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Stud A Bad Boy Sports Romance

Š 2016 By Avery Wilde All Rights Reserved

Cover by Vivian Monir Design

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COPYRIGHT Please respect the work of this author. No part of this book may be reproduced or copied without permission. This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Any similarities to events or situations is also coincidental.

Chapter One Eden No, no, no… Seriously…no! The negative thoughts raced through my mind as I stared at my boss Glenn, hoping I’d misheard him. He’d just announced who the suitor on our dating reality show, The Stud, was going to be this season—the eighth season overall—and I thought I’d heard him say the name Troy Ballard. But there was no way it could be him. Not that Troy Ballard. No freaking way. “Can you all hear me in the back?” Glenn called out. “This goddamned room is so echo-ey… anyway, our Stud will be arriving soon. We’ll be getting him prepped before the arrival of the girls. Hopefully this fucking weather clears up so we can get some decent outdoor shots of him for his initial introduction interview.” “Is it seriously Troy Ballard?” my coworker Candice asked, her blue eyes widening. Glenn nodded. “The one and only. Starting QB for San Francisco. Great catch for the season, eh?” he said with a self-satisfied gleam in his eyes. “This is exactly why I’m the showrunner, guys.” I glanced down to see that Candice’s hands were practically shaking. She’d always had a thing for NFL players, so it was no wonder she was reacting so strongly. Me? Not so much. In fact, I’d always had a bit of an aversion to football altogether, and Troy Ballard was the exact man I could blame for that. See, I knew Troy. Or at least I’d known him back in the day…or thought I had, anyway. My gaze dropped to my feet as all the memories flooded back in. We’d attended the same high school back in our hometown of Ellis Creek, and he’d been in the grade above me. I’d always known he existed, but as far as I knew he had no clue who I was. And why would he? I was the shy, mousy girl who came from a totally average middle class family, and he was…well, he was a star. It was well known in our school that he didn’t come from a particularly great family—apparently his mother was in prison and his father had a serious drug problem and a wild temper to boot—but he wasn’t embarrassed by that like some kids might be, or at least he didn’t seem to be. He took it all in his stride and used it to cultivate himself a ‘bad boy’ image, along with building himself up as one of the top footballers in the school. By the time I started my sophomore year and he was in his junior year, he was a living legend. Girls practically mobbed him every day, fighting for a chance to hook up with him behind the bleachers, and guys copied him and hung on every word he said, desperately wanting to be part of his group. On top of that, other schools in the area desperately tried to poach him for their football teams by offering scholarships and other deals to get him to move, but he stayed.

Anyway, he was the stereotypical ‘cool boy’—guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be with him. You get the picture. Me? Not so much. I wasn’t the biggest nerd in the world, but due to my quiet, shy nature, I was doomed to be one of the invisible kids. You know, the ones who aren’t necessarily mocked and bullied like some unfortunate kids, but also aren’t spoken to or invited to anything by the cool kids. I guess it wasn’t that bad, though, and I was lucky enough to have one amazing best friend—Blair. But there was no way a girl like me would ever have a chance with someone like Troy. Until one day, I did. Before that day, I’d only ever had one experience with him back in sophomore year. I’d dropped a pudding cup in the cafeteria, and my heart immediately plummeted as I waited for the cool kids nearby to start snickering. But that hadn’t happened. Troy was standing right near me, and he knelt down and picked up my—luckily unopened—pudding cup and placed it back on my tray. Then he smiled at me and turned back to his friends, and my heart melted. Blair had chattered excitedly about that small moment for months. Oh my god, Troy Ballard actually looked at us! And he helped you! He’s sooooooo hot. You’re so lucky, Eden! Fast forward from that to the last few months of my junior year, and I ran into him again. I’d been working on the school newspaper at that point, and even though I wasn’t really a sports buff, I’d been asked to interview the football coach about an upcoming game against a rival town. I’d been told he was in his office, but when I got there, a senior told me that he’d gone to talk to Troy in the locker room, and I could probably catch him there if I hurried. I raced over to the locker room without it even occurring to me that a girl shouldn’t be going in there when there could be a bunch of sweaty half-naked football players, but when I stepped in, I found it empty. Well, almost empty. Troy was standing beside a locker, shirtless. An obviously-homemade but still intricate tattoo ran down his tanned, sculpted arms, and sweat was beaded on his brow. His pants were slung low on his hips, and his thighs were so muscular that I could see how hard they were through the nylon material. My mouth dried up at the sight. He was hot as hell. He turned to the right when he heard the scuffing sound of my shoes, and his eyebrows rose when he spotted me standing there. “Come to check out the goods, huh?” he said, a teasing grin quirking his lips up. “No…um…sorry,” I managed to choke out, my heart racing a million miles an hour. “I was looking for Coach Kyle.” “He just left,” Troy replied. “His wife suddenly came down with the flu so he had to go take care of his little boy.” My shoulders slumped in defeat. “Oh. Okay. Guess I’ll catch him tomorrow instead.” Troy’s face softened. “What did you need him for?”

“I have to interview him.” “Oh, that’s right, you’re on the school paper, aren’t you?” he replied. “I really liked that article you wrote about our game a few months ago. It was so good that I couldn’t even tell how much you hate football.” My eyebrows shot up. He actually knew who I was? And he read my articles? Had I taken a wrong turn and stumbled into the Twilight Zone or something? “What do you mean?” I asked. He snorted with amusement. “I saw you at the game, taking notes. And honestly, I have never seen someone look so bored.” A fiery blush was quickly spreading across my cheeks now. “Sorry.” He shrugged. “Don’t be. Not everyone has to like the same stuff. And like I said, your article was so good that it sounded like it was written by someone who loves the sport.” “Thank you,” I said softly. “I really like writing.” “Yeah, I can tell. Only someone who loves it would be able to spin something they don’t give a shit about into a decent write-up.” “Mm,” I said, my brain suddenly too frazzled to come up with a coherent response. “So when’s the article due?” “Tomorrow afternoon,” I replied, finding my tongue again. “I can just find the coach in the morning.” Troy shook his head. “He never gets in till pretty late in the morning, and then you won’t have much time to get it all done. But hey, I have an idea.” “Oh?” “The editor for the school paper….what’s her name, Cyn?” I nodded. “Yeah, that’s her.” “Well, she’s been begging me to do an interview for you guys for ages. I’ve never gotten around to it, so I bet she’d be way happier with you getting an interview from me than Coach Kyle.” My pulse was steadier now, but I still felt nervous as hell. I was just waiting for someone to jump out and yell ‘Ha! Just kidding! Troy would never do anything nice for you, he doesn’t even know your name. It was all a prank!’ “Eden?” Troy said when I didn’t respond for a moment, confirming once and for all that he definitely did know my name. I could scarcely believe it. “What do you think?” “I…yeah, that’d be really great. Thanks,” I said, gulping my fears down. “Where should we do it?” He gestured to a bench that sat in the middle of the main locker room hall. “Right here is fine. It’s always empty this time of day, so no one’s gonna come in and bother us.” I sat down and pulled out my notebook and pen, and Troy grinned. “Not using a laptop or anything like that?”

“I guess I prefer to do things the old-fashioned way,” I said. “I can respect that. Anyway, what do you want to know?” How to get you as a boyfriend, I thought to myself. “I guess tell me a bit about yourself and your passion for football?” I said instead. He was happy to answer all my questions, and by the time I was done, I had a pretty decent article taking shape. It was all in shorthand note form, but by the time I got home and typed it all up, I had a feeling it would be a hit. I’d really enjoyed interviewing Troy; I was surprised at how well we got along. It almost felt like we’d been friends for years, even though this was the first time we’d ever spoken to each other. “Well, that’s about it,” I finally said, wishing I had ten thousand words to fill rather than five hundred, just so I could sit here with Troy for longer. “Thanks so much.” “No worries. Glad I could help, Eden.” Him saying my name again reminded me of how utterly odd it was that he knew who I was, and now that I’d talked to him and been around him for twenty-odd minutes, I felt relaxed and bold enough to ask him about it. It was like his whole aura of self-assured confidence had somehow rubbed off on me. “Actually, one more question,” I said. “Shoot.” “How do you know who I am?” I asked. “I mean, I had no idea you knew my name or read my stuff. We don’t exactly run in the same circles,” I added shyly. He winked. “I make it my business to know the names of the hottest girls in school.” All the air seemed to fly out of my lungs, and I choked out an answer. “W-what?” “Relax,” he said with a lazy smile. “You know you’re cute, don’t be so modest.” “Um…” I said, my voice trailing off. I knew I wasn’t a hideous gargoyle, but I’d never even dreamed that anyone would describe me as one of the ‘hottest girls in school’. Troy arched one brow. “Or maybe you don’t know,” he said. “Well, you are, trust me. I’ve thought so ever since we first met.” “But I don’t think we’ve really met properly before today,” I said, certain that he was confusing me with some other girl now. “Well, you know what I mean. When you dropped something behind me in the cafeteria that time. When I saw you, I just…” His voice trailed off, and for the first time, I thought I saw Troy looking slightly uncertain of himself. If so, that could mean he liked me… Surely not. If it was true, though, and he did like me, then it would be like a real-life magical romance tale for me. I’d always loved romance books and devoured them at every chance I got, and my favorite stories had always been when the strong alpha guy went for the shy, unassuming girl. I guess it was the one fantasy that could be closest to my own life if I was lucky enough.

“You just what?” I asked, needing Troy to finish his sentence so I could decide once and for all whether I was dreaming or not. “I thought you were hot as hell,” he said. “And c’mon, how do you not see all the guys checking you out?” Yep, I must be dreaming. I shrugged with embarrassment, still unable to believe what he was saying. I still definitely didn’t think I was the ‘hot’ type of girl; the girls who I always heard about sleeping with Troy and the other popular guys were all blonde stick-figures with fake tans, shiny red lips and cheerleader uniforms. “I don’t know. I didn’t think guys did,” I replied, before taking the plunge and beginning to ask the one question that was now plaguing me. “If you really thought that about me, then why did you never…erm…” “Ask you out?” he said with a grin. “Well, no…I mean…maybe…” I said, my cheeks heating up again. He shrugged. “Honestly, I thought you were too good for a guy like me. I’m sure you’ve heard all about me,” he said with a rueful smile. “Oh come on, don’t pretend like you haven’t,” he added when he saw my expression. “I guess I’ve heard some stuff, but I know what the rumor mill is like. You’ve been nice enough to me today, so you can’t be that bad.” His eyes left mine and gazed at the lockers in front of us. “Look, Eden, girls like you…smart, nice, and pretty…you shouldn’t be corrupted by hanging around assholes like me.” “Shouldn’t it be my decision?” I asked, my former boldness returning. “What do you mean?” “I mean, shouldn’t it be up to me to decide if I want to be ‘corrupted’ or not, as you said?” As I spoke those words, I already couldn’t believe they were coming out of my mouth. Me, the shy mouse, saying all this stuff out loud to Troy freaking Ballard. Blair was going to die when I told her about this! Troy looked at me for a moment without saying a word. Finally he nodded. “You got me pretty good there,” he said. “So in that case, what do you say to tomorrow night?” My heartrate increased by approximately one billion beats per minute as he spoke. Don’t blow this, I thought. This is probably your one shot with a guy like him. “Sure,” I replied, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. “What did you have in mind?” “How about another interview? Only this time I’ll be the one asking the questions about you.” He winked, and my heart skipped a beat. “Where?” “Tom’s Café. At six. I can pick you up first, but I’ll need your address.” I gave it to him, and that surreal moment was when I’d scored my first date with Troy Ballard. I’d gone home that day floating on air, still partially convinced it was all a dream, but when the next evening came and he arrived at my house to pick me up in his black Camaro, I knew it was all too real. Blair had squealed with excitement all afternoon as she helped me pick out the perfect outfit,

makeup and hair combo, and by seven that evening, Troy and I were enjoying the best date of my life. The only date of my life at that point, come to think of it. After that, it snowballed like crazy. Troy and I started seeing each other every day, and for the first time in my life, I was popular. People at school actually knew who I was, and Blair and I were suddenly being invited to all the cool parties and hangouts by the popular people, all because of Troy. My boyfriend. God, that felt so good to say at the time. Pretty decent for a shy girl who’d never been kissed before! Troy and I kept going steady, to everyone’s surprise—after all, before me, he’d gone through a lot of girls and seriously broken a few hearts—and three months later, we were still together. He wasn’t at all the arrogant bad boy I’d originally thought he was; he was sweet and kind to me, and he never once pressured me to have sex, because he knew I was still a virgin and was planning on waiting until I knew it was one-hundred percent the right time to lose it. And then it happened. The moment finally came. We’d just arrived back to his house after a football game he and his team had won, and he was practically fist-pumping the air in excitement. A scout had been there looking for talent for college recruitment, and he’d kept his eyes on Troy the whole time. “Babe, I think this is real,” he said as he followed me through the door to the small bungalow he lived in with his father. “That guy only recruits for Division I scholarships. If I get that, you know what that means?” “What?” I asked. “It means all of this goes away,” he said, making a sweeping gesture at the faded furniture and old knick-knacks around the house. “I won’t just be some dumbass from a shitty broken home. I’ll be on the way to going pro.” I touched his shoulder. In the months that we’d been dating, I’d gotten to know the real him and discovered how sensitive he was about his not-so-stellar family life. “Troy, you’re not a dumbass. It’s not your fault that your parents are the way they are.” “You know what I mean.” “Yeah. You mean you’ll be able to get away from all the bad stuff and make a good life for yourself,” I said softly. He leaned down and kissed my forehead, then looked me in the eye. “Hopefully with you.” My heart soared, and I knew it was the right moment. I looked into his eyes, and I knew that he knew what I was thinking. Without another word, he swept me into his arms and carried me to his bedroom, and in his double bed, we made love for the first time. He placed me down softly on the sheets, and then we kissed, our hands stripping each other of our clothes. He groaned softly, his bright blue eyes drinking in my curves, and his right hand twined with mine while his other one lingered on my breasts, moving slowly down towards the spot no man had ever seen or touched before. Then his lips were on mine, crushing against my mouth and threatening to devour me with his kiss,

and right then and there, he slid inside me, filling me with a mixture of pain and pleasure as he took my virginity with one hard thrust. The stinging pain had quickly been replaced with nothing but heated bliss, and in those moments as my first ever orgasm wracked me with pleasure, I knew I’d never want to be with another man. I loved Troy, and I was sure he loved me too. I was a fool. A stupid, immature seventeen year old fool who thought she knew it all. Only a week later, Troy was gone without a word, and I was left wondering how on earth I could’ve been so freaking stupid. If he’d actually ever loved me like I thought he had, then where on earth was he? Why had he left me? I guess once he’d finally gotten me into bed a few times, he lost all interest; the thrill of the chase was finally gone. We’d had sex every day in the week after he took my virginity, and then on the Friday of that week, it was like he vanished into thin air. No messages, no calls…nothing. I later found out he got the college football scholarship he wanted and took off on the bus early in the morning on the day he stopped talking to me. I cried every day for a whole month when I realized he was really gone. Even when that month was over, I was still devastated, but by that stage I felt numb and could no longer cry. A year later, I finished my senior year of high school, just like Troy had twelve months before, and at my graduation, all I could think was, ‘Why? Why isn’t he here?’ I barely even cared that I’d finished with a 4.0 GPA and offers from several great colleges. With my parent’s encouragement, I went to Berkeley and studied journalism and media, seeing as I’d always loved writing, and that was how I ended up with my first real job as a junior producer on The Stud. The reality show sold the idea of true love and romance to millions of enthralled viewers, and everyone I knew thought that working on it was the perfect career path for me, given my old obsession with romance books and the idea of true fairytale-style love. Too bad it was all bullshit. After Troy left me all those years ago, I’d given up on the idea of romance and pushed my entire book collection to a box in the back of my closet, and as for the show….well, the show was all fake. None of the suitors or contestants were looking for love; they were just out for fame and attention, and most of the drama and romantic scenes were instigated by producers for good ratings. But hey, it paid the bills. Overall, I’d been wrong in my earlier years. The concept of romance was actually all total bullshit. There was no such thing as Prince Charming, and he wasn’t going to come along and sweep me off my feet to live happily ever after. While it sounded petty and silly for me to be so jaded seeing as I’d only been a teenager when I came to this conclusion, I still blamed Troy for my attitude. I’d dated other guys since him, of course, in the seven years since I last saw him, but it had never been the same. I was closed off to trusting men now, out of a fear that I’d be left brokenhearted again, and that kind of general mistrust of men wasn’t exactly conducive to a healthy, committed relationship. I’d long since figured that one day I’d sort myself out and stop being so cagey about guys, but for the time being, I was happy to just focus on my career and nothing else. At least that couldn’t get up and leave me with zero notice.

“Eden! Psst.” My head snapped up, and I came crashing back to reality as the old memories faded into the back of my mind again. Candice was waving her hand in my face. “Sorry, I totally zoned out for a minute,” I said. “What’s up?” “He’s about to arrive! Wren just came in and said the limo is pulling up,” she replied, her voice laced with excitement. “Troy Ballard! Oh my god, I still can’t believe he’s the Stud this season. I could just die.” “I can’t believe it either,” I muttered. “I think I could just die too…” But not in the same way you mean it, I thought bitterly. Maybe I could mention my past with Troy to our boss Glenn, and he’d see it as a conflict of interest and call his contacts to assign me to another show on the network. Then again, this was the only show I’d ever worked on, so it was more likely that he’d just tell me to suck it up, get over my stupid high school drama, and get on with the job. As I should do, I thought to myself glumly. It really was high school drama, and if I wanted to be taken seriously as an adult in this line of work, then I needed to act like a professional and get over all my crap from the past. I couldn’t think of anyone else I knew who was still hung up on some asshole who’d hurt them years ago. “I thought he was still dating that model. You know, the blonde Isobel’s Secret one? Emma something-rather. I guess they broke up, though.” Candice was still chattering beside me, and I raised my eyebrows. “Who was dating her?” I asked. She gave me an exasperated look. “Troy Ballard. The guy we were literally just talking about. What’s with you today?” “Sorry. Got a splitting headache,” I said. She gave me a sympathetic look. “That sucks. I have some Advil somewhere,” she said. “I’ll get it in a minute. Anyway, what do you actually know about Troy?” “Nothing,” I lied. “Other than that he’s an NFL player. I guess I’ll have to read the whole dossier on him when Glenn hands out the copies.” Truthfully, I’d been following Troy’s life and career for a while now, ever since I opened the newspaper one day and saw an article about how he’d gone pro after college. He played for a San Francisco-based NFL team, and he’d gone the same route as many other hot young star players with too much endorsement money to burn. He partied in the off-seasons like no one was watching, despite the fact that the media was always watching, and according to the gossip sites, he went home with a different socialite, actress or model at least once a week. Probably every day, more like it. He’d also been arrested for a DUI a couple of years ago, which he’d somehow luckily managed to worm his way out of. I guess he took after his father more than he’d ever wanted to admit he could, as much as that fact saddened me. If he wasn’t such a great football player, then his wild antics might’ve gotten him thrown off his

team a while ago, or at least knocked down to second string, but he was a beast on the field, and the team coaches had stated several times in the past that he was an invaluable asset. He’d led San Francisco to win the championship two years running now, and for those people who were inclined to make bets, he was heavily tipped to do the same in the next season. “All right everyone, here he comes,” Glenn said from the front of the room. “Get to know this handsome face, because he’s your main priority from this moment onwards.” As he spoke, the main door to the briefing room opened, and in stepped Troy, flanked by his assigned producer, Wren, and two studio assistants who’d been tasked with showing him around. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Thanks for having me.” As everyone began to fawn over him, his lips curled into his trademark smile; the same cheeky smirk his fans adored. They all thought it made him look like a lovable bad boy, but I thought it made him look like an arrogant prick. My face turned hot as I looked down at the floor, trying not to draw his attention to me. Then again, if he saw me, maybe he’d feel guilty for what he’d done. The thought made me feel slightly satisfied—as much as I could be under the circumstances, anyway—and I looked back up to see him shaking hands with Glenn before moving down the room to say hi to other people. He nodded at Candice, who was still next to me, and she barely suppressed a squeal of excitement as she introduced herself. Troy’s gaze then moved to me, ice-blue eyes roaming all over my curves, and I stared boldly up at him without moving. “Hi, Troy,” I said, trying my best to keep my voice from quavering. My heart thudded, and as I stood there, I was reminded why my stomach used to do flip-flops whenever I saw Troy in the school halls, long before we’d ever been together. Long before he’d broken my heart. His gaze finally came up from my cleavage to rest on my face, and I waited for the inevitable flicker of recognition to cross his features. It never came. His gorgeous eyes glazed right over as he nodded a brief ‘hello’ to me, as if he honestly had no idea who I was, and then he quickly moved on to another producer. Wow. I couldn’t believe it. After all the heartbreak, all the tears I’d shed, and all the years I’d spent not being able to trust because of this man…. He didn’t even remember me.

Chapter Two Troy “This should be a really great season. You have no idea how glad I am you said yes to my offer, Troy.” The showrunner of The Stud, Glenn van der Koning, smiled effusively at me as he thanked me again for agreeing to be part of his show, and I smiled and half-tuned him out as I glanced over his shoulder at Eden, who was turned to the side while engaging in a conversation with a bubbly junior show exec who’d introduced herself as Candice. Eden still had the same animated expression on her gorgeous face that she’d always had whenever she talked back in the days that I’d known her, and her luminous green eyes were exactly as I remembered; those perfect peepers which made me melt a little inside every time I thought of them. I’d recognized her as soon as I stepped into the room. I didn’t let her know that, though—I didn’t want her to think I was some sort of fucking creep who’d agreed to do a reality show just so I could run into her. Even though that was exactly why I was here. She smiled at Candice, and I watched as she flicked her long ponytail back over her shoulder. Christ, she hadn’t changed a bit since I last saw her. She’d always done that hair thing when she was a bit nervous but trying to stay calm, and she still had the same soft curves and glowing caramel skin, seemingly unaffected by time. I still remembered the first time I ever saw her as clear as day. I’d been in my junior year of high school, standing in the cafeteria and shooting the shit with some of my buddies. We were all typical hormonal teenage boys—horny as fuck with very little regard for the feelings of the girls we might hurt with our frequent backseat seductions, and always bragging about our latest conquests. But then I saw her. I heard something drop behind me, and I turned around and picked it up without thinking. As I placed it on the tray of the girl who’d dropped it, I looked up and practically drowned in the most spectacular pair of eyes I’d ever seen. They belonged to a girl I’d never seen around school before, and for the first time in my life, I was speechless. It wasn’t just her eyes, it was everything. She was sexy, cute, and beautiful, all those rare qualities rolled into one perfect package, and her plump cherry lips made me want to lean down and kiss her right then and there. But I didn’t. I was still totally and utterly speechless. I had a reputation to uphold, however, and I didn’t want her or her friend thinking I was some sort of pussy, so I gave them a bright smile and then turned back to my friends, my heart pounding. “You know her or something?” my buddy Cal asked, jerking his thumb towards the girl and her friend, who had now passed us and were heading over to a table on the far left side of the room.

