplash; he keeps feeling like he’s been dropped into the wrong scene. He says, “What?”; almost asks, “coming out where?”; and only then gets it. “My boss is a woman,” he explains.

Oh,” Colt says, raising his beer to his mouth. “That’s okay then.”

Once again Ted’s torn between what feels like five things that all equally need to be said. He settles on, “It would be okay either way, though, right?”

“Sure,” Colt says, and it’s not convincing but Ted decides to let it go.

“I mean it’s complicated because she’s my boss,” he says, looking down at the grass between his knees. “I don’t want to – you know. Not trying to get cancelled.”

Colt snorts, then seems to realize Ted’s somewhat serious. “Nah,” he says. “All those guys were the boss, right? I don’t think it counts if you can’t fire her.”

“Still don’t want to make her uncomfortable,” Ted says, taking a drink of now-tepid beer.

“If you make her uncomfortable, she’ll fire you,” Colt says cheerfully. “So no problem.”

Now Ted snorts.

“Just, you know,” Colt continues. “Don’t like invite her to your hotel room and show her your johnson. That one sounds like a definite no-no.”

“Yeah, good tip,” Ted agrees. “Harvey Weinstein should’ve had a talk with you.”

“That’s what I don’t get about these stupid assholes, or the gays,” Colt says.

Ted raises an eyebrow; he doesn’t want to ask but on the other hand he kind of does. “Okay?”

Colt gestures as if relaying a universal truth. “Dicks are weird-looking! Who thinks anyone wants to see that? Why would you want to see another guy’s?”

Ted knows he shouldn’t laugh, but he gets beer up his nose anyway.

He’s thinking about Colt for a while after, though – how they’re sort of friends, but they don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, how a lot of guys pretty much think the same as Colt and it’s probably progress that the conversation was as open as it was. And then Rebecca calls to tell him about her talk with Sam, and now he’s thinking about the “All Lives Matter” billboard he passed the other day outside an auto repair shop, about the stuff that’s been going on here at home since he left, about his guys in Richmond.

About Sam, in particular, maybe.

And about Rebecca. He’s not at all surprised that she immediately gave her approval to Sam’s request, and he’s flattered that she asked him to think about things while he’s away. He’s pretty sure some of the women’s teams have been getting into some interesting stuff, could maybe think about that. But then she throws him a curveball and starts talking about how Keeley fired the director for that photo shoot because he let his photographer grope one of the models at another shoot; and it’s like she’s in his head. Rebecca, not Keeley. Somehow putting her finger right on one of the things he’s been weighing in his mind.

“Gotta take that stuff seriously,” he says, as a filler because he doesn’t have anything really to offer here. “Glad you did.”

“She’s trying to find an all-female team to replace them, which probably we should have thought of before,” Rebecca says. “All things considered. Though then we’ll be bringing a bunch of young women into our dressing room . . . but we can trust our boys, can’t we? And Keeley’ll be there. Actually, as fired up as she is, I’d be more worried about someone losing a testicle if she thinks they’re out of line.”

Ted barks out a surprised laugh. He just really fucking loves Rebecca; although that’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? Then the word “nutshell” hits him funny under the circumstances and he’s laughing again, but trying to get control of himself because Rebecca’s saying something.

“And then Nora,” she says.

Right, Nora was going to come down. They don’t talk about Sassy really, but they do talk about Nora.

The fact that they don’t talk about Sassy should have been some kind of clue, maybe, that things weren’t exactly . . .

Anyway he asks, “How was her visit?”

“It was good, really, but . . .” There’s definitely something on her mind, and finally she says, “She was asking me – about why I stayed married to Rupert.”

Another curveball. “Wow. Okay.”

“It wasn’t cheek, she was . . .” A moment of quiet over the line while she thinks. “She’s been hearing a lot about feminism, you know, and all . . . Girls her age – god, even girls Keeley’s age probably – they’re all told they’re supposed to be strong women and as long as they’re strong women nothing bad will ever happen to them and no one will ever take advantage, and . . .”

Ted’s been wandering around his hotel room while they talked, but now he sits down on the end of the bed so he’s listening hard.

