The Reverse Play (The Rebels Series Book 1)

Prologue

Seth and I strolled along the pathway behind the resorts, shoes in hand. A gentle breeze toyed with my golden strands. From the candy-colored sky to the swaying palm trees, it was a postcard-worthy Florida evening. And it was the perfect way to end an amazing day.

“I have to tell you something,” I said, biting back a grin. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. The US had finally decided to send a women’s football team to the Olympics. And I fully intended to be on that team.

“Hold that thought,” he said as we neared an empty stretch of sand. I frowned but complied, allowing him to lead me off the path.

The waves crashed in the distance, and Seth lowered to the ground, bending on one knee. Everything slowed, from the sea gulls cawing overhead to the people walking by, completely oblivious. I wished I could be completely oblivious, wished I could stop him.

He grasped my hand in his, anchoring me. And when he lifted his head slowly, ever so slowly, a smile spread across his face. With his free hand, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet box, confirming my greatest fear.

Why? Why did he have to do this?

Things were going so well. We’d been dating almost a year and a half, and it had been fun. Easy. I had a semester left of my master’s degree in sports psychology, and a wedding wasn’t part of my plans. At least, not in the near future. Maybe not ever, if I were being honest.

Marriage, a house, children were the furthest things from my mind. I was focused on one thing and one thing alone—football. My heart belonged to the sport, and I was finally on the cusp of realizing my dreams. Getting my master’s degree was the current goal, but ultimately, I wanted a doctorate. I wanted to coach in the NFL. And playing in the Olympics would be the cherry on top.

I should’ve said something. Should’ve stopped him before he could continue this charade. But I was frozen, my feet rooted to the spot as I watched on in horror. It was like an out-of-body experience. But instead of floating above and watching the scene with happiness, I was filled with dread. Because I could see my life splitting off in two very different directions. And I wasn’t ready to face this fork in the road, at least not yet.

“Blake,” Seth said, snapping me to attention.

Suddenly, everything sped up, and the smells, the sounds were magnified. This was a freaking nightmare. A beautiful nightmare that tasted like salt water and regret.

And all I could think was that Bastian was right—yet again. My best friend had warned me about this, warned me Seth wanted more, wanted to put a ring on it. But I’d refused to listen, and now I was regretting it.

I tugged on my hand, desperate to extract it from Seth’s grip. He didn’t take the hint, rubbing his thumb over my skin in a gesture I assumed he meant to be reassuring. I could feel my palms getting clammy, sweat prickling at the back of my neck. Florida was balmy, but my discomfort had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the sticky situation.

His lips were moving, but I didn’t hear a word of his speech. Not until he said, “When I look at the future, all I see is you.” He paused, staring up at me expectantly as he opened his mouth to continue.

“Seth, please—” I sucked in a deep breath, finally gathering my wits. Maybe if he didn’t actually say the words “marry me,” it would be okay. Maybe we could pretend it never happened and go back to the way things were. “Please stop.”

He furrowed his brows, confusion marring his handsome face. “Stop?”

I nodded, finally convincing him to stand. “Don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what? Ask you to be my wife? Ask you to spend your life with me?” His voice rose with every word, confusion and anger battling for dominance.

He’d hinted at marriage in the past, and I was always very clear about where I stood. I wanted to get my doctorate, and then maybe I’d consider it. I thought we’d agreed to wait. I thought we were happy. Yet here we were, standing on the beach—with a ring in his hand and a refusal on my lips.

I nodded. “Please don’t put me in a position where I have to say no.”

“No to marriage, or no to me?” he asked.

“To marriage,” I answered immediately, grabbing his hand once more. My life was spinning out of control, and everything was happening at once. His touch grounded me, kept me sane.

“You don’t want to get married now—or ever?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling my shoulders relax with the truth of that statement. The sand was cool beneath my feet, and I wriggled my toes.

“Is this about your degree? Have you heard from any of the schools you applied to?”

I shook my head. “No, and I won’t for a while yet. But I do want to tell you about an opportunity,” I said, my excitement building. “The US Olympic Committee announced they’ll be holding tryouts for a women’s football team. Can you believe it? I could play football for Team USA.” It sounded absurd when I said it aloud, yet it was true. And I couldn’t help but smile.

He frowned. “But…won’t that involve a lot of training and travel?”

I shrugged, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “Yeah, probably.”

His face darkened. “We barely see each other as it is.”

“Seth,” I said, peering into his eyes, hoping he would understand. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have to go for it. You understand, don’t you?”

He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I understand that, yet again, you’re choosing football over me.” He kicked at the sand, and it flew through the air, falling back to the ground as if it had never left.