“Nah. Who is she?” “Pretty sure it’s Eden Zamora. She’s in my sister’s English Lit class. Smart as hell. And the girl next to her was Blair Gilbert.” The great thing about Cal was that he knew everyone, or at least knew of them. He’d always been useful to have around when I was trying to score whatever chick I’d spotted on any given day, because he’d be able to tell me their full names and several useful facts about them which helped me when I tried to pick them up. Girls loved feeling special; like a guy had really made an effort to get to know them. “You think she and her friend would be up to partying with us sometime?” I asked, keeping my voice casual. “She’s kinda hot.” Cal snorted and shook his head. “Fuck no. The only parties a girl like her would go to are her grandmother’s tea parties. She’s not like us, man. Too good for the likes of you.” He grinned and socked me in the shoulder, and I chuckled and nodded, not wanting to let on how disappointed I was in the fact that he was right. A girl that gorgeous was too good for me and always would be. I might’ve been popular, but I had a bad reputation for a reason—I came from a shitty family from the wrong side of the tracks, and I’d always been a bit of a dick when it came to girls. I’d be interested in them for a while, but the minute I got them down on their knees with their lips around my dick, or stretched out in the backseat of my car with their tanned legs spread wide, I lost all interest. Every time without fail. I didn’t want to risk doing that to a girl like Eden. I knew it was shitty that I’d do it to any girl at all, but the types I usually went for were well-versed in hookup culture—they’d already banged half the football team and were able to move on quickly to another guy’s cock once I lost interest. Eden seemed different. In the few seconds that I’d looked into her eyes, I’d seen a sort of angelic purity deep within them. None of that ‘virgin purity’ bullshit—I’d never bought into that misogynistic crap about girls becoming damaged goods once they slept with someone—but a sort of innocence about the whole world, as if casual hookups were too good for her, and the only thing she’d ever want or deserve was true love. I knew it sounded totally ridiculous that I could get so much from one look, but that was how I felt. So out of the fear of hurting her the way I inadvertently hurt everyone, I left her alone and never asked her out, although I did keep tabs on her articles in the school paper. Cal had been right; she was a genius with the English language, and her writing was fantastic. Then I ran into her one day in the locker room, and I hadn’t been able to resist. In fact, she’d been the one steering the conversation in the direction of us dating, and shit…there was no way I could say no to her then. The rest was history. We spent three perfect months together, and while everyone was shocked that an asshole player like me actually had a steady girlfriend for once, that hadn’t stopped us from enjoying every second of each other’s company. We slept together for the first time after a winning game, and I’d known then that she was definitely the right one for me. I hadn’t lost interest in her afterwards at all; quite the opposite. I wanted more and more, and I even wished that she was the only girl I’d ever been with.

I loved her. I sighed and dropped my eyes back to The Stud showrunner, not wanting Eden to turn her head and catch me staring as I took my mental trip down memory lane. I still remembered the last time I’d seen her as well as the first. We’d gone on a date to the local grill, and at the time, I hadn’t known that it was the last time I’d ever see that beautiful face. I received a call from my coach the next night, telling me that the scholarship to San Francisco State I was desperate for had initially gone to someone else. That kid had apparently decided to turn it down at the last minute after an injury, and I was the second choice by a hair’s breadth. That was good enough for me; it was a full-ride Division I scholarship, which anyone in the world would be lucky to score, even if they’d been the second choice. Because it was such a last minute thing, I hadn’t really had any time to think it over. Coach told me that there was a training camp in the Bay Area starting in a week, before the college semester started, and I would be expected at it if I were to accept the scholarship, meaning I’d have to miss my official school graduation ceremony. That was all right by me—I’d already been given the proper diploma papers, and it wasn’t like I had much family to show up and watch me in my gown and cap. Unfortunately, the Bay Area was a hundred miles away, and my trusty old Camaro had finally conked out the day before. My Dad couldn’t—and wouldn’t—give me any money to fix it, so my only option was to take the weekly bus, which left at eleven A.M. every Friday. It was Wednesday night. That gave me exactly one and a half days to pack and get the hell out of town…but how could I do that to Eden? I couldn’t say goodbye and take off to my future without seeing her first. I thought about turning the whole scholarship down, just so I could stay in town with her while she finished school, but I knew she’d never allow it. She’d always understood my desire to get away from my crappy home life, and she’d endlessly supported my goal of playing pro football, despite not being a huge sports fan herself. She’d never let me give up such an incredible opportunity. We could make the long-distance thing work, though. I just knew it. And so I’d come up with The Plan. In our time together, she'd mentioned a few times how she loved the idea of big romantic gestures. Romance in general, really. She always made me watch these sappy movies with her, and I’d always grinned at the dreamy sighs she let out when Leo DiCaprio wrote a romantic letter of some kind, or when Brad Pitt made some big speech about love. I guess it wasn't surprising that she ended up working for a show which peddled romance and true love to enchanted viewers all over the country. Anyway, seeing as our relationship hadn't exactly started out in a romantic way—in a sweaty old locker room, to be exact—I'd wanted to make that up to her with a big romantic gesture of my own before I left. The Plan was this—I wrote her a heartfelt letter explaining everything to her; the situation, my feelings for her, my desire to keep what we had no matter the distance, and then on the back of the letter I included instructions for a scavenger hunt. The hunt was quick and easy, using some of our favorite date locations as clue spots, and it ended in the park near the river that ran by her house. We’d had a cute little picnic there one day a few weeks ago, and while we were there we found a tree which was sort of hidden behind some others. It had a small round nook in it, and Eden’s eyes lit up

when she first saw it. She’d apparently read some fairytale as a kid where something amazing was secretly hidden in a tree nook just like that, and that was why I made that nook the last location for the scavenger hunt. Inside it was a little box with my favorite great-aunt’s ring in it. She’d given it to me years ago before she died, telling me that my father couldn’t be trusted with it, and so she wanted me to have it. She said it wasn’t worth much financially, but it was old and dear to her, so she wanted me to give it to the right woman if I ever found her. As far as I was concerned, Eden was that woman. I was only eighteen, but I knew it. The letter also included a time for Eden to meet me, near the bus station, if she was so inclined once she’d read it and found the ring. I actually remembered every single word of that letter like the back of my hand. Eden, I’m no good at writing, but I know you love reading and romance, so I’m giving this whole love letter thing a shot. You know that scholarship to San Fran State? I got it! Only problem is, I have to leave on Friday morning. I know it’s last minute, but I only just found out. I’d never keep anything from you. Please don’t worry—this doesn’t mean we’re over. Not at all. It’s only 100 miles away, so I figure you can come visit me, and I can come back on some weekends as well. Then once you’ve finished school, you can come join me. That’s just one year away. Anyway, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t text or call you to talk about this. Thing is, I know you love romantic gestures, so I decided to make one big one before I left, so you can remember our last time here together fondly while you wait to see me again. I’ve included a list of clues on the back of this page for a scavenger hunt—there’s something special for you to find (and I hope you don’t think the whole hunt thing is totally lame). Once you’ve done that—well, if you do it, that is—I’d like you to meet me outside the bus station on Friday. The bus leaves at eleven, but I’ll be there at eight, just so I can spend those last few hours with you. The weather report says it’s going to be raining, so we can even have a big dramatic kiss in the rain, just like they did in that old movie you love. See? I can do romance! I know I haven’t said this properly in person yet, but I love you, Eden. I really hope you feel the same way, and I hope you want to make this work as much as I do. See you Friday. Love, Troy. P.S. If for some reason you don’t feel the same way, or you don’t think a long distance thing can work, then don’t worry—no hard feelings. I’ll understand, and I’ll still love you and think about you all the time. I’d written that letter and set up the hunt on the Thursday morning before I left, and then I started walking over to her house to hand-deliver it to her. She lived on the good side of town, so it was a four mile walk, but I didn’t care. It would be worth it to see her. On my way over, I ran into her best friend Blair.

“Hey, Troy!” she said, enthusiastically greeting me when she spotted me. “Where are you going?” “Going to see Eden. Where else?” I replied with a grin. Blair’s face fell. “I had the same idea as you,” she said. “But I should’ve called first. She’s not home. Her Mom said she’s at Sienna’s, getting her hair done, so I’m just heading there now. Wanna walk with me?” “I…er…” I hesitated. Sienna’s was an upscale hair salon in town, and it was the kind of place with owners and patrons who would turn their nose up at me if I showed my face there. I might’ve been popular around school, but I was what a lot of the adults in town referred to as ‘bad news’, and I didn’t want one of my last memories of seeing Eden to be tainted with that sort of bullshit. I pulled the letter out of my pocket and held it out to Blair. “You know what…it might be better if you give this to her. I’m trying out this whole big romantic gesture thing, but it might be better if someone else hands her this letter, rather than me standing around awkwardly while she reads it.” Blair squealed. “Oh my god, that’s so cute! Of course, I’ll give it to her as soon as I get there.” “Thanks, Blair. See you round.” I spent the rest of the day packing everything I needed to take with me to the city, and I kept waiting for a text from Eden, telling me she got my letter. When I didn’t hear from her, I assumed she was out doing the scavenger hunt and that I’d hear from her later. By Friday morning, I still hadn’t heard from her. I showed up at the bus station at eight o’clock, just like I’d told her, and she wasn’t there. No worries; maybe she accidentally slept in. At nine, I finally tried texting her to see where she was, but my prepaid phone informed me that I’d run out of credit. Just my luck. She still hadn’t tried calling or texting me, either, but I kept telling myself her phone was broken, or that maybe she wanted to keep the whole thrill of my gesture going and didn’t want to ruin it with text messages and calls. I must’ve gone through every other excuse in the book by ten o’clock, but by a quarter to eleven, I’d finally accepted my fate. She wasn’t coming. She didn’t feel as strongly about me as I did about her, and she couldn’t face the prospect of a long distance relationship for a whole year. Maybe more, if she went to a different college than me. I stood out there in the drizzling rain till ten to eleven like a fucking chump. It really was just like a movie, but not the good kind. At five to eleven, the driver came to tell me that the bus was leaving soon, and I needed to get on. I took one last desperate look around to see if I could spot Eden racing towards the station, but there was no one there. With a heavy heart, I got on the bus, and I never came back. Not once. Not even to get the ring back, as awful as that was, given that it once belonged to one of the only decent family members I’d ever had. I just couldn’t face going back to the town with the girl who had broken my heart and never even called to tell me. I couldn’t exactly blame her, though, and I wasn’t angry; she was only seventeen. We were just kids, really, and we had our whole lives ahead of us at the time. No wonder she didn’t want to throw all that away by hanging on to me and following me around wherever I went. She had her own life and future to think of, and there were probably plenty

of other guys out there who were better for her than I could ever be. I’d been right when I first saw her—a girl like her was too good for me, and she’d finally figured that out too. After a year or so at college, I started to move on. I still loved Eden, but I knew I couldn’t spend my life moping around, waiting for a lost love to come back to me. Besides, I was still young—maybe it was never even real love. Maybe it was just puppy love that I built up and exaggerated in my head….but then I’d think of her eyes, smile, and laugh, and I’d realize it was all definitely real. I still needed to get over it, though, and you know that saying: the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. And so began my descent back into my old playboy ways. It wasn’t hard to get women to fuck a guy like me, and I never went back to the same one twice. I’d never even stay the night, and every time without fail, the girl’s eyes would flash with disbelief when I got up, got dressed and headed for the door as soon as I was done. I never waited around long enough to listen to their protests, because it was easier to be a cold bastard in these situations. Any sign of kindness or caring would inevitably be misinterpreted as something more serious, and I didn’t do serious relationships. Not anymore. I’d been with a lot of women in the last few years, gorgeous ones too, but it had never felt real like it did with Eden, and as far as I was concerned, none of them were even half as beautiful as her. Out of curiosity and an old sense of longing, I tried looking her up a few times over the years, but she didn’t seem to be active on social media sites. Then came a moment of serendipity. Glenn van der Koning showed up after one of my home games a few months ago, trying to talk me into going on his stupid reality show during the upcoming off-season. He seemed like a smug son of a bitch, and I’d initially snorted with laughter when I realized that he genuinely thought I was going to say yes to being on The Stud. It had been an immediate and decisive ‘no’ from me, and I got a lot of ribbing from my teammates about even being asked. Glenn hadn’t pushed the matter too hard. He’d simply asked me to watch just one episode of the show before I gave him my final answer, and if I still hated the idea of it, then he’d leave me alone and pursue other candidates. My teammates goaded me into saying yes to that, so I accepted and sat down to an old re-run of it that very night. I thought the show was pure trash—totally unrealistic manufactured garbage—but I was a man of my word, and I’d promised Glenn that I’d at least watch the whole thing. When the credits began to roll at the end, my answer was still ‘hell no’, but then I saw a name in the producer credits which made my heart stop. Eden Zamora. My pulse began to race, and I pulled out my phone to look up the TV show database which included all the cast and crew lists from various shows. My eyes scanned the crew list for The Stud, and there was her name again, with a link to a LinkedIn profile. I clicked on it, and there she was— my Eden, with a list of her college qualifications, CV, and a little photo. This was my chance to see her again, to finally get some real closure on why she’d never shown up…and to try and get her back. We weren’t kids anymore, and the whole long distance thing was no longer an issue. We were both living right here in San Francisco, or at least I assumed she was,

seeing as the show was filmed on an old horse stud in the Bay Area. If there was even a smidgen of a chance at rekindling things between us, then I was sure as hell going to take it, so I called Glenn back and accepted his offer. And now here I was with Eden only a few yards away, looking as gorgeous as ever. “So the contestants will be arriving in a couple of days, and before then, we’ll be setting up your initial introduction reel. We’ll need to get as much light as possible, so tomorrow will be an early morning. You okay with that?” My attention snapped back to Glenn. “Sorry, what?” He smiled. “We’re having an early morning tomorrow. For filming. Happy with that?” “Oh, yeah, sure.” As I spoke, my gaze left his face and wandered back over his shoulder to Eden again, and my pulse began to race like mad with excitement. I could still barely believe that I was here, staring at the only girl I’d ever loved after seven long years of absence, but it was all too real. No dream could have ever matched the real-life sparkle in her green eyes. I smiled. No matter what it took, I was going to win her back.

Chapter Three Eden “Eden! There’s someone here who wants to speak to you!” I heard a junior show assistant calling out to me, and I cringed, hoping to god that it wasn’t Troy by her side who wanted to talk to me. I was still pissed that he didn’t even remember me after how much he’d hurt me back in school, and I’d managed to avoid him over the last day and a half by doing prep jobs around the set which were nowhere near him. Luckily, I could get away with that seeing as I wasn’t his main producer—his producer was my colleague Wren. When I turned around, I breathed a sigh of relief, seeing that it was Cailin with the assistant instead. Cailin was one of the twenty-four contestants who’d arrived earlier this morning, and was one of the four whom I was directly responsible for. It was my job to ensure she was happy, performed to expectation, and produced enough drama-worthy moments for the show, among other things. She was a pretty ballet dancer with willowy limbs, mocha skin and hazel eyes, which were currently wide with concern. “What’s up, Cailin?” I asked. “I need to talk to you about the food here again. You know I’m allergic to peanuts, right?” I smiled patiently and took a deep breath before replying. She’d already told me four times about her allergy, and in turn, I’d told her four times that it was fine, and that the chefs were under strict instructions to be very careful. “Yes, Cailin, I’m aware of your allergy. Don’t worry, the chefs are—” She cut me off with an impatient wave of her hand. “That’s what I need to talk to you about. The chefs! You said they’d be careful, but they just put out some pesto pasta salad on the buffet table over there, and I know that pesto is made from peanuts! It’s lucky I have my Epi-Pen on me all the time just in case.” Oh, for the love of… “Cailin, pesto is made with pine nuts, not peanuts,” I said, mustering up another patient smile. “Believe me, the food is fine. We’ll take care of you.” Her shoulders sagged with relief, and she gave me an embarrassed smile. “Oh. I’m sorry to bother you about it, then. You must get so many ridiculous questions like this from all the girls.” “Don’t sweat it. It’s good to make sure sometimes,” I said. She was right; we did get a lot of ridiculous requests when it came to food, like exclusively gluten-free food for contestants who didn’t have celiac disease or any other conditions that would warrant a gluten-free diet, and raw dairy-free vegan food for contestants who claimed to be vegans and then wolfed down a double cheeseburger the minute they got drunk. Cailin’s peanut allergy was real though, so it was a serious concern, and she had been nice enough to apologize just now for the pesto complaint. I could already tell that she

didn’t have a mean bone in her body, and she was likely going to be set up as one of the nice ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth’ sweethearts this season. “When are we filming the introduction interviews?” she asked. “Soon. You’ll need to head over to the confessional room, which is over there,” I said, pointing. “And remember, try to be charming yet honest. Smile a lot. They cut a lot of footage from these interviews, so try to condense everything. Got it?” “Yep. You’ll be there, right?” “Of course. You can head over to the room now, if you want. I’ll be there in a minute. I just need to sort some stuff out first.” She smiled and walked off towards the confessional room, although ‘strutted’ was probably a more apt term than ‘walked’ given the five-inch stilettos she was wearing. Almost every contestant here was dressed to the nines in gorgeous dresses and towering heels with perfect hair and makeup courtesy of our hairdressers and makeup artists, and it made me feel positively boring with my plain clothes and ponytail. Then again, I wasn’t here to look beautiful in an attempt to win the heart of the Stud, otherwise known as my ex. I watched to make sure Cailin found the confessional room, and then I turned my attention back to my clipboard as I waited for my final girl to finish filming her outdoor shots. The outdoor shots were just bits of footage we got of the contestants doing ‘active’ stuff outdoors to splice into the introduction videos, and what they did in the shots was related to the direction we wanted to take her in for the show. If we wanted a woman to come across as one of the show’s potential mean girl ‘villains’, we’d make her look like a total Glamazon, wearing an expensive bikini and designer sunglasses while sunbaking out by the pool. If we wanted her to come across as an outdoorsy ‘girl next door’ type instead, we’d film her doing something like jogging by the lake, or pretending to muck out one of the old stables here at Palomar Horse Stud, where the show was filmed. The old horse stud was on an enormous expanse of land in Marin County, and another reality show about city people living like cowboys and cowgirls had been filmed here about nine years ago. After that show was cancelled, the network had bought the rights to Glenn’s idea for a show, and The Stud was born. There’d been eight seasons now—two of which I’d worked on—all filmed out here on the old horse stud, and I had to admit, it was the perfect location. There were old but classiclooking farm buildings for pretty exterior shots, a picturesque lake on one side, rolling hills and plains, and even a forest towards the far-right side. On top of that, there was also what the crew members referred to as the Castle—a three-storied Spanish-style villa with thirty bedrooms (each with their own personal bathroom), four kitchens, and a spacious ballroom, among other amenities. There was also a gorgeous courtyard near an azure-tiled pool and Jacuzzi, and all in all, it was a little piece of paradise. Too bad we didn’t get to stay in it. The mansion was for contestants and suitors only, and the rest of us lived in trailers on the property while the show was filmed before returning back to our regular places in the city during the off-season. My apartment was in San Francisco, and while I missed the buzz of the city, I also loved being out here during the filming season. My trailer might’ve been small and cramped, but the scenery

out here was expansive and beautiful, which was more than enough to make up for it. “Eden! I’m done. Do I need to go and get into a dress like all these other girls now?” I glanced up at the sound of the feminine voice calling to me, and I broke into a grin as I saw Blair rushing towards me. She’d been a little down on her luck over the last six months—her boyfriend had dumped her, she’d been fired from her job, and her online handmade jewelry store was failing to take off. While commiserating with her over a bottle of wine when I’d gone to visit her in L.A., where she now lived, I floated the idea of her becoming a contestant on the next season of The Stud. After all, she fitted the mold—beautiful, young, and vibrant, with a need to promote herself and her business. A lot of the women on the show applied for the same reasons; they had a business which needed promoting, and being on such a popular reality show helped immensely with that. I also thought it would be a great opportunity for us to spend more time together, because now that we were adults and living in different cities, we didn’t get to see each other as often as we used to, and we’d drifted apart a little. When I floated the idea, Blair thought I was kidding at first, but then she realized how useful it could be to kick-start her jewelry line, and she applied. Seeing as I knew her and helped her get on the show, she was also one of the four women I was responsible for…and she was going to freak out when she found out who the Stud this season was. If I’d known it was Troy sooner, I never would’ve suggested she apply. I nodded at her. “You can wear whatever you want for the interview, but a lot of the girls like to get dressed up. It really depends what kind of image you want to put across. And tomorrow night, when they film the unveiling of this season’s Stud, you’ll definitely need to wear a gown. Everyone does.” She smiled. “Okay. God, this is so exciting. I can’t wait. You can’t tell me who he is, can you?” Troy was currently being hidden in a separate wing of the mansion, so that none of the contestants know who he was. The idea was for their surprise to be genuine when we filmed the scene where he ‘arrived’ (even though he’d already been here longer than them), although we usually ended up having to reshoot the scene five times anyway. I shook my head, hoping my eyes hadn’t already betrayed who it was. “No, I can’t tell you who it is,” I replied. “But I’m sure you’ll be….surprised.” Blair must’ve caught my slight pause, because she arched a brow. “Surprised in a good way or bad?” she asked. “I really can’t say.” She arched an eyebrow. “One of the girls I was talking to earlier claims she overheard one of the assistants talking about who it is. But she kinda seems like an attention seeker, so I bet she was totally just making it up.” “Oh?” “She tried to tell us the Stud this season is Troy Ballard. But there’s no way you would’ve made me apply for the show if it was him. God, can you imagine?” Wow, one of the assistants really did have a big freakin’ mouth. She or he wasn’t going to get very far in the business with that trait, and I had a feeling they’d be fired once it got out that they’d been

overheard by the contestants. Blair saw the look of horror in my eyes, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh…my… god…” she said, enunciating every word. “It is him, isn’t it?” “I can’t confirm that.” “Jesus, Eden, why didn’t you tell me?” I sighed. “Like I said, I can’t confirm it’s him. But hypothetically, if it was, we didn’t find out till the other day, a long time after you applied. Only the top executives and the showrunner knew who it was going to be.” “Should I quit?” I shook my head. “Hell no. Get as far as you can to get attention for your jewelry line. You’ve already come all this way.” “True. Shit, I can’t believe it’s really him. How are you feeling about it?” I shrugged, dropping all pretenses of not being able to confirm who The Stud was. Blair was my friend, so I knew she wasn’t going to rat on me and tell all the other contestants. “I dunno,” I said. “I saw him when he arrived yesterday, and he didn’t even seem to remember me.” “Wow. What a dick,” she said. Then her face broke into a smug smile. “Well, don’t worry, I won’t let him get away with being a prick to you again.” “I know. Anyway, you better go get changed and wipe that sweat off. The introduction interviews will be starting any minute in the confessional room.” “Where’s that?” I pointed to the same place I’d directed Cailin to a few minutes ago. “Over there. Near the old stables.” She bounded off, and I spent the next few minutes dealing with other contestants who had myriad questions and demands of me and the other producers. One particularly awful woman, a tall and striking redhead named Anya, actually demanded that we immediately hire a contractor to pave all the dirt areas around the old farm buildings, because in her words, ‘I can’t wear Manolos in the dirt!’ We just had to smile patiently, knowing that this was a good thing. If her claws were already coming out this early in the game, then she was a good candidate to be this season’s mean girl villain. And every season needed a villain, right? Once the introduction interviews were shot, the other producers and I helped our editing team condense them into shorter segments and narrow down any soundbites which could be used in either a positive or negative way, depending on how we wanted any given contestant to be portrayed. It was a long, tedious process, and by the time we were done, it was almost ten o’clock at night. All of the contestants had long since retired to their bedrooms. “Okay, you all know what time it is! Who wants to play?” Candice called out as I stood up and stretched my legs. One of the brand new producers turned to me. “What’s going on?” he asked. I grinned. “It’s a little thing we do to unwind at the end of the first major day, after we’ve done all

the introduction interviews. Candice will explain it all to you.” Candice pulled out a bottle of whiskey and several shot glasses, and she smiled as she placed one glass down in front of each of us and filled them all. “Okay, here’s the rules of the game. We’re going to watch all the edited interviews. We all have a few girls each, and when their segment comes on, you need to take a shot if your girl says she’s ‘looking for her Prince’ or describes her ideal man as having a ‘beautiful soul’.” The other producers and I snickered at those clichés. They were pretty standard here in the reality TV world. The ‘beautiful soul’ one was the most irritating—I bet hardly any of them would love a man with a beautiful soul if he also happened to look like the love child of Quasimodo and Voldemort. “You also need to take a sip every time anyone says ‘soulmate’, ‘here for the right reasons’, ‘taking this journey’, and ‘connection’,” Candice added. The new producer turned to me. “That’s practically all they say in those interviews!” he said. “We’ll be drunk as skunks by the end of it.” I held up my shot glass. “That’s the point.” “Let’s get started,” Candice said. “First up, we have Anya!” There was a collective groan at the mention of her name; during her interview she’d well and truly established herself as this season’s mean girl. She’d given us one of those whole ‘I’m not a bitch, I’m just brutally honest!’ speeches, and in ninety-nine percent of cases, I’d found that people who said that were actually massive bitches. By eleven-thirty, we were all well and truly tipsy, and I stumbled to my feet. “I’m gonna call it a night, guys. One more shot would probably kill me.” “Wimp,” Candice said in a teasing tone, sticking her tongue out at me. “Night!” I waved and bid everyone else goodnight before heading out of the editing room, and I took a right turn near the old stables to head towards the patch of land where all the crew trailers were. My head was spinning, and my eyes were slightly blurry, so I reached up and rubbed them. As I did so, I missed where I was going for a few seconds, and I walked smack bang into another person. “Shit! Sorry,” I said automatically before looking up and realizing with a sinking stomach that the mountain of tanned muscle I’d bumped into was Troy. Dammit. “Eden! Nice night out, huh?” he said, his deep masculine voice sending unwanted shivers down my spine. “I thought I’d go for a late-night walk to stretch my legs after being cooped up in the villa all day.” “Oh, so you actually know my name now?” I replied. I’d usually never speak to someone so rude and sarcastically, even someone I despised as much as Troy, but the several shots of liquor I’d had were currently fueling my rage towards him. “Of course I do,” he said, his forehead wrinkling with apparent confusion. “How could I not remember you?” “Funny way of showing it yesterday,” I said, crossing my arms across my chest.