“She sees her mum, you know, and her godmother, neither of whom are precisely shrinking violets, and yet . . .” She sighs. “I think she’s feeling . . . vulnerable. Scared, maybe, or – she’s realizing, I think, that no matter how strong or clever she is there’s always going to be some man who isn’t going to care about that, and she’s trying to sort out – what that means.”

Ted waits, to make sure she’s really finished, and then for the time it takes him to decide what to say. “You know,” he says slowly, “it’s not – ”

“God, Ted, I love you to bits but if the words ‘not all men’ are about to leave your mouth, you’re fired.”

He laughs and quickly says, “They were not,” before it really sinks in what she’s said. His stomach is having a funny reaction to that but he pushes it aside to say, “I was saying – it’s not every kid who has someone she trusts, to talk to like that.”

“Yeah,” she says quietly.

He gives her another moment and then says, “So you really have had quite the week.”

“Yes, I have.”

She sounds tired. Ted says, “Wish I could be there to make it a little easier,” and then cringes, because first off that was way more flirty than he meant it to be, and also he sounds kind of pathetically pining.

If Rebecca notices on either count she doesn’t seem to mind, though. “When are you back?” she asks. “Wednesday?”

“Yes, ma’am. Next Wednesday.”

“Okay.” She pauses and then adds, “If you think of anything in the meantime . . .”

“I will absolutely call you.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Both of their voices are soft there at the end. Both verging on a little wistful. Maybe a little bit.

Ted hangs up wondering if it would be weird to DM someone like Megan Rapinoe. Then he does it anyway.

(She’s not sure what to make of him at first, but after a few exchanges he ends up going to watch OL Reign play North Carolina on his way home to Richmond. They lose, but Megan greets him after the game with a smile and a shouted “Coach Ted!” and introduces him to as many of her teammates as haven’t already limped off to the showers. He doesn’t necessarily end up getting a lot of ideas about acts of protest, but as he’s leaving he overhears someone saying, “That guy’s fucking awesome, I love him.” So that’s nice.

(Also, Megan tells him she googled him and read up on Rebecca a little. “She has been put through some serious bullshit,” she says, shaking her head. “Tell her we’re on her side, okay? Solidarity.” He promises that he will.)

Unlike last year, this time he catches Rebecca alone on his first return to the club. She looks a little tired but basically great, of course, and she’s surrounded by piles of glossy photos of the Richmond players. To his disappointment there are no greyhounds in sight, but the photos are good – taken in interesting light, shadows and highlights across their faces and their pristine new jerseys, poses that look natural and candid. “These are the ones the new photographer did?” he asks as she’s coming around from behind her desk.

“Good, aren’t they?” She folds her arms across her chest as she looks down at the photos. “She’s made Colin look like a philosopher. They’ll be using these as profile pictures for the rest of their lives.” Then she looks at him and smiles. “Welcome back.”

“Glad to be back,” he says, returning the smile. It’s fifteen degrees cooler in Richmond than when he left Charlotte the day before, but looking at her makes him feel warm. And then guilty. He tries to shake that off.

“Tell me again why you were flying from North Carolina?”

“Went to watch an NWSL game. I’ll tell you, if this league ever went co-ed I’d scoop up some of those ladies in a fraction of a second.”

“Isn’t there a team in Kansas City again now?” she asks.

He’s impressed that she knows that, seriously. He can barely keep track of the teams in the country he’s coaching in. “Yeah, but I don’t know any of them.”

Rebecca lets that go with an “okay,” before adding, “We’ve been invited to a meeting next week. I think we should go, but . . .”

“What about?” It’s weird to be all business so fast, when they’ve talked so much more personally on the phone while he was gone, but she’s clearly preoccupied and right in the middle of all of it. She shows him an email on her phone instead of answering.

As a follow-up to the open letter of 11 February, he reads, scrolling quickly. The leagues are apparently banding together to talk about next steps in combatting racism and discrimination in sport. “Oh. So we’re actually getting to this.”