I didn’t want to be like those grains of sand, returning to the beach as if nothing had changed. I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to build something with my life. Not a sandcastle that would wash away the next day, but something solid, something concrete—a legacy.

“This isn’t about you versus football,” I snapped, sick of having this argument. I’d spent my whole life defending my choices—my love of football—and I was over it. “Why do we have to get married? Why can’t we continue like we have been?”

“Because I love you, and I dream of a life together.”

I frowned. “We have a life together,” I said flatly.

“Blake,” he sighed, clearly exasperated. “I want more. I want to stand in front of our friends and family and declare our love. I want my ring on your finger showing the world you’re mine. I want a house, a dog, children. I want it all.”

He sounded so excited by his vision, but all I could feel was a growing sense of dread. Because that life he wanted, the things he wanted, they weren’t part of my plan. I had goals, and every item Seth listed was yet another obstacle standing in the path of my dreams.

“But why now?” I asked, sincerely trying to understand this sudden push to get married.

He stepped closer, taking my hands in his, his eyes filled with longing. “What more reason do I need than I love you?”

“I love you too, but I’m not ready to get married,” I said. Maybe I would be in time, but I was a grad student, for crying out loud. I had a mound of student debt and a world to conquer. “Isn’t that enough?”

His eyes darkened, filling with pain and anger. He dropped my hands, severing our tenuous connection. I could feel him slipping further away with every passing moment.

“What’s the big deal?” he asked, his tone condescending, his chin lifted. “It’s just a piece of paper.”

I clenched my fists, my blood boiling. He couldn’t argue both ways. The marriage certificate either mattered, or it didn’t. And to Seth, it was clearly important. More than I’d realized…or more than I’d cared to admit. Still, I wasn’t ready to let it go. I wasn’t ready to let him go.

“If it’s just a piece of paper, why can’t we wait? Why the rush?” My voice carried over the wind and the waves, disrupting the tranquility of the beach.

We were both silent, gazing at each other. Seth had drawn a line in the sand with his proposal, issuing an ultimatum of sorts. I’d tried to convince him we could continue as we were, but for him, it wasn’t enough. And now, I had a feeling we’d reached the point of no return. If I turned him down, it would be the end of our relationship.

I didn’t want it to be over. But I couldn’t reconcile our two very different visions for our future. Where I was focused on my career and coaching in the NFL, he dreamed of a white picket fence and little league games.

I was reminded of one of my mom’s favorite quotes from The Little Prince, a childhood favorite of mine. “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

“What was that?” he asked, and it took me a minute to realize I’d said it aloud.

“I said…” I took a deep breath, finally realizing this was inevitable. “I don’t think we have the same vision for our future.”

“So it would seem,” he said, stowing the ring in his pocket. And in that moment, we felt more like strangers than lovers. If I was honest with myself, it had felt that way for a while.

“I’m sorry, Seth. Truly, I am.” My voice was soft, barely a whisper among the rustling palm trees.

“Well, this evening didn’t go according to plan,” he muttered. “There’s nothing I can do or say to change your mind?”

I shook my head, resigned. “We want different things.”

“I wish I’d realized that before I shelled out ten grand on an engagement ring,” he said, anger bleeding through.

I took his hand in mine, forcing him to meet my eyes. “Seth.” I smiled, but it was a sad smile. A smile of regret and goodbye. “You’re a good guy, and one day you’ll make someone very happy.”

“Just not you.” His voice was flat.

I shook my head, my eyes burning with unshed tears. “Not me.”

“So, I guess this is it.” He rocked on his heels. “I’m…uh, I’m…” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder before turning and heading that direction.

I watched as he walked away, until finally I could see him no more. And only then, when his name was a whisper on my lips in the darkness, did I allow the tears to fall.

I sank down onto the sand and wrapped my arms around my legs, wondering where it had all gone wrong. I stared at the ocean for a long time, watching as the waves rolled in. The sun set and the moon rose, the stars twinkling from the galaxy above. I lost myself in the water, searching its inky depths for answers.

Seth was a good guy. He was handsome, well-educated, nice. He came from a loving family, and he was passionate about football. He was even an account manager for a large sports apparel company. On paper, we were a perfect match. Yet I couldn’t commit to him, couldn’t promise my heart to him for all eternity. I loved him, but I clung to my dreams with the fierceness of a mother lion defending her cubs. I’d known all along that pursuing my goals would require sacrifice; I just hadn’t realized how high the cost would be until this moment.

And as I stared at the vast ocean stretching on for eternity, I was plagued by doubts and uncertainty. Had I made the right decision in rejecting his proposal to pursue my dreams? Or had I just made the biggest mistake of my life?