His gaze lingered on my cleavage for a second, and then his eyes moved back up to mine. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I was being a jerk. I’m sorry, I didn’t want it to feel awkward in front of everyone, so I figured it was best if I acted like a stranger to you.” “Right. Fair enough,” I replied. He had a point. What had I expected him to do yesterday when he arrived? Grovel on the floor and beg my forgiveness in front of the whole crew? “I’m really glad to see you, though,” he continued. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes right out of my head. “Oh yeah? Why’s that?” “Because I wanted to see you. I saw your name on the credits for the show, you know. That sealed the deal for me coming on it.” I narrowed my eyes. Was he seriously trying to say that he’d only come on the show to see me? What a load of crap. Why was he even trying this bullshit with me? Did he think that because everything between us happened so long ago that I’d just be magically okay with it all by now, and that I’d fall straight back into his arms? “So what, did you finally manage to go through every single woman in Northern California, and now you’re cycling back through your old girlfriends, starting with me?” I said, giving him a scathing look. He chuckled, obviously thinking I was kidding, but then he realized I was serious. “No, Eden, I just really wanted to see you again,” he said. “You’re a hard woman to track down; you don’t use Facebook or Instagram or anything like that. And then—via the show—I found out that we’ve both been living in San Francisco this whole time, and…I dunno, I felt like I needed to find you. Like it was a sign.” “The only sign you need right now is a big red one that says ‘stop’,” I replied, holding my hand out to stop him from getting any closer to me. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to bed. You should go too.” “Eden, I…” He tried to say something, but I was already stalking away from him, heading towards my trailer. I was proud of myself for sticking up for myself against Troy like that, rather than falling back into his embrace like he’d so clearly expected. Back in my earlier years, I might not have had the strength to defend myself like that, especially against someone so annoyingly sexy, but things had changed now. I was harder, more jaded, and I wasn’t going to let an asshole like Troy Ballard affect me like he used to. If he actually thought I was going to be an easy lay for him during his time on the show, then he had another thing coming. I wasn’t his anymore, and I never would be again. Never.

Chapter Four Troy “Welcome to season eight of The Stud. Last year, our Stud Andrew and single mother Felicia found…” “Cut!!” The show host, Fabian—an overly fake-tanned, smarmy man in a suit—had been in the middle of saying his lines when Glenn screamed the order to stop, and he glared over at the crew. “Why? What’s wrong?” “It’s not you, Fabian, it’s the girls. Hey! You in the red dress! You keep staring at your feet. You’re meant to be excited,” Glenn said, waving his hand at one of the many Stud contestants. I was sitting in an idling black limo nearby, waiting to step out for my big reveal scene….only this time it wouldn’t be a big reveal, because this was already the fourth take. Glenn kept demanding that the scene be reshot because every time we attempted to do it, he had a problem with something. Fabian, you aren’t smiling enough. Girl in the glittery blue gown, you look like you just smelled a fart. Smile, for Christ’s sake. Troy…if I haven’t said it enough times to everyone else already…smile! The scene started again, and Fabian plastered a big, fake smile on his face—Glenn looked very pleased at that—and began to say his lines all over again. “Welcome to…” “Cut! For fuck’s sake!” Glenn shouted. “What’s going on over there?” One of the women—a pretty blonde in a black dress—had begun to squirm uncomfortably in line, and the tall redheaded woman next to her called out to Glenn. “She has cramps! She needs an Advil and a tampon. We’ve been standing here for hours, stop yelling at us!” “Christ… Eden, she’s your girl. Deal with it,” Glenn said. “Everyone else, take a break for five minutes.” I craned my neck to see Eden racing over to the blonde girl and escorting her away from the courtyard, and then I stepped out of the limo to stretch my legs. I had no idea why Eden had been so abrasive to me last night when I ran into her out by the trailers. Sure, I’d been a bit of a dick when I pretended not to remember her during the crew introductions, but I had a good reason for that. If I admitted I knew her, it would’ve been awkward in front of everyone, and on top of that, I didn’t need everyone knowing that I’d only come on this damn show looking for her, because it sounded insane…and I swear I wasn’t crazy, I was just still crazy about her after all these years. Was my feigning ignorance of her really enough for her to be so nasty to me, though? After all, she was the one who dumped me back in the day by not showing up that morning and never contacting me again.

Maybe she’d recently been through a bad breakup, and seeing an ex like me had reminded her of the failed relationship, which was making her take out her bitter feelings on me. Or maybe she remembered the past incorrectly, and I was somehow the bad guy in all her memories. Whatever the reason was for why she was behaving so nastily towards me, I intended to find out. I made my way over to the crew to ask some casual questions about Eden, but I was intercepted by a woman stepping out in front of me; the same tall redhead who’d given Glenn shit a moment ago. I hadn’t actually been told any of the contestant’s names yet, so I wasn’t sure what hers was, but I had a feeling from her predatory gaze that she was about to tell me. “Got a light?” she asked, pulling a cigarette out from the cleavage of her dress. “No, sorry, I don’t smoke,” I replied. “Really? Wouldn’t have pegged you as a non-smoker,” she said. “I’ve only ever seen photos of you out partying in the gossip columns.” I chuckled. “I do like to have the odd drink now and then, and I do love parties, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many professional athletes who smoke. Er….sorry, what was your name?” “Anya,” she said. Her voice was deep and throaty for a woman, and I had a feeling the show producers would be setting her up as the alpha bitch of the season. “Well, Anya, it was a nice thing you did for that girl back there.” She shrugged. “Not really. I made it up. I think she just needed to pee, but I wanted to take a smoke break, and nothing freaks men out more than the mention of periods. So I figured that Glenn douche would give us a break if I said that.” I laughed at her brazen honesty. “Well, you were right.” “So what’s your angle?” she asked. “Huh?” “Why are you here? Career gone to shit or something?” “I don’t follow what you’re saying.” She snorted. “People come on this show for one reason and one reason only, and it ain’t to find love.” “Oh, right. Yeah, I gathered that.” I would’ve felt guilty about coming on a show like this and leading these women on if it weren’t for the fact that they were all going to be leading me on too. Anya was right on the ball; people didn’t come on reality shows to find love. They only pretended to do so by leading each other on, all on camera, just to get publicity for themselves. “They just want attention. For what…well, that could be anything. Could be to fix their public image, could be to advertise themselves. See that girl in the mint-green dress? She wants to promo her hair extension business to all the female viewers,” Anya said, pointing at one of the other contestants and confirming my thoughts. “And those three there…all swimsuit models hoping to gain publicity from the show for their careers. I could go on, but you already know what I mean. We’re all here for a reason. So what’s your deal?”

“I don’t have a deal.” “So you’re telling me that you’re actually here to find love?” she asked, her eyebrows raised. “Yeah, in a manner of speaking,” I said, looking over her shoulder at Eden, who had just returned with the blonde. “Well, that’d be a first.” “What about you?” I asked. “What’s your deal?” “Actress trying to get publicity,” she said with a wry smile. “I’ve decided to play the role of the mean girl this season. I knew from the very first meeting with the producers that they were going to make me look bad like that, so I figured I may as well play it up. Get the claws out and so on.” “Good luck with that,” I said. She took a step forward and put her hand directly on the crotch of my tuxedo pants, and her voice took on a purring, seductive tone. “Anyway, if you don’t manage to find the love you’re apparently looking for, I’m always available for after-hours visits. Just promise you won’t cut me in the first few eliminations,” she said. “I’ve got your back if you’ve got mine.” Jesus…what? She seemed fairly straight-forward and honest in our conversation a moment ago, but now she was sounding a little desperate. I pushed her hand away, and as I did so, I saw Eden casting a disgusted glance at me. Great…no doubt she’d misread the situation and thought I was already trying to sleaze onto contestants. “You don’t need to do that,” I said, looking back down at Anya. “Look, if you can have a decent conversation with me every now and then, I won’t cut you anytime soon. But don’t feel like you need to fuck me to win.” Anya’s eyes widened slightly, and she nodded. “Got it,” she said, a trace of surprise in her voice. She was a very beautiful woman; it was probably the first time a guy had turned down her advances. “I should get back to the lineup.” “Yeah, I need to get back to the limo,” I replied. I trudged back over to the car, and the scene restarted with Fabian saying his rehearsed lines for the sixth time. “Welcome to season eight of The Stud. Last year, Andrew and single mother Felicia found love, and they got married in San Luis Obispo just last month. But where will love take us this year?” he said, before pausing for a second. “Get set to watch new romance blossom, right here on our spectacular estate out at Palomar Ranch and Horse Stud, as twenty-four beautiful women set off on their path to finding true love. After all the dazzling dates and sexy parties, who will be left standing at the final ceremony?” The lined-up women behind him, all clad in designer gowns and high heels, smiled and tittered nervously, as if they had no idea who the bachelor this season was, despite having seen me several times now in the previous cuts. “Now, the moment all you lovely young ladies have been waiting for…the arrival of this season’s Stud! Are you ready?” The women all screamed with excitement, and I took that as my cue to step out of the limo again

and head down the path towards the courtyard. To their credit, the women were able to feign excitement and shock all over again, and one of them even had fake tears of joy in her eyes. “Yes, that’s right, this year’s Stud is Troy Ballard! You all know him and love him after last year’s NFL championship…now get ready to love him even more! Troy, would you like to say anything to these lovely ladies?” I plastered on a toothy smile for the cameras and began my speech. “Firstly, I’d like to say hello, and I’d also like to thank you all for being here with me tonight. I can’t wait to get to know each and every one of you. I suppose you’re all keen on finding out why I’m here.” I hesitated, and my gaze came to rest on Eden again. As a producer, she obviously wasn’t in the shot, but I could still see her perfectly, standing to the side of the contestants. “I’m looking for love. True love,” I continued. “You all know I have a great career, and I also have really great friends and colleagues. But I’m missing something—a family. A wife, more specifically. I want to meet my soulmate; someone who is not only my best friend, but my partner in crime.” As I said that, I winked at the camera and then looked back at Eden, and she rolled her eyes and walked away. I simply grinned and watched her go. She wasn’t making this easy for me, but I wasn’t going to give up on her, no matter what it took. A woman like her was worth it.

Chapter Five Eden “Breathe. Just breathe.” I lay a comforting hand on a tall blonde contestant’s shoulder and made soothing sounds to her to try and calm her down. Her name was Hayley, and she was one of Candice’s girls, but Candice was in the middle of dealing with a dress crisis—apparently someone had cut up a gown belonging to another contestant—so she was currently unavailable, and it was up to me or the other producers to help. Hayley was freaking out because of the big group event which was about to start—the first cocktail party. There was always one at the start of a new season, and it was a lavish affair where all the women would dress up in designer gowns (again) and have the chance to get some one-on-one time with the Stud. Expensive champagne was always flowing freely at these parties in order to encourage loose lips and drama, but apparently, no amount of champagne promises could give Hayley the courage she needed to deal with the night. “I just can’t do it,” she said, her voice wavering. “I don’t know why I ever signed up for this show. All these cameras everywhere, watching everything I do….I just can’t go into the party.” “It’ll be fine,” I said. “I know you can do it. Just be yourself.” She shook her head. “I can’t! You know, before I arrived, I watched a documentary about how they make reality shows, and it said that the producers always try to create drama. I just know that someone’s going to set me up to do something horrible.” She was right, that was exactly what a lot of producers did. They’d manipulate their girls to say or do something in order to create a tense or dramatic situation, because it was a cheap way to get good ratings. I didn’t personally do that, though. I’d always found that manipulation wasn’t necessary —if you stick twenty-four women in a house with no phones or internet and pit them against each other to gain the affection of just one man, they inevitably get bored or competitive enough to create their own drama. I crouched down so that Hayley was slightly above me in her seat—I’d found that this technique helped people like her feel as if they had control. “You know, you’re right about that,” I said. “Some shows and producers are like that. But that’s not going to happen to you on this show, okay? You’re a sweet girl; no one wants to set you up.” She sniffed. “Are you sure?” “Positive.” “I’m still worried about the cameras following us absolutely everywhere.” “Would it help if I told you about the layout of the first episode?” I asked. She shrugged. “Maybe.” “Each Stud episode is forty-five minutes long, and for the first one, at least fifteen whole minutes

of that screen time is focused on the introduction videos we’ve already filmed. Then there’s another five minutes of general shots of scenery or the whole group. That leaves twenty-five minutes of screen time for the girls at the party tonight, and there are twenty-four girls. So in this episode, you’ll only get about a minute or so of screen time dedicated to you. Maybe even less. So unless you really screw up or do something dramatic or bitchy, the cameras will barely be on you.” Usually we would never tell a contestant how little screen time she’d be getting in the first few weeks of the show (seeing as most of them craved attention like the rest of us craved oxygen) but Hayley really seemed to be worrying, and I knew it would make her feel better to know that every single second of her life wouldn’t be broadcasted. She nodded. “That actually does help. Thanks. I don’t even know why I’m freaking out so much. I knew exactly what I signed up for.” “I know, but it’s one thing to simply think about being on camera, and another thing to actually do it,” I replied. “A lot of contestants get freaked out in the first few weeks.” That was true. I’d dealt with enough teary breakdowns to know. “Yeah, I just worry that I’ll trip over or do something else really dumb, and that’ll get captured,” Hayley replied. I gestured down at her five inch high heels. “If you’re that worried about tripping, lose the heels. You’re already tall; do you really need them tonight?” She gave me a watery smile and shook her head. “No, and they hurt like hell to wear. I’m just wearing them because everyone else is.” I leaned in close. “Here’s a tip for you. The Studs always notice the women who are different and unique in some way. If everyone else is wearing heels and you aren’t, he’ll notice, and he’ll probably start to see you as a more down-to-earth kinda gal. He might even talk to you more than the other women, because he’ll see you as more relatable. That could give you an edge.” She nodded. “I didn’t even think of that,” she said. “Thanks, Eden. You’ve been really helpful. You’re not at all what I pictured when I was thinking about what all the evil, manipulative producers might be like.” I smiled. “Glad to hear it. Now, are you ready to go into the party? It’s only just started, so you haven’t missed anything yet.” “Sure. I’ll just go change my shoes first.” As she walked upstairs, I headed into the ballroom on the ground floor of the mansion. It was already starting to fill up with contestants, all dressed to the nines as usual, and crew members were also circulating around, making sure everything got off to a good start. Across the room, I could see Troy surrounded by cameras and four women, all fawning over him, and I tried to ignore how good he looked. I didn’t want to admit it, because it was him, but damn…the man could really fill out a tux. I could hardly stop staring. “Eden?” I turned to see Cailin standing behind me, a concerned look on her face. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked. “You should try to talk to Troy; get some conversation time in with him for the cameras.” “I will. I just wanted to make sure that the hors d’oeuvre on the table over there…”

“The food is all peanut free,” I cut in, giving her a smile. “Don’t worry, go and party!” She smiled and headed off, and my gaze returned to Troy. This time, he was looking right at me and ignoring all the women around him, and I abruptly turned my head away as my cheeks filled with lusty heat. How could this be happening? After all this time, the prick could still make me melt with just a single glance. I couldn’t show him that, though. I quickly left the ballroom and headed up the spiral stairs to find Hayley, wanting to make sure she’d found her new shoes…or at least that’s what my excuse would be if anyone asked why I wasn’t at the party. Truthfully, I just wanted to get out of the same room as Troy, before he noticed how he was still affecting me. My train of thought was interrupted by a shrill scream coming from one of the contestant’s bedrooms, and my pulse began to race as I realized I recognized the voice. Blair.

Chapter Six Eden I rushed up the long hallway and stopped at Blair’s door. It was unlocked, and I pushed it open before searching the room for my friend, cursing myself for not having noticed that she hadn’t made it down to the ballroom yet. “Blair, what’s happening? I thought I heard you scream. Are you okay?” I called out, not seeing her. “No,” she said from the bathroom. “It’s ruined!” “What’s ruined?” I asked, crossing the room and rapping on the bathroom door. I tried the handle, but it was locked. “Can I come in?” “No,” she said tearfully. “No one can see me like this.” “Blair, come on, it’s me. I won’t judge you. What’s going on?” I said. There was a pause, and then she spoke again, her voice muffled with tears. “I’m coming out.” I moved away from the door to give her space to exit the bathroom, and as she stepped out, I had to hold in a gasp. “See?” she said, gauging my reaction anyway. Her chestnut brown hair was streaked with messy platinum blonde chunks, and her eyes were red from the tears which were gathering in them. “Oh my god, what happened?” I asked. She sniffed. “I was getting ready for the party,” she said, gesturing down to her gown and heels. “And before I got dressed, I put some mousse in my hair. You know that stuff I have that gives me extra volume?” I nodded. Blair’s hair had always been quite fine, and she often put products in it to make it look a bit thicker and more vibrant. “I used that. Then I got dressed—it took me like fifteen minutes just to wrangle the stupid dress zip. And just then, I went back into the bathroom for a last minute makeup touchup, and I saw this.” I put an arm around her and rubbed her back. “Don’t worry, we’re going to fix this. It’ll all be fine,” I promised. Then I stepped into her bathroom and grabbed the shiny purple bottle of mousse. “Is this the stuff you used?” I asked. She nodded, and I opened it and took a quick whiff. “Smells like peroxide. I think someone sneaked into your bathroom and replaced the mousse with it.” Her eyes widened. “But why? Why bleach my hair?” “To screw with you,” I said, my voice laced with anger. “We’ve had situations like this before, with contestants trying to sabotage others.”

“Well, it’s working. I can’t even go to the party now, which means I’ll barely be in the first episode at all.” “We’ll sort that out later,” I said. “For now, I want you to stick your head in the sink and rinse out any of the product that’s still in there. If you leave it in, it’ll eventually just fry your hair right off.” “Okay. But what the hell do I do after that?” she said, sticking her head in the sink with the tap running. “Don’t worry about it for now. Just rinse your hair, and I’ll figure out how to—” “Everything okay in here?” A familiar masculine voice echoed through the room, cutting me off, and I turned to see Troy standing in the doorway. “I left the party to take a leak and heard what sounded like someone screaming or crying,” he added to explain his presence. “It’s okay,” I said. “Go back to the party; I’ll sort this out.” As I spoke, Blair turned the tap off and came out of the bathroom, rubbing her hair with a towel, and Troy’s eyebrows shot up. “Shit…Blair Gilbert? I thought you looked familiar in the lineup last night.” She gave him a tight, polite smile. “Yeah, it’s me. Hi, Troy.” “How have you been?” he asked. “Still making that jewelry stuff you used to make back in the day?” Blair nodded, and I could tell she was surprised that someone like Troy had remembered her hobby from so long ago. “Um…yeah, I’ve actually started my own online store for it. I’m based in L.A.” “That’s great. I—” “Troy, you really don’t need to be here,” I said, cutting in. “Sorry, but we’re dealing with a bit of a situation.” He nodded slowly. “Well, I actually came in here to see if I could help out in any way.” My face softened a little, and I looked at Blair, who had the same expression as me. “Someone sabotaged my hair products,” she explained with a heavy sigh, pulling the towel away from her head. “And now I look like a skunk. So no, I don’t think you can help, but thanks for the offer, I guess.” Troy’s eyes widened. “Fuck. Who would do that? One of the other women?” I nodded. “Yeah, I’d say so. We’ve dealt with this kinda stuff in past seasons. And just half an hour ago, someone also cut up a dress belonging to another contestant, so it looks like we have a real nasty girl on our hands this season,” I said, pulling out my walkie-talkie radio. “I’m going to ask hair and makeup to come and dye the bleached parts back to their usual color and use an oil mask to help with any damage the bleach might’ve caused.” Blair nodded, but her expression had turned downcast again. “That’ll fix it….but it will take ages,” she said. “And I’ll miss the cocktail party. I mean, I’m already missing it as we speak.” Before I could say anything, Troy spoke up. “I have an idea for a temporary fix,” he replied. “Then you don’t have to miss the party, and you can get your hair dyed afterwards.”