“Who knows whether anything will come of it, but they’ve invited top management of all the clubs.” Her fingers brush his hand as she takes her phone back. “And it says we can bring player representatives.”

“Guess we’d better talk to the guys,” he says.

“We? You wouldn’t rather just – talk to them yourself?”

He just looks at her, eyebrows raised.

“Oh, all right,” she relents. “Tell me when.”

“Let me get my bearings first,” he says. He hesitates a moment, deciding if they’re done here. “Okay, well. Better get down to the pitch. Oh hey – there were weevils in my flour when I got back, so double biscuits tomorrow!”

“Okay,” she says, with something between a grimace and a laugh.

He turns to leave, and she turns to go back to her desk; but then he stops in his tracks and turns back, and she’s turning, too. As if they’d rehearsed it they both reach out with just one arm, his going more or less around her neck, hers under his lifted arm and around his ribcage. Their remaining hands find each other and clasp for just a second as her chin comes to his shoulder.

Their arms tighten hard around each other, and then he takes a deep breath and says, “Good to see you, boss,” and disengages to go and see his team.

* * *

Rebecca has no idea what she’s doing in this team meeting, other than showing her support. Which isn’t nothing, but – she’s beginning to feel like a very well-dressed pillar standing beside Ted.

Ted’s told the team about the leagues’ meeting and asked if they want some time on their own to choose a few representatives, but right away Isaac shouts out that Sam should go, and Sam demurs, and now they’re taking a vote and apparently they don’t mind doing this in front of the bosses.

“Everybody who thinks Sam should go, say ‘Sam should go,’” Isaac says. “On three. Three.” There’s a confused but vaguely unison recitation of “Sam should go” that sounds unanimous, so Isaac folds his arms and grins smugly at Sam. “You’ve been beating the drum about this whole thing, bruv,” he says.

“All right,” Sam says, “then you should go also.”

“Why me?” Isaac retorts, dropping his arms. “I’m not the only other black guy on this team.”

“You’re the captain, and you are from this country,” Sam points out. “We should bring at least one player representative who’s actually English.”

“Don’t think that matters,” Canterbury says. “You live here now and you play on the team.”

“I’m glad you don’t think it matters,” Sam says, “but someone will.”

Isaac stares at him for a while, then looks over at Ted, who shrugs, his face cheerfully blank. “Fine,” Isaac says. “Unless someone else wants to go. Anyone else want to go?”

A few heads shake, one or two voices mutter “not really,” but no one seems to be signing up.

“It’s not that we don’t care,” Thierry Zoreaux says from the back of the room. “I just don’t like meetings.”

“I don’t like management,” Winchester volunteers. “Except for present company.”

“Fine,” Isaac relents.

“Can we bring three? I want to go.”

Rebecca’s head, along with everyone else’s, turns slowly to stare at Jamie Tartt.

Roy’s the first to break the silence. “You know there won’t be a bar, right?”

“Fuck off,” Jamie says. “I’m serious.”

Rebecca looks sideways at Ted, who’s looking back at her. He gives her a tiny shrug, his expression only slightly terrified, before turning back to Jamie and asking, “Okay, Jamie, why do you want to go?”

“Because racism is stupid,” Jamie said. “It’s a fucking stupid reason to pick on somebody.”

His eyes cutting back over to Rebecca for a fleeting moment, Ted asks very slowly, “Are . . . there . . . good reasons to pick on somebody?”

“If they suck,” Jamie says with a lift of his shoulders as though the answer is obvious. “Or if they’re new, ‘cause that’s just how it goes. But not ‘cause of what color they are, that’s arse nine.”

It takes Rebecca several beats to figure out that he means ‘asinine,’ and from the confused looks around the room, not everyone gets there at all.

“Okay,” Ted says, “we’re gonna come back to all that first part sometime, but the last part is good. Sort of.”

He should have taken this day off; he’s only been back on British soil for one night and he doesn’t seem like he slept enough. His jumper is rumpled and he’s let his hair get disheveled and not fixed it. Briefly, Rebecca pictures running her fingers through it, and wonders what he’d do if she actually did.

“Plus,” Jamie says, pulling her attention back to Sam and Isaac standing in the middle of the room, “if only you lot go, they’ll think it only matters to the black blokes and they won’t take it as seriously.”

That is, unfortunately and shockingly, a good point. There’s Rebecca and Ted themselves, who are pretty inescapably white, but players count differently. But Jamie . . . ?

Roy, grimacing, grunts out, “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but – agreed.”

“And I’m the face of this team,” Jamie continues.

“Okay, hard disagree,” says Roy.

“I think Jamie should come,” Sam says. “If he wants to do it, he’s right. People will notice him.”

That’s exactly what Rebecca’s afraid of, and Ted looks like he’s with her on that, but he also looks . . . proud. Then he realizes everyone is staring at him – at them – and he takes a step closer to Rebecca and says, “Hey, don’t look at us. This is y’all’s decision.”

“Okay, me, Sam, and Jamie,” Isaac says, his head swiveling to take everyone in. “Good?”

“Good,” they all chorus, and now Rebecca’s going to a sensitive meeting with the owners and head coaches of God knows how many clubs with Ted, Isaac, Sam, and bloody Jamie Tartt. Now she’s the one wishing there was going to be a bar.

At least she feels like she’s doing the best she can. In no universe can she imagine Rupert going to this meeting, so she’s surpassing him even by doing the bare minimum. And she’s supporting her players, not worrying about her bottom line. And Ted is – Ted might look, and sound, like the perfect stereotypical American white male, but he’s not, and he’s a good person to have at her side for this.

They’ve got to stand for something, right?

She follows Ted to his office; Coach Beard heading for the pitch to get set up for the rest of training. When she shuts the door behind herself Ted turns and gives her a performance of surprise, hands raised. “Plot twist, huh?” he says.

Jamie Tartt,” she says, as if trying out the words for the first time.

“Yup.”

“The face of Richmond.” She ends up sounding more resigned than disgusted, and Ted laughs. It’s odd, but as relentlessly cheerful as he is, she doesn’t get to see him laugh very often. It transforms his face, the lines around his eyes becoming so soft and –

Well, sexy. She might as well admit it. It’s a good look on him.

Then she has to ask him a pointless question about the match schedule, because she can’t just stand there dwelling on how attractive her gaffer is.

* * *

What it’s really about is, Ted has a lot of rules.

About everything, in general, but a lot of the general rules are things that just sort of live in his mind as touchstones. The firmer ones – don’t quit; be curious; don’t do anything in anger that you’ll regret later – have mostly been ingrained in him by his father or a coach or just come out of the attitude toward the world he’s been working on for most of his life.

His rules about Rebecca, on the other hand, are extremely specific and he’s thought very specifically about them.

When they met he didn’t need those rules because he already had a perfectly good general approach for operating around bosses and women and female coworkers, and the fact that he’d never had a boss who was more than one of the above before didn’t seem to matter. But then it turned out that in fact, in the past, he’d just never been tempted to cross any of those very general lines. And now – well, now he needs better rules.

He especially has very strict rules about touching her, and even stricter ones about doing it in public where anyone else can see. Because the rules aren’t just about Rebecca feeling safe and Ted being appropriate; the rules are also about how Rebecca is perceived.

All that is to say that, although it looks like an everyday casual move, it’s actually incredibly calculated when he puts his hand on her lower back as they walk into the big meeting. It’s a gendered move, something men do to women as an unconscious way of being in charge, and for that exact reason he never does it. But.

The boys are ahead of them – Jamie showing off his sponsor’s gear; Isaac and Sam sporting the Richmond seal in something between their warmup kit and Ted’s usual uniform. Ted’s worn a suit for the occasion (having finally brought over the rest of his belongings, so now he has access to something that looks more appropriate for the boardroom than for a wedding), and Rebecca’s in rather sedate black that makes her look pale. Her eyes are casting nervously around the room as they enter, and Ted consciously breaks his rules –

– because really his first rule about touching Rebecca is a lot like his first rule of fight club: it’s don’t touch Rebecca

– in favor of reminding her that he’s there. Because she’s feeling vulnerable, and Rebecca feeling vulnerable is his kryptonite. Especially when they’re close enough that their arms are brushing and he’s hyper-aware of her breathing and her smell and all those things that are easier to ignore from the other end of her office. Not that that’s why he does it. He does it because she needs it, so he’s not really breaking the rules.