“What is it?” I asked. “Got any brown mascara?” Blair and I both gave him incredulous looks, and he grinned. “What, a man isn’t allowed to know what mascara is?” he said. “Look, it’s something my publicist does sometimes. She’s got naturally black hair, but she’s started to get a few greys that she doesn’t like, and in between hair appointments, she’ll streak a little bit of mascara over the greys to cover them up. You’ve got brown hair, so brown mascara would probably work.” I nodded slowly, and Troy continued. “I mean, mascara is designed for hair, right? Eyelash hairs, but still….it’s all hair. So it should be safe to stick on your head for now. Might make your hair a bit stiff, but whatever. It’s only for a few hours.” Blair nodded and scurried back into the bathroom to retrieve her makeup case and a hairdryer. “Here,” she said, pulling out a tube of mascara. “Might as well give it a shot, I guess.” I left Troy to help her while I spoke to the hair and makeup department over the two-way radio, and by the time I was done sorting out a late night hair fix for Blair after the party, Troy had already covered up most of the obvious platinum spots with the mascara wand. “See?” he said, waving it triumphantly. “It looks fine. Now we can head to the party, and you’ll get the same screen time as all the others.” He winked at me, and I gave him a small smile. He’d just done a really decent thing for my friend; something that most guys wouldn’t have done. Hell, most guys wouldn’t have even come upstairs when they heard crying, but he’d dropped the party just to come up here and make sure everyone was okay. Maybe I’d misjudged him when I thought he was still the same douche that he’d been when he left me without a word. Maybe he’d actually grown a heart in the last seven years, and maybe—just maybe—there was a decent guy hiding somewhere underneath all that muscle and expensive fabric. I guess sooner or later, I’d find out.

Chapter Seven Troy Fabian smiled smugly at the camera and began his rehearsed lines as all the contestants and I stood in the courtyard, all dressed up again. The tux I had on was itchy as hell, and I couldn’t wait to get out of it. Judging by the looks on some of the girls’ faces, they couldn’t wait to get out of their six inch heels either. “Welcome to our first elimination ceremony. Seeing as it’s our first one, Troy will have to send eight women home. Tonight, there will be tears, heartbreak, and regret for those eight contestants…but for the other sixteen, they will be one step closer to finding true love with this season’s Stud.” Fabian turned and gestured to me before looking back at the camera. “As you know, each contestant is given an empty charm bracelet in the first episode. Those who our Stud finds the most charming will receive a charm to add to their bracelets tonight. Those who don’t have enough charm will find theirs empty, and they must say their goodbyes and pack their things.” I almost rolled my eyes at that. How many lame ‘charm’ puns could they seriously fit in one speech? I’d had a whole week since my arrival to prepare for this ceremony. After the cocktail party, where I’d had a chance to speak to all of the contestants one-on-one, there had been two other big group activities, designed to get me to hang out with the women whose company I’d enjoyed the most at the party, while still allowing the stragglers a chance to talk to me again. Now it was time to cut eight of them, and I had to say, I was starting to feel like shit about it. I’d initially thought that it’d be easy, and leading these women on didn’t matter because they were all doing the same to me. But now I felt guilty; some of the women already had tears in their eyes at the thought of possibly being sent home. Maybe they were just crocodile tears, or maybe they were real tears borne of frustration from not being given more of a chance to get attention, but there was always a chance they were genuine tears of sadness. What if some of the women who came here actually really did want to find love? I hadn’t even considered that when I made the decision to come on the show; I’d been so hell-bent on seeing Eden again that I’d lumped all the contestants into the same ‘attention seeker’ category and didn’t feel a shred of guilt about doing so. Fuck, maybe I really was an asshole. No wonder Eden hated me—she’d probably seen my true colors years ago and realized what a dick I’d likely become later in life, and that was why she’d dumped me. Upon Fabian’s prompting, I finally picked fifteen women who’d seemed the most down-to-earth and honest to give charms to, and soon there was only one charm left to give. Blair Gilbert was one of the remaining nine who hadn’t received a charm, and she looked very anxious. There was no way I was going to eliminate her, though. She was Eden’s friend, and if I wanted to get Eden on my side again, then a good way to do that would be to keep Blair around as a contestant. “There’s just one more charm for Troy to hand out,” Fabian said, flashing a serious look at the

cameras. “Who will it be? Find out after the break…” We stopped filming for a few minutes so that some people from the makeup department could come in and quickly give everyone touchups—standing out here for hours made us all look pretty sweaty and shiny—and then Glenn called for action again. “Welcome back to The Stud,” Fabian said with his trademark toothy grin aimed right at the camera. “If you’ve only just tuned in, tonight is our first elimination ceremony, and fifteen charms have already been given out. That leaves us with just one charm and nine women….so who will the lucky lady be?” I flashed a big fake smile at the camera too, and then I stepped forward to Blair. “Blair, I’d really love it if you’d stay,” I said loudly enough for my mic to pick up. Her tense shoulders slumped with relief, and she smiled and mouthed the word ‘thank you’ to me as she hugged me. “What, you didn’t really think I was gonna let you go, did you?” I said in a teasing voice, covering my mic as she broke away a second later. “Don’t worry, you’ll be sticking around for the long haul.” “Thanks, Troy,” she said again. We could both see Eden from where we were standing, and Blair gave her a thumbs up. Eden smiled back at her, but before she could even look at me, an intern on the show took her attention away by asking her something. The eight women who I hadn’t picked quietly went back to their rooms to pack, except one, who started having a complete meltdown, screaming about how she’d placed a lot of money on a bet that she could go all the way to the top four. Glenn looked exuberant; this tantrum was going to make excellent viewing for all the drama addicts out there. Filming wasn’t over for the night, though, not by a long shot. The sixteen remaining contestants were meant to join me for a dinner party in the courtyard, and Glenn gave us all half an hour to get changed and ready (god forbid anyone ever wore the same outfit twice in the same episode). By the time we got back to the courtyard, I was fucking starving, and I was glad to see that the catering staff had laid out a massive spread of food on the long table which had been set up. As usual, alcohol was also flowing freely at the dinner party, and some of the women eventually began to make fools of themselves for the cameras by getting into tipsy fights with each other over petty things. One even tried to attract my attention at the head of the table by stripping off her dress and demanding that we all abandon the dinner and go for a swim instead. “C’mon, guys,” she slurred, waving her arms around at everyone as the cameramen stepped closer to capture every embarrassing moment. “Screw the food, let’s have fun! I want to…” Her voice suddenly faltered, and her hands flew to her taut, spray-tanned abdomen. “Oh, shit, I don’t feel so good.” “Well, that’s what happens when you don’t touch your dinner and drink almost a whole bottle of wine,” Anya said from the far end of the table, rolling her eyes. “I did eat something. The hummus dip,” the drunk contestant said, still clutching her stomach. “Oh, god, I really need to…” She took off running towards the bathroom, and within the next five minutes, at least ten of the

other women were moaning and clutching their stomachs too. “What the fuck is going on?” Glenn said as he told the crew to stop filming and stepped over to the table. The producers had all stepped over as well, including Eden. “My stomach hurts,” a pretty contestant named Emily mumbled. “I think I have to go before I literally explode.” She stood up and began to run off towards the house, but she only made it as far as the pool, which she promptly began to vomit in. As she did so, the rest of the groaning women got up and made a run for it too, and one of them quite literally got the runs, right there in her tight white pants as she desperately tried to make it inside. Fuck, this was awful. The only silver lining to all this mess was that the crew was no longer filming. I couldn’t imagine how humiliated the women would be if they were. “Jesus Christ!” Glenn shouted as the producers and other crew members dashed after the sickly girls to make sure they got through the sudden illness. “Eden, get over here!” Eden was the only producer who hadn’t gone after the eleven sick contestants—she’d stayed behind to keep an eye on the other five to ensure they drank plenty of water to lessen the symptoms in case they eventually got sick too. She headed over to Glenn when he called her, and he immediately began verbally laying into her. “What the fuck is going on?” he said. “I expect crazy stuff to happen on this show—hell, I want drama—but this? Turning my show into a literal shit-show? No fucking way!” “Glenn, I…” “Obviously, someone’s put some fucking laxatives in the food or wine. This is not the kind of drama I fucking want!” Eden’s eyes were wide, but I could tell she was trying to remain calm through Glenn’s tirade. “I don’t know if that’s true about the laxatives, it could just be a stomach bu—” “Of course it’s true!” Glenn roared. “Every season these bitches get crazier, and like I said, this is disgusting. This is not the kind of drama that gets good ratings! So you need to do your fucking job and sort these women out. We obviously have some rogue contestant who thinks it’s funny to make everyone else’s lives miserable, and you need to find out who it is and nip it in the bud before I—” “Hey!” I said, cutting in with my fists curled up by my side. I wasn’t going to let him speak to Eden like this; none of this was her fault, and she didn’t deserve this outburst. “Look, man, you’re not being fair here. It’s not Eden’s fault this happened.” Glenn gave me a scathing look. “She’s a junior producer on my show, and it’s a producer’s job to ensure everything runs smoothly with the girls. But allowing someone to slip laxatives in the food makes everything run a bit too fucking smoothly, if you know what I mean,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “So that counts as her not doing her fucking job.” “You have no idea that someone put laxatives in the food,” I replied. “I mean, I feel fine, and I ate and drank here tonight. So maybe it’s food poisoning from one of the dishes that some of us didn’t touch, or it’s some sort of stomach bug going around. You can’t expect your producers to be fucking microbiologists and predict bugs like this, and on top of that, you have six other producers on the set. So why is Eden the only one you’re yelling at, huh?”

Glenn’s chest heaved with anger, but he finally took a few deep breaths and nodded. “You’re right,” he said before turning to Eden. “Sorry, Eden. We’ve lost a whole night of filming now, so I’m pretty pissed. But Troy’s right; this isn’t your fault.” Eden nodded. “I get it. I’d probably be angry too. I’ll make some calls and get someone to find out if this is just a bug, or if someone really did tamper with some of the food.” Glenn nodded. “Right. If it turns out that someone did put something in the food, then you need to find out who it is. I have no problems with contestants doing bitchy stuff to each other—makes bloody great viewing—but risking their health is another story. The last thing we need is for us to get sued or shut down for health violations.” “I’m on it.” Glenn strode away to speak to some other crew members, and Eden looked over at me. “Thanks for sticking up for me,” she said softly, her eyes not quite meeting mine. “No worries. Needed to be done.” “I…um…I have to go sort this out. I’ll see you later. Thanks again.” She smiled at me, and aside from the ghost of a smile she’d directed at me the other night when I helped fix her friend’s hair—which barely counted—this was the first time she’d smiled at me in seven years. It might’ve just been a small gesture, but from her, that smile meant the entire world.

Chapter Eight Eden “Think it’s her?” Candice nudged me and nodded towards Anya, who was sunning herself by the pool with some of the other contestants. The rest were splashing about in the water, playing up their taut, tanned bodies for the cameras in colorful bikinis. Troy was out here as well, and he lay shirtless on a sun lounge with a bottle of water lazily dangling from one hand. His muscular chest and arms were twined with even more tattoos than he’d had when we were teenagers, and in the bright sun, he reminded me of a big bronze sculpture, something strong and wonderful carved by someone like Michelangelo himself. Every inch of him was so hard and defined that I wanted to run over to him and touch him just to see if he was really here or if I was having some long, wonderful dream. I hadn’t had a chance to interact with him all that much over the last few days, but since he’d stood up for me against Glenn the other week, we’d reached a sort of wordless truce. I was grateful to him and now willing to believe that he’d changed somewhat in the last few years, and any words exchanged between us were now friendly and professional, sweeping anything from our past well under the rug, so to speak. “I don’t know. Maybe,” I replied, taking my eyes off him and turning my attention back to Candice. We were discussing who the possible saboteur contestant could be, because we needed to find out soon. After the food poisoning incident the other night, one of the girls had ended up needing to go to the hospital for fluids after becoming severely dehydrated due to vomiting and having diarrhea all night, and lab tests had shown that she had some sort of laxative in her system, along with an emetic. I’d hired someone to come and test all the food that had come out of the kitchen for the dinner party, and it turned out that the hummus dip was filled with a mixture of laxative and emetic fluid. Seeing as hummus was a fairly healthy food and a lot of the contestants were weight conscious, it made sense that eleven of them had eaten it. We needed to find out which one of the contestants was responsible—if it was even a contestant who was behind all the bitchy sabotage going on—because like Glenn said to me the other night, this latest laxative thing was no harmless prank; it was a serious incident. If someone got seriously hurt this season, then not only would our jobs be on the line, we could be facing all kinds of legal trouble. However, we also needed direct evidence of who the person was, because if we sent home a suspected contestant without any proof that she was the saboteur, then she could probably try to sue us for some sort of breach of contract, causing even more legal troubles. “She’s one of the only girls who didn’t get sick,” Candice said, still looking at Anya. “And she’s been nothing but a grade-A bitch since she arrived.” I nodded. “True, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s her going around trying to sabotage everyone else.”

Candice sighed. “Yeah, I know. Then again….remember her introduction video in the first week? She said she’d do literally anything to get an edge over the other contestants so she could win.” “Also true.” “Maybe she thinks trashing the other girls’ things and making them sick will give her an edge. Kinda reminds me a bit of last season, when we had that psycho woman…god, what was her name again? The one who tried to sabotage another contestant’s thyroid medication so that she’d get really tired and sleep through the group dates.” “Her name was Lina. And yeah, this does remind me a bit of that. What do you think we should do?” Candice shrugged. “I dunno where to even start looking for this person…although I guess while they’re all busy in the pool, we could check out their rooms?” I raised an eyebrow. “You mean go through their stuff?” “Just hear me out. I don’t mean rifle through every single panty drawer like total assholes, just quickly scan their bathrooms and so on for anything that might seem suspicious. Like bleach, for instance.” I shuddered, remembering the awful hair ‘prank’ done to Blair during the first week. “Do you think whoever it is would be stupid enough to leave stuff lying around like that?” I asked. Candice shrugged again. “Who knows? May as well give it a shot, right? And it’s part of all the contestants’ contracts that they aren’t actually entitled to any privacy as long as they’re on the premises. So we wouldn’t get in trouble if we were caught checking out their rooms.” I let out a long sigh. I didn’t want to do this, but it didn’t seem like we had many other options. What else could we do? Question each contestant and hope one of them owned up to being the sabotage queen? “Okay,” I said. “But only a quick scan of each room. No rifling through everything.” “Got it. We should check Anya’s room first, seeing as she’s the most likely suspect.” I nodded and followed Candice into the mansion, and we trudged up the spiral staircase to the second floor and stopped at the first door on the right, which was Anya’s room. “Sure you’re okay with this?” Candice asked, obviously still sensing my hesitation. “Yeah. Let’s do it.” She unlocked the door with her master keycard—all producers had one—and we stepped into the room and glanced around. It was neat and smelled of Anya’s violet-scented perfume, and I headed over to the bedside table to have a look at some of the bottles which sat there. “This is all just perfume and moisturizer,” I said. “No bleach or laxatives, let alone anything else.” “Okay. I’ll check the bathroom,” Candice replied. I had a brief look around the rest of the room, and a moment later I heard a triumphant cry from the bathroom. Candice emerged with a gleam in her eye, holding up a little bottle of hydrogen peroxide. “Look at this!” she said. “I found it in the cupboard. It could’ve been used to try and wreck Blair’s hair. And why else would Anya have bleach? She’s a natural redhead; she doesn’t bleach her

hair.” I nodded slowly. “True, but we shouldn’t immediately jump to conclusions. I remember the makeup artists saying that she has a pretty hairy upper lip. Maybe she got self-conscious about it and they gave the bleach to her to help lighten it a bit and make it less visible. A lot of women do that. I’ll ask the hair and makeup crew if they know anything about it.” I quickly radioed the hair and makeup team, and they confirmed that they’d given Anya the bleach to deal with some dark hairs she didn’t like on her abdomen and upper lip. I thanked them and turned back to Candice, and she sighed. “Okay, I guess that explains it, but she still could’ve used some of the bleach on Blair, although we have no way of proving that. So we should keep a serious eye on her from now on.” “Yeah.” “Anyway, we should also do a quick scan of the other rooms before the date later on today.” “All right. Let’s do it,” I said, following her out. “Are you glad one of your girls got picked for the date?” “Yeah. You?” she replied. I nodded. This afternoon’s filmed date with Troy was a plane ride over the scenic land and ocean out here, and only two lucky contestants were able to go. Troy had picked Cailin, one of my girls, and also Emily, who was one of Candice’s girls, so that meant we got to go with them on the plane as well, to make sure we got some good footage of them talking to Troy and admiring the view. After quickly checking the other bedrooms and finding nothing which might lead us to suspect any of the contestants aside from Anya, we headed downstairs and back out to the pool, just in time to hear Glenn ordering Troy, Cailin and Emily around. “Go and get dried and dressed. It’s almost time for the date. And where the hell are your producers? Oh, there they are,” he said, addressing them and then looking at me and Candice. “You two ready?” We both nodded and stepped closer to fill Glenn in on what we’d found in Anya’s room, and he agreed that while it was suspicious, it didn’t necessarily prove anything. “Just keep an eye on her from now on, but don’t forget to watch the others,” he said. “If we have any more incidents, I swear to god…” He didn’t finish that sentence; he simply strode away, and fear began to gnaw at my guts. I didn’t love this job, but I didn’t hate it either, and it was great experience for my future. I really didn’t want to lose it, and I hoped we could figure out who the saboteur was sooner rather than later. An hour later, all thoughts of losing my job were gone from my mind—I was too busy actually doing my job. Candice and I were up in the small tourist plane we’d hired with the pilot, Troy, Cailin, Emily, and the filming crew, and we were struggling to get them to talk as much as we wanted them to for the date footage. Emily kept squealing and looking down at her feet, because she was apparently scared of heights, and Cailin seemed more interested in talking to the pilot than Troy; apparently her brother was a pilot, and the two knew each other. “Okay, listen up, everyone!” I finally called out, clapping my hands together to attract their attention. “Cailin, let the pilot do his job, please. And Emily, I know you’re scared, but I promise, this

is totally safe, and nothing will happen to you.” Emily huffed, and Candice looked at me before leaning closer to her. “If you want, we can always land and let one of the other girls take your place,” she said in a sweet, airy voice. “It’s no problem.” There was no way Emily would say yes to that; she wouldn’t want to miss out on the chance to have this date with Troy. It meant that she’d get the most airtime on this episode, and thus the most attention given to her by viewers. As an up-and-coming makeup artist, she wanted as much attention as possible, and Candice’s manipulative words were clearly working on her. “I’m fine,” she said. “We don’t need to land. I just needed a minute to get used to it, that’s all.” I nodded. “That’s good to hear. Anyway, what we want to do for this episode is tug on the viewer’s heartstrings a bit. We want to hear about things that might’ve hurt you in the past in terms of romantic relationships, and how you managed to move on from that and give love a shot here on The Stud.” Cailin and Emily both nodded at that, and Cailin quickly launched into a story about an exboyfriend who had cheated on her with her cousin. Troy listened intently and seemed to know all the right things to say to her, and I wondered if maybe he’d been some sort of therapist in a past life. Either that or a very skilled actor. Soon it was his turn to speak, and he flashed a rueful smile at the girls before sighing and looking down. “All right, something that hurt me. Well, this is a long story.” He paused for a moment before looking back up. “Back when I was in high school, I met this perfect girl. Let’s call her E. Anyway, back then, E was the one for me. I honestly thought I’d end up spending my whole life with her…you know how it is when you’re eighteen.” I knew he was talking about me, and I squirmed in my seat. It was too bad we were several thousand feet up in the air, because I couldn’t exactly walk out and avoid the awkwardness. Emily and Cailin fluttered their eyelashes and made sympathetic sounds at Troy, and an unwelcome tinge of jealousy gnawed at my insides as one of them slid a hand onto his thigh. “Anyway, I got a last-minute football scholarship to college. I had less than two days to pack, and I didn’t want to leave E, but it was a chance to turn my life around, and she would’ve made me go anyway. But I didn’t think it had to be over just because we’d be apart for a while. I still wanted to be with her. But she didn’t feel the same way.” He stared right at me as he spoke, and an angry heat crept up my neck as I narrowed my eyes at him. Why was he making this up? It wasn’t true—he was the one who’d left me without a word. He was the one who hadn’t felt the same way about me, not the other way around. “What happened?” Emily asked, her eyes wide with anticipation. “Well, she always loved romance. So I wrote her this big soppy romantic letter, practically begging her to stay with me in a long-distance relationship while I was gone, and also hinting that I wanted her to join me in San Francisco once she’d finished school. Anyway, there’s more to the story of the letter and everything that was in it, but to cut a long story short, I had the letter delivered to her —didn’t want to pressure her by being there when she read it—and ended it by asking her to meet me at the bus station before I left, if she felt the same way. But she never showed up, and I never heard from her again.”

I shook my head, wondering what on earth he was talking about. A letter? What letter? He’d never had anything delivered to me. Perhaps he was just embellishing the story of our failed relationship to the cameras because it made him sound all wounded and brooding, which would surely give him even more appeal to our viewers. Yes, that had to be it. “What a bitch!” Emily declared. “I bet she regrets doing that now that you’re a big NFL champion.” Troy looked right at me again, and I could’ve sworn that a sort of hardness had entered his usually-sparkling blue eyes. He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t think she regrets it at all.” He kept staring at me, and my stomach dropped. Was there a chance that everything he’d just said was true? Was there a letter, and I just never got it? Shit, if that was the case, then that meant I’d been a total bitch to him when he arrived for absolutely no reason. It would mean that it was essentially my fault that he never contacted me after he left town….all because he thought I didn’t want to be contacted. I broke eye contact with him and looked down at my feet, my heart pounding as I figured out my next move. I needed to get to the bottom of this before it was too late. Or maybe it already was too late. There was only one way to find out.

Chapter Nine Troy The plane ride ended about fifteen minutes after I told my story to Cailin and Emily on camera, and I noticed that Eden had been flushing the whole time I was speaking. By the time I’d finished, she was as red as a tomato. I felt bad for bringing it up while she was around, but to be fair, they’d asked for a story about being hurt by past loves, and Eden was the one and only love I’d ever had. Besides, no one else knew who I was really talking about, so it wasn’t like I’d embarrassed her in front of everyone. Only the two of us knew our little secret. We disembarked at the small airfield near the ranch, and a black car was waiting to take us all back to the main set at the mansion. We rode in what was mostly silence, punctuated by the occasional comment from Cailin about the beautiful scenery on the Palomar property as the sun began to dip low on the horizon, and when we got out at the mansion, Eden called out to me as I strode to the entrance. “Hey, Troy!” I turned and arched a brow. “Hey. What’s up?” She crossed her arms, which I supposed was meant to be an angry gesture, but only served to push her tits up so that her already-bountiful cleavage spilled out of her shirt even more. “What’s up?” she repeated. “How about whatever the hell that was back there? What were you talking about?” “You, but I thought that was obvious enough.” “It was. I meant the letter. What’s that about?” I frowned. “Huh?” She let out an exasperated sigh. “Troy, if that story you told back there was true…I never got a letter from you.” What the hell? “It was true. Everything I said back there,” I replied. “You really didn’t get it?” She shook her head, her eyes wide. “This whole time, I thought you just left without a word. You never called or wrote.” “Neither did you,” I said. “Although I guess that’s understandable, considering you thought I just left you like that.” “And you thought I didn’t show up at the bus station because I didn’t feel the same way,” she said softly. “That’s why you never called me.” I nodded slowly. “I didn’t want to harass you after I thought you’d made your feelings pretty clear,” I said, running my hands through my hair. “Shit, Eden…” “What exactly did the letter say?” she asked, staring up at me. “I mean, I know it probably doesn’t matter anymore, because it was so long ago, and you aren’t….” Her voice trailed off for a second.