Of course Jesus says if you’re breaking the rules in your heart that’s just as good as breaking them for real, so that’s problematic.

Anyway. He makes it quick, the reassuring gesture, but makes sure she feels it; and is rewarded with a split-second look of gratitude.

He does understand. There aren’t a lot of women in the room and these are mostly people who knew and worked with Rupert for years. In her season-and-a-half at the helm Rebecca’s avoided most of the social occasions; both she and Ted have gravitated toward spending time with their team rather than with the other owners and managers. These aren’t her people, yet, or at least she’s not sure whether they are.

Heck, they’re not his people, either. They’ve been saying a lot about working with the American leagues on these issues, but although he’s American he’s not an NFL coach. He isn’t what they’re looking for in a collaborator; he’s just Ted from nowhere. Rebecca Welton’s experiment.

As it turns out they’re all mostly just there to listen, so there isn’t too much to worry about. Jamie behaves himself. Isaac behaves himself. No one was worried about Sam behaving himself in the first place. The closest any of them come to a kerfuffle is when an owner of a Championship team stands up to ask if racism is really such a problem in the first place, and Jamie makes a very familiar gesture that Ted learned from Mae the landlady, and Isaac sees it and cracks up. Then they both turn their heads and catch Rebecca’s stern look, and whisper apologies.

Rebecca has to hide a smile once they aren’t looking at her anymore, and she bumps her knee against Ted’s to acknowledge the humor. He fights the urge to do it back, because – rules.

Jamie does make a bit of a meal of having his picture taken by the attending press when they’re done, and Rebecca looks like she’s praying for patience, but she also whispers, “This is what he’s here for, right?”

“Right,” Ted whispers back, just before the photographer asks for a photo of the two of them.

“All of us?” Rebecca counters, gesturing for Isaac and Jamie to come in closer. Sam dashes over to Ted’s other side and Ted has a moment to feel good about how A.F.C. Richmond is comporting itself today, before he overhears something from off beyond Sam, something that sounds a lot like “cold as a witch’s tit”. And on the spot he calculates again; puts his arm around Rebecca’s waist, steps closer to her. Like they like each other.

He never knows whether anyone else caught that remark – and obviously hopes Rebecca didn’t – but later when he sees the published photos, he notices that Isaac has his arm threaded through hers. Good man.

In this house we respect the boss. Sometimes by breaking the rules of respecting the boss, a little.

Not that Ted’s going to be breaking those rules often; it’s not like the cork is out of the bottle. He sticks to them. When she’s tired after going through paperwork on her couch, and she leans her head against his shoulder for a moment and he fights the temptation to put his arm around her. When the boys come out and kneel on the pitch before the first match of the season and she stands with Ted on the sidelines so everyone knows they have her approval, close enough that their shoulders are touching because she’s nervous, and he clutches his clipboard to keep from taking her hand.

When they dance at O’Brien’s wedding, and he thinks harder about where he’s putting his hands than at any other time since his driver’s test when he was sixteen. (Eight and three. Definitely not seven, or nine.) When they beat Manchester City and she hugs him and kisses his cheek in the locker room. When he gets sunburned during the match at Brighton and she brushes her fingers against his forehead.

Respect the boss.

. . . when that long, unusually hot, tumultuous summer is over and he stays too late at a dinner at her house on an autumn night – he’s helping with the dishes and fails to notice that everyone else has left, even Roy and Keeley who were mid-conversation with Rebecca last he saw – and suddenly they’re alone and she’s standing next to him in her kitchen and their elbows keep bumping. He’s got the water running hot enough that he can’t stand to have his hands in it very long, and he splashes some on her forearm and she hisses; and he apologizes and wipes the drops away with his thumb, and then trails his fingertips back and forth over the sensitive area right in the crease of her elbow. For that split second he’s not thinking, not controlling himself, not really remembering who they are, just feeling the softness of her skin and instinctively going for a spot that’s going to make her shiver.