“Well, I guess I’m just curious,” she finished. I filled her in on what the letter had said, scavenger hunt and everything, and by the time I was finished, tears were glistening in her mesmerizing eyes. “I can’t believe that all this time, I thought… I missed out on…” Her voice trailed off again, and I nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty fucking astonished myself, to tell the truth. This whole time, I thought you didn’t want me back then. I wonder what the hell Blair did with that letter?” Eden had been staring down at the ground for a second as she wiped her eyes, but her head snapped back up at that. “Huh? What about Blair?” “It was her who was meant to deliver the letter. I was going to deliver it to you myself, but then I ran into her, and she said she was on her way to see you while you got your hair done at the salon. So I asked her to pass it on to you.” Eden’s face was no longer red; she was turning rather pale now, and her hands were starting to shake. “Blair had it? She kept it from me?” I nodded and held my hands out to calm her down. “I guess so, yeah. But that’s not important now. What’s important is that we both know the truth now. And hell, Eden, I don’t care that it’s been seven years. I still care about you, and I want to see if we—” Eden held up a hand and cut me off with a grim look on her face. “Troy, sorry, but please hold that thought. I really need to go and find out why my so-called friend would betray me like that. I’ll be back, and we can talk then. I promise.” With that, she spun on her heel and strode into the mansion, and I watched her go with a mystified expression on my face. I couldn’t believe it. All these years, and it was all just a big fucking misunderstanding. If only I’d called her back then to find out why she never showed up that morning; if only she’d called me to find out why I’d seemingly left without a word. Granted, we both knew why we hadn’t called—we both thought the other didn’t want to hear from us. But shit, I wished I had. I guess I really had made the right decision in coming on this show. If I hadn’t, I never would’ve discovered the truth, and I might never have had an opportunity like this with Eden ever again. But now…now things were different, and my face lit up with a grin at the thought of all that’d just transpired. I was finally on the road to getting her back.

Chapter Ten Eden “What happened to the letter, Blair?” I stood with my arms folded in Blair’s bedroom doorway, my eyes narrowed. She was sitting on the bed reading a book, and her eyes widened as she heard me. “What?” I stepped forward and then closed the door behind me. I didn’t want anyone else hearing this, and I also didn’t want to risk letting Blair avoid the issue by leaving. I was utterly seething with rage at the betrayal—this whole time, she’d known about Troy. She knew for a fact that he didn’t leave me seven years ago, and she never told me. She let me cry all those tears and she let me refuse to trust other men all this time, all without saying a single word to admit her own culpability in the matter. Some friend, huh? “The letter, Blair. Don’t play dumb. Troy told me everything,” I said. Her face visibly paled. “You…you spoke to him about it?” I nodded. “Yes. And like I said, I know everything. So why don’t you tell me what the hell happened?” Her eyes began to brim with tears, and I could see her hands shaking. “Oh god…” she said softly. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. I never thought you’d find out.” “Find out that my friend fucked me over? Yeah, well, I did find out.” She vehemently shook her head. “No, no, no, Eden, I didn’t fuck you over. At least that’s not what I meant to do.” “Well, why don’t you tell me what you meant to do?” I said. My own hands were shaking too; shaking with angry anticipation. I had no idea what Blair’s possible reasoning could’ve been for hiding something like this from me for so long, but I needed to know. She swallowed hard and hesitated for a long time, and then she looked up at me. “Eden, I’m so sorry. Troy did give me that letter. At the time I had no idea he was leaving; he didn’t say all that much when he asked me to deliver it to you. I thought it was really cute and I just wanted to snoop on your relationship a bit because you didn’t tell me all that much while you were dating, seeing as you were always off with him. So I opened it and read it.” “And?” “And it seemed really sweet and all, but it was Troy. The same guy we all knew from school who’d screwed over half the girls in his grade and even a few from ours. I don’t mean screwed as in sex….I mean he screwed with them, broke their hearts.” “I remember what he was like, Blair, but he wasn’t like that with me,” I said through gritted teeth. She nodded. “I know, I know, that’s what it seemed like. But you guys were only together for a

couple of months, and even though I liked him and I was happy for you, I never really trusted him. I always felt like I was just waiting for him to fuck you over as well. I didn’t want to see you hurt and brokenhearted like all the other girls. And then I found out from the letter that he was going to be away for so long, at college too…I could just see the writing on the wall. I pictured you moping around waiting for his next visit while he tried to stay faithful at college, but…well….it’s Troy. Girls were always all over him, and given his reputation and all, I figured it would only be a matter of time before he ended it with you and broke your heart like he did with all the other girls he dated, or you would catch him cheating. Something awful like that.” “You had no idea any of that would happen.” “I know. But I was seventeen, Eden. I was dumb and clueless, and I was looking out for my friend. I honestly thought the best thing for me to do would be to keep the letter from you, and then you’d be able to get over him and move on with someone who was less of a…” Her voice trailed off. “Less of a bad guy?” I asked, my voice softening slightly. As much as I hated to admit it, I partially understood where she was coming from. Troy’s reputation back in Ellis Creek had been pretty abysmal. Even my parents hadn’t approved of me ‘hanging out’ with him—I’d never been able to tell them that we were dating, because they probably would’ve killed him. Well, not literally, but you get the picture. He was the quintessential ‘bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks’ back then. I guess he hadn’t done much to change that image in the last few years, either. His media reputation wasn’t exactly stellar with all the boozing, partying, and hordes of hot female bedroom buddies. Blair nodded. “I thought you’d be better off. I had no idea that what I did would lead to everything else, like you getting so upset and refusing to trust men. I never saw that coming. I guess I thought it was just a high school romance, and you’d be over it soon enough. I honestly thought I was doing the right thing. But then you were so upset, and you’ve had so much trouble getting into long-term relationships since then. I’ve always felt terrible. It’s all my fault.” “And yet you never thought to tell me once in the last seven years,” I said, my tone growing sharp again. “I wanted to, so many times,” she replied. Tears were spilling over her cheeks like crazy now. “But every time I worked up the courage, I’d think ‘it’s already been so long, she’ll be mad for keeping this from her for so long’ and then I’d wimp out. It just got worse as time went on. And after we moved to different cities when school finished, I saw you less and less anyway, so there was just never a good time to bring it up.” I nodded slowly. “Okay. I get that,” I said. “But Blair...” Tears were filling my own eyes now, and I sniffed before continuing. “Troy gets a bad rap, and I guess he has done a lot of shitty things, but overall, he isn’t a bad guy. I know that now. And I know I didn’t tell you every detail of our relationship back then, but he was really different with me. I just knew he’d never treat me like he did those other girls.” She looked down at the bed. “I know. From what I’ve seen of him in the last couple of weeks on this show, he’s obviously grown up to be a pretty decent guy, aside from all the crap we hear about him in the media. I didn’t see that coming either. I fucked up so much.”

Suddenly she jumped up from the bed and dashed over to the walk-in closet, and I heard her sobbing from inside it as she rifled around. “What are you doing?” I asked, my brows drawing together with confusion. She emerged with one of her suitcases, clothes haphazardly spilling out of it. “I’m leaving,” she said. “You’ve done so much for me, Eden, getting me a chance to be on this show to help my business, and all I’ve done is lie and keep things from you. I should’ve just grown some balls and told you what I did years ago instead of keeping it from you for so long. I don’t deserve to be here, and I don’t deserve to be your friend anymore.” I held my hands up as she leaned down and tried to stuff more things into the case. “Wait, Blair. No. Don’t go.” She glanced up at me, her face stained with tears. “I have to. If I were you, I’d never forgive me for this. And you shouldn’t. I’m a fucking bitch.” She grabbed a stray pair of shoes from the floor and put them in the case too, and I walked over and grabbed her by the shoulder before pulling her back over to the bed. “Sit down,” I said. “We need to keep talking. You can’t just run away from this.” She sniffed. “What else can I do?” I sighed and sat down next to her. Then I hesitated for a long moment before opening my mouth to speak again. “Look, Blair, I’m really upset by what you did. I know Troy has had this media image of a partying womanizer during his career over the last few years, but I wonder if he would’ve been like that if I got that letter and we never split. But at the same time I wonder if maybe you were right. If I did get the letter, then maybe things would’ve gone badly between us after he left and we would’ve split anyway, leaving me just as hurt as I was when I thought he left without a word. There’s no way to know. So I don’t think it’s all your fault.” “You don’t?” I shook my head. “No. Don’t get me wrong—like I said, I’m still upset about what you did, but on the other hand, I get it. You were only seventeen, and god knows most teenagers don’t think about long term consequences of their actions. And considering his reputation back then, I’m actually not even that surprised you kept that letter from me, now that I’ve had some time for all this to sink in. I’m just hurt that you didn’t feel like you could talk to me about it all these years. I know we haven’t been anywhere near as close as we used to be for a few years now, since we live so far apart, but I still thought we were better friends than that.” Blair chewed her lip and stared intently at the floor again. “I’m so sorry.” My emotions finally began to spill out of me in full force, and I lay back on Blair’s bed and cried my eyes out for what felt like an eternity, still unable to believe the craziness of the day I’d had. There were so many unanswered questions about me and Troy, so many missed opportunities. So many years wasted with me not knowing the truth. Blair remained sitting next to me, her hand over mine, and she kept murmuring that she was sorry between sniffs and sobs. Finally, I sat up again and looked at her, wiping my eyes and cheeks. “I should go,” I said. “It’s getting pretty late, and we have a really early day tomorrow.”

She nodded silently, but I could see a question in her eyes. “Blair,” I said softly. “I understand why you did what you did, and I forgive you. I’m just going to need some time and a bit of space from you to get over it. Well, as much space as possible considering where we are.” She gave me a watery smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Do you think…do you think you and Troy would ever get back together now that you know?” I hesitated, unsure of what to say to that. I knew the truth now, and I knew that Troy wasn’t exactly the massive asshole I’d thought he was over the last seven years, but did that necessarily mean we were going to run back into each other’s arms? Sure, when I spoke to him earlier he’d made it pretty clear that he still cared about me—he’d literally said that—but it didn’t change the fact that seven long years had gone by since we were last with each other. We’d probably both changed in many ways, so it wasn’t like we could just fall back into our old high-school dating habits. On top of that, there was the question of who Troy had become. Just because he wasn’t the horrible prick I’d thought he was didn’t mean he didn’t have any bad qualities at all these days. He was still a womanizer, and that DUI on his record spoke to his attitude towards drinking and partying. Could I really go back to him, knowing how much he’d changed? Was there enough of the old Troy I’d known and loved left in him to warrant giving it a shot? “I don’t know,” I finally said. Blair nodded. “I guess it’d be hard.” “Yeah,” I replied with a sad, wry smile. “Anyway, I better head out.” “I’ll see you tomorrow during the shoot,” she said. “Goodnight.” “Night.” With that, I turned and headed out of her room and then out of the mansion. The night air was crisp and refreshing, and as I headed back to my trailer, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. Crap. I’d just remembered how I told Troy that I’d go back and talk to him after I was done with Blair, and I knew I really needed to hash things out with him, despite how late it had gotten. I turned back around and began walking back towards the mansion, and a familiar feminine voice called out to me a second later. “Eden! Where are you going?” I looked to my left to see Candice hurrying towards me. “Oh, hey,” I said meekly. “I was just… um…” I didn’t really have a decent excuse as to why I would be heading for the mansion this late on a rare night of no filming, and she raised a questioning brow as she waited for me to finish my sentence. “I think I got turned around,” I said. “Silly me, I was heading for the trailers, but I just realized I’m going the wrong way.” “That’s what happens when you skip dinner! You need brain food,” she said in a teasing voice. “Where were you earlier, anyway?” “Just hanging out with Blair,” I replied, glad that she hadn’t caught my lie. “Oh, right, I keep forgetting that you’re actually friends with her. Anyway, I’ll walk back to the

trailers with you. I was on my way anyway. It’s a bit creepy out here late at night, isn’t it?” I nodded, although I thought it was actually quite nice out here at night, and I didn’t want to go to the trailers. I couldn’t bring any more suspicion upon myself, so I knew I needed to go with Candice. I could always talk to Troy tomorrow; it wasn’t like he was going anywhere anytime soon. Still, I couldn’t wait to see him, and I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say. I smiled to myself as I pictured how our first real conversation in years might turn out, and the tantalizing thoughts slipped through every part of my mind like twisting vines, refusing to let go until I’d considered every single possibility of how things could go with Troy. I definitely wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight.

Chapter Eleven Troy “I’m not riding that! It’s too big! And it has those weird-looking spots on it! What’s wrong with it?” I snorted with barely-disguised amusement as one of the contestants—a brunette whose name I couldn’t quite remember—glared at the producers and folded her arms as we all gathered at the old stables on the ranch. Today’s group activity was a leisurely horse ride over to the forested side of the property, where we’d all be camping tonight, and some of the women weren’t too happy at the prospect of being in the great outdoors for so long. The aforementioned brunette was gesturing at the spotted Appaloosa horse which had been assigned to her, and her producer looked exasperated. “It’s part of the show, Elise. If we don’t get a nice shot of you riding, then we—“ “No, it looks dangerous!” the brunette—whose name was apparently Elise—cut in. I saw Eden and her colleague Candice shaking their heads and sighing, and I grinned. “Hey, Elise,” I said. “It’s not too big or dangerous. Watch this.” I jumped up onto my own horse, which was standing next to me, and I slid my feet into the stirrups before grabbing the reins and doing a quick circle around the yard. “See?” I called out before coming to a stop. “Easy.” Eden smiled over at me and mouthed the words ‘thank you’, and I winked at her. I hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with her since yesterday after the big reveal of Blair’s betrayal, but I didn’t mind. I had a pretty good idea why—she must’ve been in Blair’s room for ages, sorting out that whole drama, and by the time she was done, it was probably late. She looked like she’d barely slept a wink, and Blair looked much the same. I knew I’d get a chance to speak with her as soon as we’d set up the camp after the horse ride, so I wasn’t stressing about that. Still, I was nervous, apprehensive and excited all at the same time at the thought of what might go down when we talked. What if she informed me that it was too late and she no longer wanted me after all these years had gone by? It had all been because of a big bullshit misunderstanding courtesy of Blair, but that didn’t mean things hadn’t changed. Maybe we were no longer compatible. There was no point worrying about it now, though. I just had to wait and see. “I still don’t think it looks safe,” Elise whined. “Oh, for god’s sake, just get on, you ditzy moron!” Anya snapped from nearby. She was still riling everyone up as the ‘mean girl’ of the season, and I had to admit, she was doing a good job of making everyone dislike her. The producers had specifically asked me not to cut her during an elimination ceremony anytime soon, because the amount of drama her harsh words created amongst the other contestants was apparently ‘pure gold’.

Elise looked deeply offended at her words, and Eden let out a sigh. “Ladies, calm down. Elise, why don’t I get on your horse and show you how safe it is?” “No, don’t do that,” Anya said, rolling her eyes. “She should just suck it up and do it.” Eden held her hands up in a placating gesture. “It’s okay, I’ll be quick, and it might make her feel better.” She hoisted herself up on the horse and slid her feet into the stirrups before shuffling herself forward on the saddle a bit. “See?” she said. “Totally safe…argh!” As she spoke, one of the saddle straps somehow snapped or came loose, and Eden went flying off the horse’s back as the saddle slid off to the left. I reacted fast, sprinting over, and I grabbed her before she could hit the hard, dusty ground. She’d already gained a bit of momentum from the quick fall, so we almost tumbled all the way down, but I managed to stay standing in the end, with Eden pressed against me, held tightly in my arms. Her face was only a breath away from mine, and I could see the expression changing in her eyes in a mere blink. First there was shock and fear from the fall, then a heady, fiery look of desire as she realized how close we were. She subconsciously bit her lower lip, and I almost lost it right then and there as her eyes danced over my face, searching for affirmation. Fuck, I wanted to kiss her so bad. I almost did, but then I snapped back to reality and remembered where I was as Elise’s shrill voice filled my ears. “See? I told you guys it was unsafe!” she shrieked before stomping away. The moment was officially over. “Shit, someone’s partly cut one of the straps,” Candice said, picking up the saddle and looking it over. “That’s why it fell off. It was checked just a few minutes ago so it must’ve been done pretty recently.” She dropped the saddle and trudged over to us as I gently placed Eden back on the ground. “You okay?” she asked, lightly touching Eden’s shoulder. “Yeah,” Eden replied, her cheeks flushing a deep pink. “Just a bit shaken up.” Before Candice could reply, Glenn’s booming voice filled the air around us. “That was fantastic! We’ll edit the shot a bit to make it look like it was one of the girls on the horse. Eden’s hair is brown so we’ll just pretend it was one of the brunettes, and the viewers will eat it up, seeing Troy save her life.” “What?” I said, my forehead creasing with confusion. He grinned at me. “Normally we get stunt actors to pull off stuff like that, but that was real live action, and it looked romantic too, with you saving her from falling like that! Makes for great TV.” Christ, Eden could’ve been seriously hurt, and all he cared about was the ratings on his show. “I think someone intended for Elise to fall off this horse,” I said, gesturing to the saddle. “One of the straps was cut.” He waved his hand to shush me. “Don’t say that so loudly. Don’t want to freak out the girls,” he said in a low voice. “I already have the producers looking for this supposed crazy saboteur contestant, but the last thing I need is all sixteen of them getting scared. It’ll ruin their vibe.”

“Right,” I replied, barely hiding my sarcasm. “Who cares if someone gets hurt? As long as the vibe is good.” He ignored me and called out to everyone else. “Get a new saddle on this horse, guys!” He strode away, and one of the other producers rolled his eyes and pulled out his two-way radio to call for one of the stable hands. While he did that, Eden turned to me and gave me an embarrassed smile as she dusted herself off. “Thanks,” she said softly. “I could’ve really hurt myself if you hadn’t caught me.” “No worries,” I replied. We were still standing quite close to each other, and I could see Candice throwing us a vaguely suspicious glance, so I hastily added in a loud voice, “I would’ve done the same for anyone, Ms. Zamora,” and took a big step back from her. Eden’s smile grew wider at that. “Ms. Zamora? Really?” she mouthed, her eyes sparkling with amusement. “Had to make it look like I don’t really know you,” I replied, nodding towards Candice, who was now looking down at a clipboard. “She was giving us some weird looks.” Eden nodded. “I figured. Well, anyway, I have to go do some damage control on Elise, or she’ll never get on this horse while we still have daylight for filming.” “Tell her she’ll get a free pair of Louboutins if she gets on it. That should do the trick.” Eden snorted with laughter as she headed off, and she turned her head over her shoulder and looked back at me once she’d reached the area where Elise and some of the others were standing now. I couldn’t help turning the corners of my lips up in a smirk, because I had the answer to my earlier question from the look in her eyes alone. She definitely still wanted me.

Chapter Twelve Eden “I don’t get it. Where’s the cabins?” One of the contestants looked at me, her blue eyes wide. She seemed genuinely confused by the fact that we were all going to be camping out on the ranch tonight despite the fact that it had already been explained earlier. This particular contestant had even given us a little soundbite about how excited she was to ‘get in touch with nature’ and ‘show Troy her outdoorsy side’, which made her current line of questioning that much more confusing. “We’re camping, Bonnie,” I said, praying for the strength to stay patient. “In tents. There are no cabins.” She put her hands on her hips. “I don’t understand. Where the hell am I supposed to plug in my hair curler?” “You seemed really excited about camping earlier,” I replied, deflecting her question. She let out a huffing sound. “I thought it was just part of all the fake reality TV stuff, kinda like the fake food they put on our plates during the one-on-one dates sometimes. I didn’t think you guys would actually make us camp!” “It’s just for one night so we can get some nice outdoor shots and film a campfire scene where you all toast marshmallows and have fun,” I said in a soothing tone. “And I’m sure if you let Troy help you get your tent up on camera, you’ll get even more screen time than usual. That’d be great, right?” To her credit, Bonnie saw straight through that attempt at trying to calm her down, and she pouted and flounced away, still looking grumpy. I sighed and went back to checking on the other girls to make sure they were coping without their creature comforts for the time being, and I almost ran smack bang into Glenn five minutes later. “Sorry, wasn’t looking where I was going,” I said breathlessly. I’d just finished erecting a tent for one of the girls who’d outright refused to do it, and I was in desperate need of a stiff drink and a foot rub. “No worries. But we need to talk,” Glenn replied. “Have you made any progress in finding out who our little saboteur is yet?” I shook my head. “We still think it might be Anya, so we’re keeping a very close eye on her, but we can’t prove anything yet.” “She was around when that saddle strap was cut earlier, no?” I nodded. “She was, but so were a few of the other contestants. It’s not solid proof, which we need, as you know.” He narrowed his eyes. “I suppose so, but we still need to do something about it. This is the second time they’ve tried to seriously hurt someone. You need to figure out who it is sooner rather than later.”

I nodded, not knowing quite what to say. Sure, we needed to find out who it was and cut them from the show, but I didn’t see why Glenn kept acting like it was entirely my job to do so. He must’ve gauged what I was thinking from the look on my face, because he sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Look, Eden, I know I’ve mostly put this on you, but there’s a reason for that. I think you’re the best junior producer I have here on the show, so I’m harder on you because I think you’ll go the furthest. I just need to know that you can handle anything. That’s why I’m pushing you so hard on this.” “Oh. Thank you,” I said softly. “You always get amazing soundbites, and you have a killer instinct for drama. But like I’ve said before, not all drama is the right kind of drama.” I nodded. “I’ll try to sort it out.” “Good.” With that, he turned and headed to the other side of the little camping ground we’d erected and began shouting orders at an intern about setting up portable toilets somewhere nearby. I was flattered by what he’d said to me a few seconds ago, but in doing so, he’d put a lot of pressure on me. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I wasn’t as talented in this line of work as he thought I was? As serious as the matter was, I could barely think about it for more than two minutes, because Troy came into my field of vision, and my mind quickly flooded with images of that moment a few hours ago at the stables, when he’d saved me from falling off the horse and pulled me close to him. So close… His scent had been exactly as I remembered it from all that time ago—the perfect blend of masculine musk and cologne with a faint whiff of mint from the peppermint gum he liked to chew. The way he’d looked at me had been the same too, like I was the only woman in the world. I caught his eye from across a few tents, and a grin spread across his perfect lips. That movement of his lips was potent to me, and I felt something resonate within my core. His eyes were stormy with lust, and his hungry gaze made me want to tear all his clothes off along with mine and go totally freaking crazy for hours and hours. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was staring at him way too much considering the fact that we were surrounded by cameras, and I abruptly turned my head away. I got back to work, and three hours later, filming for the day was almost wrapped—tonight was going to be a rare occasion where it would stop before midnight. The last rays of the sun had come and gone, and it was finally starting to set. The sky was a beautiful mixture of orange, purple and pink as it slowly dipped below the horizon, and I watched it for a moment before detecting some movement out of the corner of my eye. Troy was heading towards me. I kept a nonchalant expression on my face in case anyone was looking, but my cheeks turned hot as he approached. His gorgeous eyes coasted over my curves, taking in every inch of me the same way my eyes had taken in every inch of his incredible body, and he finally came to a stop about two feet away from me. “Gonna be a nice night for the campfire,” he said just loudly enough for a camera crew member to hear as he passed us by, and I nodded, pretending to be more interested in the clipboard I was

holding. I didn’t dare risk being too close to him again, not after the suspicious looks Candice had thrown us earlier when Troy rescued me from the horse. “In case you need to speak to any of the production staff later on, our tents are all over there, Mr. Ballard,” I said in a casual, matter-of-fact voice as I nodded towards the area where my own tent was set up, several yards away from the little camping ground that had been set up for the contestants. “Great, thanks for letting me know,” Troy replied, keeping his own voice just as casual. “I probably will need a certain member of the crew….say, around midnight?” He added that last part so quietly that only I could hear, and I suppressed a grin and simply nodded. “I think certain crew members could definitely make that happen.” With that, I stepped away, unable to hide the smile that had crept onto my face now. I could hardly wait till midnight. *** I lay awake in my sleeping bag inside my tiny tent for a full two hours after everyone else went into their tents to get some sleep for the long day tomorrow, and I checked the clock on my phone every few seconds, silently begging time to speed up so that midnight would arrive. The minutes seemed to crawl by, but finally I heard a rustling sound outside my tent, and I slid over to the entrance and slowly unzipped it, being careful to make as little sound as possible. The closest tent to mine was Candice’s, and it was several yards away, but still, I was worried—sound could carry pretty far out here in the wilderness. Troy was crouched outside, clad in black jeans and a bulky black jacket with the hood pulled all the way over his head, and I barely stifled a laugh at his appearance. He grinned. “What? I needed to blend into the night so no one would see me,” he said. “Can I come in?” I nodded and moved away from the entrance, and he crouched down further and crawled inside as I lit the tent with the flashlight app on my phone. The tent was barely big enough for the both of us, especially considering how large he was, but neither of us cared. This was the first opportunity we’d had to be alone together and have a conversation since yesterday, and I was desperate for it. “Sorry I didn’t come back and talk to you yesterday like I said I would,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I got caught up with Blair.” He nodded and moved around a little, trying to get into a comfortable sitting position. “I figured. So what did she say?” I filled him in on everything that’d transpired during my long chat with Blair. “So yeah, I know it’s a red flag for our friendship that she kept something like that from me for so long, but she was a kid back then, and I guess I get why she felt like she couldn’t tell me,” I said, once I’d finished telling him most of it. Troy raised an eyebrow. “A red flag? It’s more like she took the red flag, doused it with petrol, took a shit on it, then set it on fire.” I sighed. “Yeah, but like I said, I can sort of see why she felt the need to do what she did. It

doesn’t make it okay, of course, but I can see her reasoning, as much as it upset me to find out about the whole thing.” Troy sighed and looked down at the canvas floor for a second, then back up at me. “Yeah, you’re right. I was a little shit back in the day, and that reputation of mine didn’t come from nowhere,” he said. “But I swear, Eden, you were different. You changed me. I would’ve never hurt you.” I nodded slowly. “I know that now. But…” My voice trailed off. I didn’t know how to ask what I needed to ask next, because Troy’s life for the last seven years wasn’t really any of my business. “But what?” “I just wonder….well, all the things I see about you in the media…” I still couldn’t find the words I needed, but Troy nodded anyway. “I think I know what you’re trying to ask. The DUI, the partying, all the women. Something to do with those things? You’re wondering how much you really changed me, if this is how I turned out.” I nodded. “Yeah.” “I don’t blame you for wondering about that, and look, I won’t deny that I’ve seen my fair share of women over these last few years. More than my fair share. But if I’m being totally honest, it was mostly all an attempt to numb myself from the shitty feeling of losing you so long ago. I know that sounds like a terrible fucking cliché, but it’s the truth. I kept thinking I could screw my way to distraction, and being an NFL player doesn’t exactly make it hard for me to pick up women.” I gave him a wry smile. “As if it was ever hard for you.” We both let out an awkward laugh, and then Troy’s face turned serious again. “And as for the DUI…well, I won’t deny that either. It was my own fault. I was a fucking idiot, no excuses. After it happened, I knew I was on a dangerous path to becoming like my father, which you know I never, ever wanted.” I nodded. “Yeah, I remember,” I said. “When I got arrested, the first thing I thought of was how disappointed you would’ve been if you were there to see me like that. I was so ashamed. I vowed not to do something that stupid ever again, and I haven’t. I won’t.” “Okay,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to be judgmental, I just—” Troy cut me off by lifting one hand. “Don’t apologize. Some things should be judged, and you being concerned about all that just proves to me that you still care about me and my wellbeing. You always cared. I know that now.” I nodded. He was right. I had always cared, as much as I’d tried to deny that over the years. Troy had always been a part of my life, even when he was gone for so long, and now that he was here again, there was no hiding from my true feelings—I still felt the same about him now as I had back then. “Shit, Eden, losing you was the fucking worst,” Troy said, moving his hand close to my leg but not actually touching me. “I honestly thought you were gone forever. But then I saw your name on the credits for this show, like I told you the other week.” “So you really came on it just to see me?”

“Yep. That boss of yours thinks he managed to score me all by himself, but believe me, there’s no way I would’ve agreed to all this if you hadn’t been here.” I felt a tell-tale blush creeping over my cheeks, and I glanced down at my lap, embarrassed by how good it felt to hear Troy say those words. How many women were so lucky that they had a gorgeous, successful NFL player compete on a reality TV show just for a chance to see them? “How’d you get into working in TV, anyway?” Troy asked, apparently sensing my awkwardness. He’d always been good at doing that. I explained what I’d studied in college and how I’d scored my junior producer job, and the conversation soon turned to absolutely everything else the two of us had been up to over the last few years. It was almost as if nothing had changed between us at all; it was just so easy to talk to him, and I could tell he felt the same about me. Seven years may have passed since we were last able to hang out like this, but it honestly felt like I’d only been with him just yesterday. “So what happens now?” Troy finally asked, gazing intently at me. “I know I can’t leave the show without breaking my contract, but you’re the only reason I came, Eden. If you’ll still have me, I’ll break the damn contract and pay whatever I need to.” I chewed on my lower lip as I contemplated his words. “Don’t break your contract,” I finally replied. “If we lose our leading man this far into filming, then it will really screw things up.” “How so?” “Almost everyone will be benched and out of a paycheck for a couple of weeks until they find a new Stud—and that’s if they even find a new one at such short notice. If they do, the season will be rushed and stressful for everyone while the first few weeks get re-shot, and if they don’t find one in time for the show to start actually airing on TV, then it could all be canceled, and everyone would lose their jobs until next season. And I don’t even need to mention the strife I’d be in for stealing the Stud all for myself.” He nodded and slapped a hand against his forehead. “Shit, yeah, of course. I just don’t want to do the whole proposal thing at the end of the show, when it’s not like I want to be with any of these women, let alone claim to want to marry them.” “I know, but you know it’s all faked for ratings anyway, right? The couple from last season who got married only did it because a magazine offered them half a million dollars for a big interview and exclusive access to their wedding. They actually can’t stand each other, and they’re planning on having the marriage annulled in six months.” “Jesus. I knew it was all fake, but not that fake,” he replied. “Yeah, it’s pretty sad,” I replied quietly. I quickly thought back to the days when I’d believed in true romance—I honestly used to be one of those girls who believed shows like The Stud were real. Nowadays I was different. I’d become sad and jaded, just like the showrunners of The Stud, and I’d lost that belief in love, but it was slowly creeping back thanks to Troy’s re-entry into my life. “Speaking of sad, I know most of the contestants just want to promote themselves for whatever reason, but I still feel bad, like I’m leading them all on when all I want is you,” he said. I nodded. “I know you feel bad, but honestly, Troy, in the whole history of the show, you might be one of the only people who’s ever come on it looking for…um…a relationship. Even if that

relationship isn’t with a contestant. So don’t feel too bad. All they expect is for you and one of the women to pretend to like each other for the cameras for a few weeks, really.” “I want a bit more than a relationship with you, Eden,” he replied, lowering his voice to a murmur as his hand crept closer to my right thigh. I felt giddy with excitement at those thrilling words, but I tried to keep calm. I had to do the right thing, and getting embroiled in a secret, scandalous love affair with the Stud on the show I worked for would not be a good idea for either one of us. “I think the best we can do right now is wait it out until the season is over,” I said, pulling away from his hand. “And hell, we waited seven years to be in this place again…I’m sure we can wait a couple more months, right?” Troy hesitated for a moment, and then he grinned. “That’s true. I don’t want you getting in any trouble with your boss, so I’ll try to keep my hands to myself and play the part of the Stud until filming is wrapped. And then I’m taking you out on a proper date.” I smiled. “God, I can hardly wait,” I replied. “It’s gonna suck not being able to be touch you until then.” “We’ll manage,” I replied. “Yeah, we will.” Our mutual resolve lasted exactly five seconds from the moment Troy uttered those last words. He leaned closer, I leaned closer too, and then he was all over me; his hands, his lips, his tongue. I returned his embrace with equal fiery passion. For a moment, I was lost in our kiss, my mind unable to comprehend the sheer joy it was to have his lips on mine again. Time slipped away, and the kiss went on and on. Heat and fire flooded my belly, and my entire body was awash with sensation. My craving for him was like a fever, and I thrust my body closer, feeling his thick hardness pressed up against my belly as his hands fisted through my hair. We knew someone could wake up and possibly stick their head in my tent to catch us, but in this moment, neither of us cared. We wanted each other too much, and we were going to have each other. Right now. Troy broke away for a second to slightly adjust our position in the cramped tent so we could be a bit more comfortable, and I had the good sense to quickly turn my phone light off so that no one would be treated to a pornographic shadow show if they happened to wake up and glance at my tent. Then Troy pulled me in for another tight embrace, and he slanted his lips over mine. The slow burn in my body soon flared into an inferno, and he pressed his lips against me, hard. I met his tongue with mine in a bold stroke, and a loud groan rumbled from his hard chest. He pushed me down to my sleeping bag, deepening the kiss, and I clung to his broad shoulders. His taste was intoxicating, and my insides were a ticking time bomb of arousal. He moved his mouth to my neck and swept his lips over my delicate skin, and I moaned, my nipples growing stiff under my pajama shirt. I ached for release, and flames of desire licked at me, adding to the intense urgency I felt in my core. My panties were damp from how slick I was, and I slid my hands around his waist and raked my nails across his back as he tore at my pajamas. The heat from his body engulfed me, and I felt the same giddiness I had on the first night I’d slept with him,

back when we were still high-schoolers. Taking deep breaths, I sighed as oxygen pounded its way into my lungs. Even so, I was still breathless. My mind ceased to think of anything but Troy, and pure instinct drove me as I let him settle his weight over me, grinding himself against me in slow motions. I ran my hands down to his waist again, then slid to grasp his hard cock. I fumbled with his belt a moment later, and he pulled back and quickly stripped everything off. With the light off, it was dim in the tent, but my eyes had adjusted enough to be able to see him, and I drew in a sharp breath, my eyes widening as they encountered the utter splendor that was a naked Troy Ballard. The cut of his hips was perfect; hard lines of definition that pulled my eyes down to his cock, big and proud. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. I just stared. “I guess it’s been a while since you last saw me like this,” he said, correctly interpreting my wide-eyed expression. “Um, yeah…” “Don’t be nervous, Eden,” he murmured, leaning down and planting another kiss on my face. I raised a hand to touch him, stroking his hard shaft. Grasping him tight in my hand, I pumped my fist up and down, and once I had reached the tip, I wet my thumb with the pre-cum from his slit and rubbed it around the head. I leaned forward, wanting to take him in my mouth, but he grabbed my head and twined his hands in my hair, making me look up at him. He shook his head and moved down the bed, pressing his hands to my thighs, and then he pushed my legs wide open. “You first,” he murmured. I slid my fingers into his thick hair, gripping him tightly between my legs. He reached his hands up and cupped at my breasts before moving to my nipples and pinching them roughly, and the ache between my thighs grew ever stronger at his touch. I wanted and needed him to fill me with his cock. Now. If I didn’t have him inside me soon I honestly thought I might explode. He slid his lips down and gently nibbled on my inner thigh, and the bite shot electric jolts from my clit all the way up to my nipples. His hands continued playing with my breasts as his mouth moved closer and closer to my clit, and the sweet torture only intensified my desperation. “Please, Troy…fuck me!” I moaned. His breath caressed the lips of my sex, and I spread my legs even wider, displaying it for him. Every inch of me burned with need, and right when I thought I couldn’t survive another second without his touch, he gently lapped at my swollen clit, so softly that I moaned at the sweet torment. He chuckled from between my legs, and the vibration from his mouth made my thighs tremble as he pulled them onto his shoulders. Splaying his tongue flat, he swiped it up and down my folds, and there was no stopping my moans and whimpers. He rolled his tongue over my clit and then down to my tight, slick entrance, and then he slid one finger inside me, massaging the sweet spot inside me as he lapped at my clit. My climax crashed over me without warning, and wild waves of pleasure crashed over me, making me scream with pleasure. More and more explosions rocked me, and my legs shook on his shoulders. When my muscles had finally stopped convulsing, I sat up on the sleeping bag and met his

gaze. His eyes were burning with passion, and I pushed him onto his back, straddling him as I leaned in for a kiss that made my breath catch in my throat. He held my lips captive, driving his tongue into my mouth with a wild aggression that sent my mind into another tailspin of wanton need, and all rational thought went out the window. He tore his lips away from mine a moment later to pepper my face with kisses, all the way down to my neck. The heat of his mouth encased my stiff nipples a moment later, and he sucked on them, grazing them with his teeth and making me cry out. “Do you have any condoms?” he asked, his deep voice husky with need. I nodded. “In that backpack behind you. Front pocket. Hurry!” I replied, my own voice filled with urgency. I heard him rummaging through my bag, and the sound of foil tearing filled my ears a moment later. He rolled the protection over himself, and then he leaned down over me again. He ran his lips slowly down my neck, nuzzling the skin, pushing aside my hair with his nose. His mouth opened, and I shivered, the scrape of teeth against my shoulder, then the hot, wet flick of his tongue. “You want me to hurry?” he said, his tone teasing me as much as his tongue. “Yes,” I replied, my voice breathless. “I need more.” He growled, the sound low in his throat, and I felt the twitch of his thumb against the outside of my left thigh. He shifted, keeping one hand flat, and lifted the other, sliding it gently up my leg, his fingers spreading across the skin, his head dropping to watch its movement. My heart skipped a beat when his fingers hit the most ticklish, sensitive part of my upper thigh, and I could feel every single finger and its movement, the anticipation heightening the arousal, my breath hitching as he whispered my name, his kiss suddenly soft as it landed on my collarbone, then the hollow of my neck, then my chin. I tried to stay still, tried to contain the sound in my throat, but I finally let out a whimper, unable to hold it back. He was teasing me too much. The last time I’d felt like this had been exactly seven years ago….the last time I’d been with him. I was filled with it; the hot, pulsing need, the urge to grind myself against him, my body trembling, my mind racing, every thought reduced to the primal instinct of wanting more. Wanting him. “Please, Troy,” I whimpered. “More.” He pulled his hand away, and with a single thrust of his hips, he was finally pushing inside me. In an instant, it was the sweetest, hottest pleasure I’d ever known, and I bit my lip to stop the loud moans from spilling out. I’d never felt like this with another man, and I’d missed this so much. Too much. I cried out Troy’s name over and over, writhing underneath him, everything in me sharply focusing on that perfect sensation of being totally and utterly filled. It was strange how so many parts of our body could be touching in this second, from our fingertips to our toes, the length of him above me, his weight supported by his hands, and his lips on my collarbone, and yet the only thing I felt, right then, was his cock inside me. “Harder, Troy,” I begged. “Please.” He let out a growl, his hips shifting, each and every pump of his hips sending me to a new level of delirium. My toes dug into the sleeping bag, my knees pointed at the roof of the tent, and I lost my mind completely as another climax hit me. Every conscious thought, every concern, every question—

gone, just like that, as pure pleasure filled my head. “Fuck….I’m gonna cum,” he groaned, slamming inside me again. “Do it,” I gasped out in response. I watched his eyes close as he let out another groan, and my fingers gripped the sleeping bag beneath me as he plunged inside me one last time before pausing and pulsing inside me. “God,” I murmured a moment later when he’d finally rolled off. “I’m so glad we didn’t wake anyone up with that.” Troy propped his weight up on one elbow and grinned down at me. “Yeah. We’d both have a bit of explaining to do.” I sat up and stretched my tired muscles. “So…obviously we just needed to get that out of our systems, and now we can get on with the show. Nothing needs to happen again until the season is over,” I said. He nodded. “Yep. That was just a little slip-up. We can control ourselves for another few weeks. I wouldn’t want you losing your job.” “And I wouldn’t want you getting any more bad press, which you’d definitely get if word got out that you were sleeping with a junior producer on this show, seeing as you’re meant to be dating the contestants.” “Exactly. So we can keep our hands off each other for a while, and it’ll be fine.” Once again, I knew we were both totally full of crap as we tried to convince each other that we could resist hooking up again until filming had wrapped. There was no stopping this. There was no more resisting, no more pulling away and hiding from our true feelings. I was really his again. And the best part about that? He was mine.

Chapter Thirteen Troy “Shit! Troy, we accidentally went to sleep! You have to wake up and leave!” Eden’s frantic whispers filled my ears, and I yawned and opened my eyes to see that I was still in her tent. I felt like I’d barely slept at all, so it must’ve only been about four or five in the morning. “What’s the time?” I asked. “It’s almost five, and it’s going to start getting light outside soon,” Eden confirmed for me in a hushed voice. “Oh my god, what if someone sees you sneak out of here?” “No one will see me,” I said. “Your tent is right on the edge of the camp ground and the entrance is facing the forest, so no one will actually see me get out. I can just walk into the forest a bit and come out further towards my own tent so it looks like that’s where I slept. It’s so early that I doubt anyone will even see me anyway.” “I guess so.” “It’s still dark out as well, so we have a few more minutes before I have to sneak out,” I said, wrapping one arm around her and pulling her close. She was warm, and her bare skin on mine ignited a raging fire deep within me despite my tiredness. “A few minutes for what?” I gave her an incredulous look. “You really have to ask?” I grabbed her hand and moved it to my crotch, and Eden’s eyes widened. “Oh! That….” “Yeah, that.” With that, my lips closed over her mouth, my tongue sliding out to caress hers. She moaned as I broke away, and the ache in my groin was so strong that it felt like my thighs were bruised. I wanted to fuck her again so badly, and judging by the look in her eyes right now, she wanted the same thing. My arms encircled her, and then I flipped her over and pushed her down on her stomach before moving myself above and behind her. She gasped with surprise as my lips pressed into her neck, gliding over her soft skin. I left scorching trails wherever I went, and Eden gasped again as I bit her ever-so-softly on the slender muscle between her shoulder and neck. “Beg for it,” I murmured. “Mm…please…” she replied, throwing her head back as I nipped at her delicate skin again. She sucked in a deep breath as I traced the small teeth marks I’d left with my tongue and then blew cool air on them. “Please what?” I asked. “Please…fuck me!” Her bare ass was pressed against me now, and I knew she could feel my thick cock throbbing steadily against her. I pressed it right up to the small of her back, rocking gently, and she squirmed and whimpered beneath me. One of my knees forced her legs apart, and she quickly arched her back as my

hands crept over her, stroking and caressing her until I drew another long, shuddering moan of wanton need from her mouth. “Shh,” I murmured, my fingertips working their way over the molten swell of her lower lips as my hand slid down between her legs. “We don’t want to get caught, remember?” Eden bucked her hips against my hand, begging me to go further. I gripped my hips and then let out a groan as I pushed myself inside her, and she half-gasped, half-grunted at the initial stretch of my cock. I withdrew from her for a second, but not all the way. With the tip of me still resting inside her, I reached under and between her legs to rub her clit and then thrust back into her. Holy god, her tight pussy felt so fucking good around me… Eden relaxed, her body finally ready to accommodate all of me, and I eased in further, one hand squeezing her as I moved against her. Her small hands pressed against the floor, holding herself steady as she moaned and whimpered. “Oh, god!” At the sound of that, I pulled out and then slammed back into her, hard and deep. Eden’s body stretched around my cock again and then squeezed me as muscle contractions began deep within her. I pumped her harder and harder, faster and faster, my hand still working away at her clit, and when she began to shudder, I flexed my hips in one last thrust, one more delicious push that sent Eden flying over the edge. As she came, I grunted out my own pleasure before pulling out of her, and I collapsed back onto my back a second later, my body already coated in a thin sheen of sweat. “Now that’s a proper early morning workout,” I said with a grin, turning my head to look at her. “Oh yeah? Is that what all the top NFL coaches recommend?” she asked, returning my grin. “I wish.” She laughed softly and prodded me in the side. “Go on, get out of here. It looks like it’s finally getting light outside.” I started putting my clothes back on, and as I did so, I looked down at Eden, still reclining naked on her sleeping bag. “How are we gonna work this?” I asked. “What do you mean?” she asked, stretching and yawning. “Well, we vowed to keep our grubby hands off each other until the season has wrapped, but we’ve already proved beyond a shadow of doubt that that’s just not gonna happen. So we need to figure out how to hide what we’re doing, don’t we?” She hesitated. “Well, I know a few spots around the mansion that no one ever goes near.” “What about CCTV cameras?” “No cameras in those places. Also, my trailer is pretty soundproof. So you could sneak in there on some nights. But we have to be extra careful. Like, really, really careful,” she said, her tone slightly apprehensive. I nodded, then winked. “Can’t wait.” I knew it wasn’t the best idea to start sneaking around with Eden while the show was still filming; not when we both had so much to lose if we got caught. However, I couldn’t stop myself. It’d been so long since I last had her, and it was impossible to keep my hands off her, let alone keep my hands off her for another two months. Now that she was back in my life and back in my heart, I had no intention

of letting her go. Not even for a second.

Chapter Fourteen Eden “Less bubbles! I want to see the action, not have it all blocked by foam!” Glenn barked an order at an intern, who quickly raced over to the Jacuzzi and flicked a switch on the side. Troy was sitting in the tub with a contestant named Sarah, and we were filming a one-on-one date scene between the two of them. It had been Glenn’s idea to put them in the hot tub together with some champagne, mostly as an excuse to titillate viewers with the soaking wet, half-naked bodies of two beautiful people, but so far, things weren’t going well. Sarah was bitching about all of the other contestants instead of trying to start a deep and meaningful conversation with Troy, and Troy was beginning to look uncomfortable being so close to her. He kept glancing over at me as if to ascertain whether I was okay with him hanging out so closely with a bikini-clad woman, and when he did it for the third time, I gave him a thumbs up and smiled. It was all part of the job, and I didn’t want him thinking I was going to get jealous and freak out over him simply fulfilling his contractual obligations to go on fake ‘dates’ with the girls. “This light is fucking terrible. You two, go and get something from the lighting crew to brighten things up!” Glenn shouted, gesturing towards Candice and me, seeing as we were standing closest to him. Candice and I headed over to a large crew trailer to ask for some spotlights to place around the tub, and while we waited for the guys there to grab us some, we chatted about how the show had been going for the last week since we returned from the camping trip. “Do you think our Sabotage Queen could’ve been Tara?” I asked, referring to the petite blonde contestant who had been cut during the last elimination episode. Ever since she left, things had been a lot quieter on the set, and we hadn’t had a single incident of sabotage against any of the girls. I was hoping it had been her, because that meant we no longer had to concern ourselves with finding the saboteur. Candice shrugged. “I dunno, maybe. If it was her, then at least we don’t have to worry about it anymore. Especially you; Glenn’s been riding you pretty hard about catching whoever it was, hasn’t he?” I nodded, and the words ‘riding you pretty hard’ quickly made my thoughts flash to Troy and the particular way we’d made love last night when he sneaked into my trailer. I felt heat rising in my cheeks, and Candice gave me a funny look. “You okay?” she asked. “You’ve gone a bit red.” “I’m fine, but thanks.” The lighting crew guys finally returned to the front of the trailer with two big boxes and several power boards. “Give this to Brett,” one of them said, a cigarette lazily dangling in one hand. “He’ll know how to set it up. If you have trouble, come and get us.” “Thanks.”