Then she does, and he takes a hasty step back.

“Sorry,” he says quickly, staring at the sink. “Against the rules.”

Shit, that was out loud.

“The . . . rules?” she asks.

“You know.” Mortified, he looks her up and down and waves his hand to follow his gaze. “Boss. Rules. Appropriate . . . workplace behavior.”

“We’re not in the workplace,” she points out, sounding slightly amused.

“You’re still my boss.”

“Yes. I am,” she says, and just like that she’s not amused anymore. “That doesn’t mean . . .” Then she shakes her head and says, “Sorry. Of course it does. Never mind.”

She sounds hurt, so that’s a misfire. “No, look,” he says. “It’s – well, you know. I never want to – cross a line and make you uncomfortable. Like that photographer Keeley was so mad at. Or something.”

Rebecca’s looking at him now in a calculating but curious way, as if she’s trying to analyze him. “That’s not really something you of all people have to worry about doing,” she says, a bit like it’s a question.

Even telling her this probably breaks all the rules, but he wants her to understand. And also he’s had a couple drinks. “You ever watch Doctor Who?” he asks.

She frowns in confusion, but she spreads her hands like, yes, obviously, she’s British.

“Right. Henry and I got real into it last year.” Before she has time to get impatient he goes on, “He says this thing in this one episode, something about how good men don’t need rules, and today isn’t the time to find out why I have so many?” He nods, and swallows, and says, “I have a lot of rules about you, Rebecca.”

She’s wide-eyed now, but doesn’t seem scared off. “Oh,” she says.

This might have been another misfire, because now the air between them is kind of charged.

“Point of clarity,” she says, and she bites her lip before she continues. “Do we mean . . . ‘my boss drives me mad on a daily basis and I have to concentrate very hard on not murdering her’?”

“Definitely not,” he says.

“Okay. Well. Good.” A line forms between her eyebrows and she says, “Sorry, I can’t have this conversation with a man who’s wearing my mum’s apron.”

He looks down, and back up. “I should – ”

“Take it off. Yes.”

It takes a second for his body to catch up, and then he’s fighting with the knot behind his back.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” She comes around behind him to undo the knot herself. “Not that I don’t appreciate a man in pink,” she says as she tugs the loop over his head.

“I’m very confident in my masculinity,” he says. He sounds like an idiot, mostly because he’s distracted by her manhandling him, but she huffs out a short laugh.

“Yes, and very practical.” She pushes at his shoulder to turn him around as she tosses the apron onto the clean table. “Ted.”

He does not feel ready for whatever this is about to be, but he says, “Yes?”

She’s looking him right in the eyes, and her expression is open and sincere. “I appreciate your trying to be . . .”

“Respectful?”

“Yes.” She seems to get stuck, and it’s quiet, and after a little while he realizes why it’s so completely quiet.

“You’re holding your breath,” he tells her, and watches her chest rise as she nods, startled.

“Right.” She takes a couple of purposeful breaths while she’s thinking and then says, “We’ve had a strange time. Everyone thinking so hard about how they should be behaving, what a club should be like. I know. And even if we hadn’t, I know what you’re like. You’re . . . the kind of person who has rules. And I don’t believe for a second that you need them more than the next man; you just care more than a lot of them. And that’s . . . good.” She licks her lips, and he thinks she probably doesn’t realize she’s doing it. “But you don’t really need them with me.”

He opens his mouth, and she cuts him off to correct herself.

“No. Right. You definitely need some of them.” She raises an eyebrow meaningfully. “And so do I, with you.”

She’s not wrong. “Yeah,” he says. “When you put it like – yeah.”

“But – ah.” She’s nervous; she looks away and rubs a hand through some splashed water on the countertop, spreading it around and drying it. Kryptonite. “I suppose I mean – we need the ones that relate to treating one another well. We don’t need the ones that mean we can’t – treat one another at all.” Her brow furrows as she looks at him. “That didn’t exactly make sense but you get the idea.”

“I – maybe.”