Candice and I turned tail and headed back towards the hot tub area with the gear. Glenn was nodding and smiling broadly at the camera crew as they captured what was going on in the hot tub now, and I stopped in my tracks as I squinted towards it and saw what was happening. Sarah had removed her bikini top, and she was perched on Troy’s lap in the tub, passionately making out with him. He was actively kissing her back, and his muscular arms were wrapped around her. One hand snaked back to her front before squeezing her bare left breast while the other moved further down, clearly sliding inside her bikini bottom from the back to grope her pert ass-cheeks. What the hell? Had he somehow interpreted my earlier thumbs up as a blanket statement that said ‘you can do whatever the hell you want with these women’? If so, then that was honestly bullshit. We’d spoken about this issue before, and he’d made it pretty clear to me that he had absolutely no interest in any of the contestants—at least that’s what he’d said. I’d told him that he might have to kiss a few of them occasionally during date scenes, just for the cameras, and I was fine with that because I knew it wouldn’t mean anything. But this…this wasn’t just a little kiss for the cameras! Sarah was writhing on his lap and moaning into his mouth, and he was giving it back just as good with all the boob-groping and ass-grabbing. He was just as into it as she was. “Eden, are you really sure you’re okay?” Candice asked, stopping and looking at me with her eyebrows furrowed. “You were all red a second ago, and now you’ve gone really pale.” “Yeah, I’m actually not feeling well all of a sudden,” I mumbled. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Go back to your trailer and get some rest. I’ll cover for you here. It’s not like we need a hundred producers to finish one hot tub scene, anyway,” she said, before looking over my shoulder at the scene. “Jeez, they’re really going at it. I think he’s actually got a finger in her pussy now. Like horny rabbits, huh? “Yeah. Thanks for covering for me, Candice,” I managed to choke out before turning and practically racing down the path which led to the area where my trailer was parked. I couldn’t believe what I’d witnessed back there. For the last week, I’d honestly thought Troy and I were on the same page in our rekindled relationship. He’d told me we were! He’d gone on and on about coming on the show just to find me, and he’d made such an effort to get back into my affections….and what, he was just going to throw that away for a chance to bang a drunken girl in a hot tub? There was just no excuse—the way he’d been kissing her and touching her was not the actions of a man who wasn’t genuinely interested. He’d really wanted her, and he was probably having her on camera at this exact second. Glenn was probably ecstatic; viewers absolutely loved it when a contestant and a Stud had hot, dirty sex, and ratings always soared when it happened. Hot tears filled my eyes, but this time I refused to let them spill out. Troy obviously hadn’t changed as much as he’d told me he had, and he was still a party-hard, womanizing asshole. I wasn’t going to shed a tear over him ever again. Not even one.

Chapter Fifteen Troy I checked my watch to see that it was twenty past ten, and I frowned, wondering why Eden hadn’t showed up yet. Earlier, we’d made a plan to meet up in one of our new secret spots at ten—a storage room on the third floor of the mansion where there were no cameras and no one ever went—but I’d been standing here waiting for ages now, and it didn’t look like she was coming anytime soon. I waited another five minutes, and when she was still a no-show, I shrugged and headed downstairs and outside, figuring that she’d been caught up with something earlier and forgotten about our plans. Filming was well and truly wrapped for the evening, and most of the crew members had retired to their trailers for some much-needed rest. Seeing as hardly anyone was around, I decided to risk it and headed for Eden’s trailer before lightly rapping on the door. She was wearing a faded old bathrobe when she answered the door, and I grinned up at her. “Sexy. I see we’re already past the lingerie stage.” She didn’t laugh at my joke like I thought she would. Instead, a stony expression crossed her face. “What are you doing here?” “I came to see why you didn’t show up in our spot. We had plans, remember?” She put her hands on her hips. “Are you serious? You think I’d show up after what you did?” “Huh?” She glanced around outside to make sure no one had seen me, and then she pulled me inside. “The only reason I’m letting you in right now is because the last thing I need is for everyone to see you here and hear what I have to say to you.” “Okay….” I said, taking a seat on the end of her bed. “Mind telling me what I did this time?” “Hm, let’s see. You practically screwed another woman in the hot tub tonight. In fact, as far as I know, you actually did screw her. I wouldn’t know; I left as soon as you slid your hands into her bikini bottoms. Does any of that that ring a bell?” I held a hand up. “Wait, what? Oh, no…” I knew what she thought she’d seen now, and I couldn’t help a slightly amused expression from crossing my face at the ridiculous nature of the situation. The moment was definitely not appropriate for any type of smile, and Eden narrowed her eyes and practically hissed at me. “You think it’s funny?” she said. “I actually trusted you again. But of course, you never really changed, you really are just a womanizing sack of—” I cut her off before she could launch into a full-blown tirade. “Eden, I know how bad it would’ve looked, and I’m sorry for that, but it wasn’t me.” “For god’s sake, Troy, don’t pull that crap with me. I was there. I saw you!” “Yeah, you were there for most of the date. Then Glenn told you and Candice to go grab

something from the lighting department, yeah?” She nodded, and I continued. “Sarah was being a total bitch, and she also kept trying to stick her hand down my…well, you get the gist. I wasn’t okay with that. So while you and Candice were gone, I told Glenn I was done with the date and got out of the tub. He wasn’t happy with that—apparently there hasn’t been enough sexy stuff happening this season. So I said that was too bad, and I was done. It’s not like he can make me hook up with someone.” “That’s not what I saw.” “I’m still explaining. You know Peter the intern?” Eden’s forehead creased with confusion at my seemingly irrelevant question. “I don’t think so. There’s about fifty different interns on this show.” “He’s the intern for the film crew that everyone calls Troy Junior because he looks sorta like me.” “I don’t remember him,” she said, pursing her lips. “Well, he’s real. Anyway, he was there, and Glenn still wanted his sexy date scene, so he asked Peter if he could act as a stand-in for me. He’s not as tall as me, and his eyes are a different color, but in the water with all those bubbles and the shitty lighting, no one’s gonna know the difference. I didn’t give a shit, so I dried off and let him take my spot with Sarah, and well…she didn’t give a shit either. Horny little minx. She jumped right on him, and they kept on filming, pretending it was me.” Eden looked incredulous. “Are you serious?” “Yeah. Go and ask any of the crew who were still there when you and Candice left. The whole thing was fucking ridiculous, but you know what Glenn’s like. He’ll do anything to get his perfect scene,” I said. “I think Peter’s happy, though. Pretty sure Sarah took him back to her room after the scene was wrapped.” “They seriously got a stand-in to….oh my god…” Eden’s voice trailed off, and she sat down and ran a hand through her messy hair. She looked up at me a moment later, her face scarlet. “I’m so sorry. I thought…” “I get it. It looked pretty bad. I thought someone would’ve told you what was going on when you came back. I even looked for you to tell myself, but I didn’t see you. I figured you were just busy working.” “I guess if I hadn’t stormed off the way I did, I would’ve known what really happened,” she muttered. I sighed. “Yeah. Look, Eden, I know you spent all these years thinking I was a lying asshole, but that was all because of a misunderstanding, remember? I’m not saying it’s your fault you feel this way. It’s hard to erase seven years of thought patterns. But we’ve gotta start trusting each other, babe.” She nodded. “I know,” she said quietly. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m trying.” I slung an arm around her and gave her back a comforting rub. “I guess all we can do is keep on trying, then.” A moment of silence passed between us, and then Eden looked at me and stuck her hand out. “Let’s make a deal. No matter what happens, no matter how bad something might look, we always talk to each other about it. No more misunderstandings. No more being apart because of simple

miscommunications. Never again. We talk.” I shook her hand. “Deal.” She smiled at me, and I grinned back at her, knowing that we were going to be fine. It’d taken a long time for us to get back together, seemingly against all odds, and while it was almost certainly going to be hard on both of us for a while, we were going to make it. I just knew it.

Chapter Sixteen Eden “Woo! C’mon! Troy’s our boy! Troy’s our boy!” Shrill feminine voices filled my ears, and I smiled as I watched the Stud contestants waving white and blue pom-poms in the air as they jumped up and down with excitement. They were standing on the edge of the field at Levi’s Stadium, just below where I was sitting with the other producers, and the little cheer routine they’d just started was going to make a good shot for the episode promo video. Four weeks had gone by since the fateful hot tub incident, and we were down to just seven contestants now—Hayley, Cailin, Anya, Blair, Bonnie, Emily and Elise. For this week’s group date, we’d headed down to San Francisco for an off-season charity football game in Troy’s home stadium, and the women were acting as cheerleaders for his team. They were playing a team from Seattle, and all the proceeds from the game would be going straight to a children’s hospital. Even though it wasn’t a ‘real’ game in the grand scheme of things, I was still hoping Troy’s team would win, not because of the fact that it would make good TV to have his team win during this episode, but because I wanted to see his face light up. I hadn’t been to one of his games since I was a teenager watching him play high school football, but I still remembered and loved the bright, exuberant look in his eyes whenever he helped lead his team to victory, and I desperately wanted to see it again. The last few weeks had been good for us. As bad as the hot tub incident had been (I’d rightfully felt like such a bitch for my ignorant, untrusting part in it) it’d made us reach a turning point in our relationship where we’d realized just how much the past still affected us and how important it was that we communicate properly to get past any issues that might arise because of it. It was hard sometimes—the past was honestly like a bomb, and once that shrapnel is inside you, it will always work its way to the surface one way or another—but overall, we were doing really well now. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that I could trust Troy, and I knew he felt the same. Nothing was going to screw things up for us now. The last play of the charity game was about to begin, and I turned my attention back to the field and held my breath. Troy’s team were down two points, and there wasn’t much time left, but I was still holding out hope. You can do it, Troy! I silently willed, hoping my message would telepathically reach him. He was conferring with a coach, and after nodding a couple of times, he ran back to the huddle with his team and said something to them before both teams went back into their formations. The play finally began, and Troy took the ball from the center, faked a movement to the right, and then deftly ran to the left. Anticipation hung and crackled in the air like electricity, and I smiled as I watched him, knowing what was going to happen. He had a perfect arm, and it was going to find its target. His pass danced through the air in a breathtakingly perfect spiral before landing perfectly in the wide receiver’s hands, and the wide receiver then turned and dashed towards the end zone. The Seattle defenders launched themselves at him, but he dodged them all, sidestepping and weaving through and around them, leaving them all fumbling like goons in his wake. The crowd went wild as

he entered the end zone before slamming the ball for a touchdown, and I turned my attention back to Troy, who was grinning blissfully back up the field. There was that look I’d been hoping for, and it made my heart soar right to the heavens. His eyes found me in the crowd, and his grin somehow grew even wider as he waved and gave me a nod. Given where I was standing, it looked like he was waving and smiling at the contestants just below me, and our show cameras captured the moment as colored confetti, balloons and streamers began to rain down on everyone. I wished I could run down to Troy and jump into his arms, but obviously I couldn’t do that. Candice sighed next to me a few minutes later; she’d never been a sports fan, and none of the crowd’s positive energy had affected her in the slightest. “And now here’s the fun part, where we wait around for ten thousand years while the crew packs up everything,” she said, rolling her eyes as the team headed off the field and the Stud contestants went to get changed. “God, I’m so bored. I kinda even miss our Sabotage Queen. At least things were more interesting when she was around.” I gave her a wry smile. “It’s not that bad,” I replied. “And seriously, it’s a good thing that she’s vanished. Remember how pissed Glenn was about all she crap she pulled? ‘The wrong kind of drama’ and so on. I’m glad she was eliminated, whoever she was.” “True. Although, maybe she was never eliminated. I honestly still kinda suspect Anya. Maybe she’s just lying low for a while.” I sighed. “Yeah, maybe. But we’ve been keeping an eye on her for weeks now just in case, and nothing’s happened. I’m pretty sure that whoever it was, she’s been cut already.” “Eden! Candice!” Candice and I both snapped our heads up at the sound of Glenn calling to us, and we looked over at him. “Yeah?” “Candice, go and make sure the girls are all okay and not lost or anything. It’s like herding cats with them around,” he began. “And Eden, you go and find Troy in the locker room and tell him not to get dressed yet—I changed my mind and I want a shirtless interview out here before we pack up. Sweat and all. Our viewers will be creaming their panties at that.” I nodded and stood up, and Candice snickered next to me as she did the same. “Have fun in the stinky locker room,” she said. I poked my tongue out. “You mean the stinky locker room filled with sexy, muscular half-naked football players?” She grinned. “Touché.” We went our separate ways to do what Glenn had asked us, and I paused outside the team’s main locker room after flashing my pass at the security guys in the corridor. Most of Troy’s teammates were spilling out after having already changed, and they were heading down the corridor the opposite way towards the media room, where I assumed they’d be giving interviews to news channels about the charity game they’d just played. I stopped one of them with a wave of my hand and gave him a polite smile. “Hi, sorry, I’m one of the producers from—” He grinned and cut me off. “Let me guess, The Stud? We’ve all been giving Troy so much shit for

that.” I smiled. “Yeah, that’s the one. Anyway, is he in there?” He nodded. “Yeah, he is. You can go in if you want. I’m sure there’s nothing in there you haven’t already seen before.” He winked, and for a heart-stopping second, I thought he knew about me and Troy. Then I realized he was just making a joke, and I laughed weakly and thanked him before pushing open the locker room door and stepping inside to find it mostly empty. I hadn’t been in a sports locker room since the day I scored my first date with Troy back in high school, and even though this was a professional league locker room, it wasn’t all that different. Sure, everything was a bit more polished and definitely newer, but it still smelled exactly like our old high school one; that musky, heady scent of masculine sweat. Not the sweetest smell in the world, but not unpleasant either. I spotted Troy sitting alone and shirtless on a bench, and I was hit by another wave of nostalgia. It was all the same; the almost-empty locker room, him shirtless on a bench and looking as sexy as ever…only this time, I wasn’t nervous in his presence. “Hey, this is perfect,” I said as I approached. “Glenn wants you all sweaty and half-naked outside for an interview, and here you are, already shirtless.” Troy looked up and flashed me a good-natured grin. “I’ve already wiped myself down, so I’m probably not going to be sweaty enough to please him.” He stood up as he spoke, and before I could reply, he pinned me up against a locker. “But I can think of one way to get nice and sweaty again before going back out there.” I frantically pushed him away. “Troy!” I hissed. “Someone could see us!” “Isn’t that half the fun?” he murmured, leaning in again and pressing his lips close to my ear as one hand slid up my shirt. “C’mon, just a little quickie. There’s no one else in here now anyway.” “No, really, Troy, we can’t,” I replied, my voice a little breathless now. I had to admit, I was pretty turned on by the thought of being with him right here and now, but I couldn’t risk my job. Someone could walk in here at any moment. He chuckled and drew back. “Don’t worry, I’m kidding. But fuck, you’re so sexy, it’s kinda hard for me not to—” I clamped my hand over his mouth at the sound of the main locker room door opening, and he sprang back as he realized someone was coming. I smoothed down my shirt, and a few seconds later, Glenn came into view. He strode over to us. “Oh, there you are. I was worried you got lost. I see you found our man, though.” My face was burning, and I hoped it wasn’t as red as I thought it was. “Yeah, I just found him a second ago.” “Troy, I trust Eden told you what I want?” Glenn said, turning his attention away from me. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief; we were safe for now. “Yep. I was about to shower, but luckily Eden caught me in time and let me know what’s happening.”

Glenn gave me a smile. “Yes, Eden always gets things done on time. One of the reasons she’s my favorite junior producer. Now, let’s go and do this before we lose any more light.” He turned around, and we followed him out of the locker room. My cheeks were still burning with guilt and shame; Glenn’s words had really struck a nerve. He was a bit of an ass sometimes, but he’d made it very clear to me that he trusted me and saw me as a bit of a protégé, and here I was repaying that respect by sneaking around with the leading man from his show. As we walked, I wondered how much longer I could do this. How much longer could I betray the people I worked with? How much longer could I go against all my professional ethics? And how much longer could Troy and I pretend we weren’t together without it all blowing up in our faces? I hadn’t thought about it all that much over the last few weeks, because I’d just been so blissfully happy that we were back together, but now the reality of what we were doing was finally crashing down on me. The show’s filming would wrap in about four weeks, once the final eliminations had been made and Troy had picked the winner, but that didn’t automatically mean we could be publicly together right away. The Stud and the winner usually did magazine and TV interviews for months after the season had aired, pretending to be blissfully happy with each other, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the stress of hiding our relationship from the world for that long while Troy played along with the show’s obligations. It’d been bad enough hiding it for the last five weeks or so. The thoughts were still plaguing my mind ten minutes later as Troy filmed the shirtless post-game interview, and halfway through it, he looked over at me and gave me a heart-melting smile. With that, all the negativity in my mind seemed to fade away, and I just couldn’t think about our troublesome issues anymore. That smile of his had always been able to take away all my problems, and today was no different. We could save our worries for another day.

Chapter Seventeen Troy “This feels so good…mmm…do it harder!” I watched as Eden moaned happily on the bed in her small trailer, and I dug my hands into her back and rolled them out again and again, moving further down her body as I massaged every inch of her. I’d learned to give proper massages from one of the sports massage therapists our team had back in the city, and after the last couple of weeks, Eden definitely needed one to relax. We’d been filming non-stop due to the great weather, and today was the first day anyone had been allowed a day off in what felt like forever. We’d actually had a group date planned for today between me and the five women who were now left on the show, but it had been bucketing down with rain since six o’clock this morning, making it impossible to do anything. As a result, Glenn had reluctantly given everyone the day off. Ninety percent of the crew had taken off to the nearest town to do some much-needed unwinding at bars or cafés, and the contestants were holed up in the mansion to escape the rain (they weren’t allowed off the ranch like the crew). As for myself, I’d sneaked into Eden’s trailer for some quality time with her, seeing as there was hardly anyone around and we were very unlikely to get caught. “Mm, you’re so good at this,” Eden repeated as my hands kneaded her muscles, and I surprised her by giving her a quick slap on the ass. “Hey! What was that for?” she asked in an indignant tone, propping herself up on her elbows. “Couldn’t resist,” I said with a grin. “And I thought it was a nice way to end the massage.” “You’re lucky you’re so sexy, or I might’ve been mad,” she replied, smiling back at me as she stretched out her limbs. “Thank you for massaging me, by the way. It was just what I needed.” “No problem.” “I’m pretty lucky, aren’t I?” she said. “Getting free massages from a hot NFL player.” “And free sex, too.” She laughed at that and playfully slapped my arm. “You’re so silly. But thanks again,” she said. “Also, I hate to sound all sappy, but I really wanted to thank you for something else.” “I hate to use the same kind of joke twice in under a minute, but you really don’t need to thank me for the sex. I know it’s good, but really, no thanks necessary.” “Oh, shut up, you dolt,” she said with a teasing grin. “Seriously, though, I wanted to thank you for not eliminating Blair yet. I know she can’t win the show—Glenn would have a fit, because she’s not one of his favorites for you to pick—but keeping her around for this long has been doing wonders for her business. I’ve checked her website a few times, and it looks like almost every piece of jewelry on it has sold out, so the viewers are obviously responding to her presence in a positive way.” I smiled and ruffled her hair. “No worries. And I’m glad you two are on the way to fixing your

friendship after what she did.” “It’s in the past. She deserves a second chance.” “Yeah, I agree. She was just a teenager back then, and she had her reasons,” I said with a nod. “You’re right about the other stuff, though. Glenn’s made it pretty damn clear that his favorites to win are either Cailin or Hayley. If I don’t pick one of them as the winner he might just murder me.” “Which one are you going to pick?” I shrugged. “No idea.” Eden sighed and lay back down again. “I just keep thinking…oh, never mind.” “No, what is it?” I asked, raising an inquisitive brow. “I’m just worried about how long we’ll have to hide this,” she said quietly. “I know we said we’d start being a proper couple as soon as filming wraps, but for the last few seasons, the Stud and the winner have pretended to stay together for at least a few months afterwards to try and milk money from interviews and so on.” I chuckled and fluffed up her hair again. “I don’t need more money, Eden. And whoever I pick to win…well, it doesn’t matter. All the women left on this show know it’s all fake, and my contract only says I have to pretend to date them until the end of filming. As soon as it’s over, the winner and I can just release a statement to the press saying that we’ve decided to go our separate ways, and then you and I are free to do whatever we want without anyone whining and bitching.” “I just feel bad. Whoever you pick will probably be hoping to draw out her fame from the show as long as possible, and she might not be too happy about giving that up right away.” I sighed. “True. I guess there’s no perfect solution either way. But I do know one thing.” “What?” “No matter what happens, I’m gonna be with you. You’re stuck with me now, woman!” Eden laughed again, and she was about to reply when her two-way radio began to squawk. She stood up and held a finger up to her lips to make sure I stayed quiet, and then she answered. “What’s up?” “Hey, Eden, it’s Candice. We have a bit of a problem.” “What is it?” There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the radio before Candice replied. “Remember how we thought our little Sabotage Queen had already been eliminated? Well, we were wrong. She’s still around, apparently.” “Oh?” “Yeah. She’s gone and put hair removal cream in Emily’s deep conditioning hair mask. I’ve been dealing with her screaming for the last hour and threatening to leave the show. When the hair and makeup crew get back from whatever they’re doing in town today, they’re probably going to have to give her extensions to mask the bald spots.” “God, that’s horrible,” Eden said, her eyebrows drawing together with concern. “Yeah. This bitch likes to fuck with hair. First she bleached Blair’s hair and screwed that up, and

now this. At least it wasn’t another life-threatening kinda thing, like the loosened saddle strap or the laxatives in the food.” “True. But still a crappy situation. Poor Emily.” “Yep. So we’ll need to keep a very careful eye on all the women from now on. There’s only five left, so it shouldn’t be too hard to make sure nothing else happens, but yeah…just thought I’d let you know that the bitch is still around.” “Thanks, Candice,” Eden said before ending the conversation and turning the radio off with a sigh. “Saboteur is back, huh?” I said. “Yeah. Shit, Glenn is gonna be so pissed. I was meant to have figured out who she was and turfed her off the show weeks ago.” “Not your fault. We all thought she was gone. And think about it—there’s only five women left now. It’ll be easy to figure out who it is, and when we do, I’ll cut her in the next elimination ceremony. So out of the ones left, who hasn’t been affected at all?” Eden nodded slowly and sat down. “Okay, well, Blair and Emily have both been targeted by her, with the horrible hair stuff. And out of the other three, Hayley was one of the girls who got really sick from the laxatives in the food that time. So that leaves Anya and Cailin. Neither of them ate the poisoned hummus that night—maybe coincidence, but also maybe one of them knew not to touch it— and neither of them have been targeted in any other way.” “Who would you suspect more out of those two?” Eden gave me a wry smile. “Anya, obviously. She’s been number one on our list of suspects from the start.” “Why?” I asked, furrowing my brows. “Because she’s…well, I really hate to call another woman a bitch, but my god, she really is a bitch.” “She’s actually not that bad,” I replied, shaking my head. “I spoke to her about it when the show first started. She said she knew she was going to get painted as an alpha bitch, so she decided to play it up for the cameras. She’s an actress trying to get attention, that’s all. She’s actually one of the coolest out of all the contestants; that’s why I haven’t eliminated her yet. Well, that and the fact that Glenn keeps telling me to keep her around. He thinks her bitchy antics bring in good ratings.” Eden arched a brow. “Oh. Wow. I honestly thought she was just a really nasty person. She’s a damn good actress, then. But you know what, we did find hair bleach in her bathroom.” “What? Really?” “Yeah. Candice and I checked her room ages ago when we first suspected her. We found a little bottle of bleach, and we thought she could’ve used that to ruin Blair’s hair. But I spoke to hair and makeup afterwards to check if it was for something necessary, and they ended up telling me that they gave it to her because she had some hair she wanted to lighten on her lower abdomen and upper lip. That bleach was the only vague proof we had that it could be her, and she had a perfectly reasonable explanation for having it, so we couldn’t kick her off the show based on that alone.”