His hands are tingling, so he flexes and tightens them. He doesn’t mean for her to see, but her eyes drop and immediately she wraps her hands around his.

“I don’t mean to stress you,” she says.

“You’re not,” he lies. Or maybe it’s not a lie, because it’s not exactly her stressing him out. “I’m just, uh. Having a little paradigm shift.”

If that’s what the kids are calling it these days.

She smiles, briefly. “I don’t want to assume,” she says, still holding his fists in her hands. “But I thought maybe you were saying – ”

He cuts her off firmly, not to leave her in doubt. “I was. I didn’t actually . . . mean to, but I was.”

“It’s messy,” she says softly. “Professional. Personal.”

He nods, and lets himself turn his hands over and stroke his fingertips against her palms. It grounds him, and it makes Rebecca shiver again.

She takes in a deep breath and says, “You know. If you didn’t care so much – if you weren’t the man you are, I wouldn’t want to break your rules.” She’s smiling again by the time she finishes, almost teasingly.

He’s almost feeling confident enough to return the smile. “You mean, if I didn’t have rules you wouldn’t want to break them?”

“If you didn’t have rules, then I would have to have them,” she retorts. “And they would be positively draconian.”

“That’s fair, yeah.” He twines his fingers through hers and brings their palms together, stepping into her space. Suddenly he wants to make clear that it’s not sex they’re talking about – well, not only – but he can’t make himself say those words to his boss when they’ve only gotten as far as this yet, so instead he brings one of her hands to his heart, his own hand covering it. He watches understanding settle over her face and soften her eyes, and then she leans her forehead onto his shoulder.

“Ted,” she says, and it’s a complete thought, not the beginning of a sentence. She steps into him, enough that he feels the first, lightest pressure of her body against his. He lets go of her other hand so he can put his arm around her.

She turns her head and kisses his neck, and before he can react to that – but not before he can feel it, in pretty much his entire body – she straightens up and says, “Thank you for being the one who’s here with me. Through all this – I’m grateful it’s you.”

There’s not much he can do at that point but kiss her finally, and he’s grateful too, so incredibly grateful, for her kissing him back, for her hands on his neck and in his hair, for her permission and her desire and the fact that she feels this way about him, too. For her taste and her smell and the pinch of her teeth on his lip that runs straight through him. For the way he completely melts when she slides her hands up under the back of his shirt. For the long, long time they spend just kissing in her kitchen, holding each other, adjusting, before anybody gets more adventurous.

Not that he’s magically not-stuck in his head anymore. It’s still a lot to be hit with, to go from the same woman for twenty years, through a one-night stand, to . . . his boss, the one woman he’d drawn an absolute line under. And it’s not just the boss thing, it’s Rebecca being Rebecca and him being confronted with the fact that he’s intimidated by their massively different histories and experiences; he’s worried about pleasing her.

. . . and it’s the boss thing. First off he’s really not sure there exists a respectful way to do things to your boss that you’re not supposed to be doing to your boss. There’s definitely a disrespectful way to do some of these things, and he’s not doing that, so that’s maybe half the battle. But he finds himself wanting to – not that he wants to make it a role-playing thing (does it even count as role-playing when it’s their actual roles?), but he feels like he’s supposed to . . . maybe . . . keep it in mind that she’s in charge?

. . . while he’s in her bed, hitching her leg over his hip and listening to her gasp his name?

It’s not entirely realistic.

Rebecca actually gets it, intuits what’s going on with him, which is maybe not a surprise, and she tries to help; but since Rebecca trying to help almost always takes the form of telling him what to do, that sort of . . . doesn’t help. Or does. It’s hard to say. Because his boss telling him that it’s okay to just let go with her is still – his boss bossing him.

But anyway it’s good in the end, and it’s sweet, and she seems very well pleased, so that’s something. He adjusts to the idea that what they’re doing here by crossing these lines might be building something, not breaking it. In this one very specific case. He’s grateful for that.

And grateful for their team, their family, the fact that maybe they can break some of the rules to make something better and stronger for Richmond together. Whatever people might say.

Fuck the haters.