“Yeah, well, that’s probably a good thing, because I really don’t think it’s her. Like I said, she’s actually pretty cool. Cailin, though…I think it could be her.” Eden’s eyes widened. “Really? Why? She’s so sweet. I mean, she does go on and on about her peanut allergy all the time, but aside from that, she’s fine.” “You know what they say. Still waters run deep. She seems sweet and kinda shy, but who knows? It could all just be an act.” “True. But you can’t eliminate her based on that alone, when she could be innocent. I really want to figure out exactly who it is.” I slung an arm around her shoulder and gave her back a comforting rub. “I know. Lucky it’s a rainy day, because that means we have all day to brainstorm ideas of how to catch whoever it is. But first…” I leaned over and planted a kiss on her mouth, and Eden melted into my arms, her lips responding hungrily as she returned my gesture with full force. She was wearing a strawberry-scented lip balm, and her sweet taste almost made me groan as I slid my hands into her hair, weaving them through it as I pulled her closer. I was so deep in the kiss that I only vaguely registered the sound of someone turning a key in the locked trailer door, and I barely even heard the door opening. I did hear the quick footsteps of someone stepping inside, though, and Eden and I pulled away from each other as quick as we could. It was too late, though; we’d already been seen, and Eden was still shirtless from the massage I’d given her earlier. Blair was standing in the doorway, staring at us with her mouth open. “Oh.” That was all she said before turning and walking out. Shit.

Chapter Eighteen Eden “Oh no…” I pulled a hoodie on and zipped it up before dashing out of my trailer as fast as my legs could carry me, and I called out as I hurried along. “Blair! Stop! Just wait…” She turned and stopped, her eyes narrowed, and she folded her arms as I ran to catch up to her. Adrenaline was racing through my system like mad, and my mouth went dry as I realized how stupid I’d been. Of course I was going to get caught sooner or later. What the hell had Troy and I been thinking this morning, holing up in my trailer together in broad daylight? Sure, hardly anyone was around because of the free day, but still, there was always a chance someone might need me and come looking for me, and I’d been so careless that I’d just thrown caution to the wind and ignored the risk. I guess I was lucky that it was Blair who’d caught us, though. Things could be much worse if it was someone else. “Really, Eden?” she said, her voice dripping with scorn as I finally reached her. “You’re seriously sneaking around with Troy?” “Yes,” I said, my cheeks turning red. “Please, Blair, don’t tell anyone.” She shook her head, her eyes still narrowed. “How could you do this? I honestly can’t believe it.” “It’s not that surprising, is it?” I asked, wondering why she was so pissed at me. “I mean, we sorted out all our issues from the past, after the whole letter thing, which—” “Which was my fault, I know,” Blair said, cutting me off and holding up one palm to shush me. “You and Troy getting back together is not why I’m upset. I just thought you were better than this.” “What do you mean?” I asked, frowning. She sighed. “Your job, Eden! Don’t you care about it? If it hadn’t been me who walked in on you just then, you could be getting fired right now!” she said. “Surely I’m not the only person who knows where you keep your spare trailer key.” My face burned with shame as I nodded. She was right. I was risking my job every single day that Troy and I chose to sneak around; risking the job that I’d worked so hard to succeed at. I’d always known this—I just hadn’t really taken it seriously enough to keep my hands off him. Until now. “I know,” I said quietly. “I’m an idiot. It’s just so hard to keep away from each other now that we’re finally together again after all these years.” “Well, why didn’t Troy just quit the show as soon as you two sorted your stuff out? That would’ve made this a lot easier,” Blair replied. “He wanted to, but I said no. He has a contract, just like you, and if he broke that, then not only would he have to pay the network a ton of money, it would also screw everything up for a lot of

people. Everyone working on the show would be benched while a replacement Stud was sorted out, and if they couldn’t find one and reshoot everything in time for when the show needed to start airing on TV, then the season might just be canceled. That’d mean a lot of people out of their jobs, Blair. Not just me.” Blair’s face softened a little. “And I guess it would also mean all the contestants would get sent home empty-handed, including me. No chance to be on TV and promote ourselves, which is the main reason we’re all here, really.” I nodded. “Yeah. It would’ve really screwed things up for everyone here if Troy broke his contract and left the show just for me.” “So you guys were stuck between a rock and a hard place, then.” My shoulders slumped with relief as I realized she finally understood. “Yes, exactly.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, hurt flashing in her eyes. “Are you still mad at me for what I did with the letter?” I shook my head. “No, you know we’ve gotten past that, Blair. I’m sorry, I just thought if no one knew except me and Troy, we’d be less likely to get caught.” “You know I wouldn’t have told anyone.” “I know, but someone might’ve overheard us talking about it, or something like that. I couldn’t risk it.” She nodded. “Fair enough,” she said. “But seriously, Eden, you need to be more careful. Don’t let him in your trailer anymore. And god, I hope none of the cameras have picked anything up. They’re freaking everywhere.” “They haven’t. We only ever…erm…” I trailed off, embarrassed, and Blair arched an eyebrow. “Go on. You may as well give me the juicy details now that I know.” She had a point. “You know how there’s some areas where there’s no CCTV at all?” I said. “Yeah, there’s heaps of dead zones. Like the storage rooms, or the hallway that goes to the main kitchen.” I nodded. “Yes. Well, we’ve sort of taken over the last storage room on the third floor. There’s a lock on the door there, so we sneak in there, and…well, you get the picture.” A ghost of a smile finally crossed Blair’s face at my dirty revelation. “You guys are so naughty. I hope you’re sneaking in there separately, though. If any of the CCTV cameras in the halls caught you both walking around up there together all the time, then that might look a bit suspicious.” “We do go up there separately. Troy goes first, and then I wait fifteen minutes and follow him up there.” “Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out, then,” she replied. I sighed and shook my head. “No, you were totally right earlier. We aren’t being careful enough, and I can’t risk it anymore. I’m going to go back and talk to him now and tell him we need to cool it off until the show is over, as hard as that might be.”

She nodded slowly. “Okay. Good luck. I better get back to the mansion before they start thinking I’ve escaped. “Okay. Oh, wait. Why did you come to my trailer?” I asked. She’d found my hidden spare key and used it, and it’d just occurred to me that that meant she’d assumed I wasn’t in the trailer when she arrived. A guilty look crossed her face, and her cheeks turned slightly pink as she hesitated. “I was kinda hoping you wouldn’t ask. Promise you won’t yell at me?” “I promise.” “Well, you know how none of the contestants are allowed phones or computers?” she said. I nodded; it was part of their contract that they weren’t allowed to communicate with the outside world as long as filming was going on. “I was desperate to check my store website,” she continued. “I know I’m not allowed, but I really wanted to see how it’s going and if being on TV is helping at all. So I was going to sneak onto your laptop for a few minutes. I thought you were out in town with the rest of the crew.” I smiled. “I’ll let you in on a secret. I checked your site this morning. A lot of things say ‘sold out’ now, so I’d say it’s going pretty well.” Blair squealed with excitement. “Oh my god! That’s amazing!” she said, her eyes lighting up. “Let’s just hope I last a bit longer. The more attention I can squeeze out of this show, the better. Hey, maybe Troy will even let me win, seeing as he’s sleeping with my friend.” She winked as she made her little joke, and I simply laughed and nodded. There was no need to tell her that she wouldn’t win the show due to Glenn’s insistence that one of his two favorites—Cailin or Hayley—win instead. It would just needlessly upset her, and she’d never intended on winning, anyway. She’d just wanted to get some free promotion for her online store, and it was obviously working, so everything had worked out well. “Anyway, you go talk to Troy, and I’ll go back to the mansion,” she said, giving me a quick hug. “And if you two really can’t keep your paws off each other, just remember—stay away from all the cameras!” As Blair spoke that last sentence, it felt like a lightbulb had just switched on in my mind, and I quickly said goodbye and dashed back to my trailer. How the hell had I not considered this before? It was so simple, yet it hadn’t occurred to me at all until now, and I mentally kicked myself as I stepped back inside. I knew exactly how to find our saboteur…

Chapter Nineteen Troy Eden returned to her trailer after just a couple of minutes, and I jumped to my feet. “Is everything okay? What did she say?” “It’s fine, Blair isn’t going to tell anyone,” she replied. “But we really do need to be more careful.” I nodded. “Yeah. I should probably head back to the mansion.” Eden held up a hand. “Not yet. I just thought of something, and I think I know how we can finally catch our saboteur.” “Really? That’s great. How?” “You know how this place used to be used for another reality show?” “Vaguely. That weird one where they got those city people to live a cowboy sort of lifestyle for months at a time?” She nodded emphatically. “That’s the one. Well, that was a kind of ‘Big Brother’ type of show, so there were way more cameras hooked up around the place. As in CCTV stuff.” “Yeah, but they would’ve taken it all down when the show ended, right? Or at least turned them off.” “A lot of them were taken down, yeah, because we don’t need as much CCTV footage for The Stud. But there are still a few around that were built into light fixtures, so they aren’t all that obvious, and they were never taken down. And most of them are in the dead zones where none of the Stud cameras are.” I nodded slowly, finally comprehending what she was saying. “So the saboteur might be doing dodgy stuff in the dead zones, thinking she’s safe because she’s been told there’s no cameras around… but there are some still there.” “Exactly. So if those old cameras are still recording and the footage is still being transmitted and stored somewhere, we might be able to find something helpful. It’s a long shot, but I’m going to find out.” “How?” “That old show was on the same network that our show is. I should be able to use that as a starting place.” Eden grabbed her cell phone and dialed a number, and someone answered a moment later. “Hi, this is Eden Zamora. I’m a junior producer on The Stud. I was just wondering if I could talk to someone in the network IT department for a minute? Sure, I’ll hold.” She was transferred to the correct department a few seconds later, and she explained the situation to the person on the other end of the line. “So I was just wondering if any of those old cameras are

still transmitting videos and being stored somewhere. And if so, can I access them?” she finished. She nodded and said ‘uh huh’ a few times at what was being said to her for the next minute or so, and then she typed something into a notes program on her laptop. “Thanks. This is really helpful,” she said once she’d finished typing. “Yeah, you have a good day too. Bye!” “What did they say?” I asked once she was off the phone. She grinned up at me. “We’re in luck. Some of those cameras are defunct, but some others still work, and any video they transmit goes to an online archive hosted by the network. All I have to do is log in to the network video archives with these credentials the IT guy just gave me, and I should be able to look at the footage from the last couple of months. Hopefully something useful comes up.” “Want some help? Or should I get out of your hair?” “You can help if you want. We can go to the main media room in the mansion, and if anyone asks why you’re in there with me, you can just say you got bored and came to ask me questions about the show. I am a producer, after all.” “I guess being seen together in the media room is far less suspicious than being seen together in your trailer,” I said with a grin. “All right, you go first, and I’ll sneak out of here and meet you in there in about ten minutes?” “You got it.” Two hours later, we were in the media room together, watching several days’ worth of footage on a very fast speed so it wouldn’t take forever. So far, we hadn’t spotted anything out of the ordinary, but we were both hoping something would come eventually. A few people had been in and out of the media room since we’d arrived, but no one had questioned us hanging out here together— it looked like Eden was catching up on work, and I was simply hanging out and asking questions. I knew Eden was feeling guilty and anxious over our secret relationship, and I couldn’t wait for this damn show to be over so I could show the world my true feelings about her. It sucked that we had to hide it for now, but I’d be damned if I let myself be the reason she lost her job. She’d worked so hard to get it, and I knew that she saw it as a good stepping stone kind of job in order to further her career path; she might not want to work on The Stud forever, but the experience would prove valuable and look great on her résumé. I wasn’t going to be the asshole who took that all away from her, so all I could do was wait. “I have an idea,” I said. “What was the date when we had that big dinner party? After I eliminated the first eight women.” “You mean when the hummus was poisoned with laxatives and emetics?” “Yeah.” “Um…let me think,” she replied, chewing on her lip as she considered the question. “Must’ve been the sixth of March. Why?” “One of the dead zones where there’s no Stud CCTV cameras is the hallway leading to the main kitchen, right?” Comprehension dawned on Eden’s face. “Oh! Yes, and we have footage of that hallway now, because some of the old show’s cameras are there. So we can go back to that night and see if there was anyone sneaking around the kitchen.”

I nodded. “Exactly.” Eden scrolled back in the archives to the right day, and then she fast-forwarded the video to around five o’clock in the evening, when the chefs would’ve started preparing everything. “Nothing yet,” she murmured as the time-stamp on the screen grew closer to seven o’clock. So far, the only people seen going in and out of the kitchen that night were staff members who had every reason to be there. “That dinner wasn’t till pretty late. Give it time,” I replied. “Hey, wait….look!” A new person had just arrived on the screen. Cailin. She was talking to one of the chefs in the hallway, and then the two of them walked into the kitchen together. “Ha! I knew it,” I said. “What’d I tell you….still waters run deep.” Eden sighed. “This doesn’t prove anything. Cailin is always going to the chefs and complaining to them about her peanut allergy. I bet she was just talking to him about that and then went into the kitchen with him so he could show her that the food was fine. I’ll ask.” She paused the video feed and spoke to the kitchen staff on her two-way radio for a moment, and one of the chefs soon confirmed that he had spoken to Cailin that night. He’d let her into the kitchen so she could check out the food (and so he could prove it was all peanut-free for her), and he’d had his eyes on her the entire time. There was no way she would’ve been able to sneak anything into the hummus. “Damn. So it might not be her. We’re back to square one,” I said, my shoulders slumping. Eden shook her head. “Not necessarily. We should still finish watching the video feed for that night. Like you said, it was a late dinner.” She un-paused the kitchen hallway footage, and when the time-stamp read approximately 7:45 P.M., we saw someone else entering the hallway and stepping into the kitchen. “Oh, shit,” I said, my eyebrows practically shooting to the ceiling. “Is that…” Eden nodded. “Yep,” she said, her face drawn into a grim expression. “It’s Blair.”

Chapter Twenty Eden I stared at Troy for a moment, my eyes wide. “No,” I finally managed to get out. “This has to be wrong.” Surely my eyes were deceiving me; there was no way that Blair could be the saboteur. We’d had our problems in the past with my discovery of her lie about Troy’s letter, but that didn’t mean she was completely crazy or vindictive, and we’d moved on from that issue. Or at least I thought we had. Not only that, she’d been the target of the saboteur’s spitefulness in the past. She’d had her hair products tampered with, and her hair had almost been ruined with bleach. She wouldn’t do that to herself…would she? “It’s right there on the screen. Technology doesn’t lie,” Troy said. “She was in the kitchen for about three minutes that evening.” “This doesn’t make sense,” I said, shaking my head. “She was targeted! Why would she target herself?” Troy raised an eyebrow. “Maybe she did it to make herself look innocent. After all, we haven’t suspected her at all this whole time, because we saw her as being one of the victims. Also, think about it. Having her hair bleached in chunks wasn’t that bad. Sure, she was upset, but it was a very easy fix, right? All we had to do was get the hair and makeup crew to dye it back to brown and put some conditioning crap in it, and it was all fine.” My shoulders slumped, and I shook my head again. “Why would she do this? She doesn’t want to win the show, at least not badly enough to do something like sabotage other people in such awful ways.” “Well, maybe she’s innocent. I guess there could be another reason for her being in the kitchen that night.” “She’s always been very concerned with her diet; always trying to stay as skinny as possible. I suppose there’s a chance she went in there to speak to the chefs about how healthy and low-calorie the food was,” I said. “Ask them.” I contacted the kitchen crew via walkie-talkie again, and a few minutes later, I had my answer. No one remembered seeing or speaking to Blair in the kitchen that night at all. Troy leaned back and put his hands behind his head as he stretched out. “Well, there you go. If no one saw her or spoke to her, then she must’ve been sneaking around in there. And why else would she do that?” I shook my head. I still couldn’t believe it was Blair. “What if she went in there looking for someone to ask about the food, and she simply couldn’t find anyone? She wasn’t in there for long.”

Troy reached over and stroked my hand. “Eden, I know she’s your friend, and you want to defend her, but I think we’re out of excuses. It’s her. It has to be.” “You don’t know that!” I said hotly. “That video doesn’t really prove anything other than that she went into the kitchen that night. So did Cailin.” “Yes, and we’ve already proved that Cailin couldn’t have done it,” Troy said gently. He paused for a moment before continuing. “Eden, how well do you really know Blair these days? I know you two were close in high school, but that was a long time ago. How often do you even see her?” “I guess we try to catch up every few months. It’s hard when we live in different cities.” “So you only see her a few times a year, then,” he said. I nodded, and he went on. “Look, I know it’s hard to think about, but maybe you don’t know her as well as you thought you did, at least not anymore. Look how long she hid the whole letter thing from you.” “That was different. She had a reason for that, and she was really remorseful for doing it.” “Or so she says,” he replied. “Whose idea was it for her to be on the show, anyway?” “Mine,” I replied indignantly. “I thought it would be good for her.” “Are you sure it was really your idea, though? Think about it carefully.” I hesitated. “Well…whenever we spoke about work in the past, she did talk a lot about how her business was failing and how she would love it if she had a chance to promote herself like the Stud contestants get to. But it was definitely my idea to recruit her as a contestant. She never asked.” “Sounds like she planted the seed for the idea in your head. Common manipulation tactic. I mean, who knows, Eden? Maybe everything she says or does is just a manipulative game.” I sighed and sat down, my whole body slumping. He was right. I just didn’t want to admit that my friend could’ve been behind all these awful sabotage attempts this entire time, and I didn’t want to admit that I could’ve been so blind as to not notice the sort of person she could’ve turned into over the years. “You’re right,” I said softly. “Sorry.” “Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault. You’re a good person, Eden, and you want to believe that other people are mostly good, especially those you’re close to. It’s much easier to think that the saboteur is someone you barely know, because then it’s easier to comprehend how they could be capable of such horrible things.” I sighed and nodded. “I’ll call Candice and tell her what we’ve found. I’d tell Glenn, but he went into town with the rest of the crew.” Candice arrived a few minutes later, and she watched the footage with narrowed eyes. She didn’t question why Troy was here with me; she probably assumed that he happened to be in the media room by coincidence. When the video was over, she turned to look at me. “Sorry, but this doesn’t really prove anything. It looks bad, and you’re probably right, but we can’t boot her off the show for that alone. It’s not hard evidence.” God, I was sick of hearing that. “Troy could cut her in the next elimination, right?” I said.

Candice looked at Troy and nodded. “Sure, he can cut whoever he wants. But the next elimination ceremony isn’t for ten days. If we want her gone before then, then we need solid proof for the show lawyers, like actually catching her red-handed.” “Wait...I’ve got an idea,” I said as a plan slowly formed in my mind. “We’ll need to go into town to buy some very specific stuff for tomorrow night’s date filming, though.” Candice winked. “Well, it’s lucky that we’ve still got the rest of the day off then, isn’t it?” *** “Tonight has been so wonderful, Blair. I’ve had a really great time, and honestly, I think I can see you going all the way to the end with me.” Troy looked into Blair’s eyes as he spoke, and Glenn silently commanded the film crew to zoom in and capture the moment. Blair had been scheduled to have a one-on-one date with Troy this evening as part of this week’s episode, and we’d taken the chance to enact my plan. “I’ve had a great time, too,” Blair replied, steadying herself on the rocking canoe they were sitting in. They weren’t actually out in the lake at all—the canoe was positioned on a machine that sat in a small pool and simulated the gentle rocking it would experience out on the water, so that the crew could get up close and personal during the ‘date’ without any risk of water damage to any equipment. Troy smiled and took Blair’s hand. “I actually have a little surprise for you. It’s just a small gesture, but I thought it was cute, and I thought of you when I saw it.” “Oh?” He reached into a gift bag that he’d left on the cramped floor of the canoe, and he smiled beatifically as he pulled out a teddy bear. “When I was a kid, I used to have a bear that looked just like this one. I always felt like he was watching over me and protecting me whenever my life got hard,” he said. “I know you had a difficult childhood,” Blair cut in, nodding emphatically. “Yeah. It was rough. Anyway, you’ve been having a hard time with finding love these last few years, among other issues, so I thought I’d give you your own bear. He can sit on your nightstand and watch over you. It’s totally lame, I know. I just thought it would be nice,” Troy said, giving her his best attempt at an embarrassed grin. God, he was good. “It’s adorable!” Blair cooed. “I love it. I’ll put him beside my bed as soon as we get back!” “Cut!” Glenn called out. “We need to fix Blair’s makeup a bit. She’s looking too shiny. But that’s fantastic work so far, everyone. Really nice touch bringing up your shitty childhood in such a cute way, Troy. Really tugs on the heartstrings; our viewers will eat it up. Whose idea was it?” “Eden’s,” Candice said. “She thought it would work well.” She winked at me, and I smiled at her. So far, things had gone perfectly to plan. Blair had

accepted the gift and gushed all over it like we thought she would, now that Troy had told her she might go all the way to the end of the show, and she obviously didn’t suspect anything about the gift itself at all. Of course, the bear wasn’t just any old bear. It was a nanny cam bear that Candice and I had managed to find in a small electronics store in town, and anything it filmed would be transmitted wirelessly to my laptop. We’d have a perfect view of Blair’s bedroom and everything she did it in when she thought she was alone, and we were bound to spot something incriminating if she was truly our saboteur. Hopefully sooner rather than later. “Good job, Eden,” Glenn said before turning his attention back to the fake boat. “Oh, for the love of god…the canoe is going to tip right over on that thing. Get out, both of you!” Troy climbed out of the canoe along with Blair, and he made an ‘OK’ sign with his thumb and forefinger as he looked at me with a questioning expression in his eyes. I nodded and mouthed ‘you did great’ before turning my attention towards Candice, who was nudging me. “That went well,” she said. “But I know she’s your friend, so I hope it’s not her.” I swallowed hard, part of me hoping for the same thing. Maybe this was all a big misunderstanding, and Blair was completely innocent. All I could really do was wait and see.

Chapter Twenty-One Eden Three days had passed since Troy gave the nanny cam bear to Blair, and I was starting to think that we’d been wrong about her. I’d watched the footage from each day on high speed every evening, and so far I hadn’t seen her doing anything out of the ordinary. I’d even started to feel bad for spying on her, because for all we knew, our original suspect—Anya—was the real saboteur. After all, Emily had permanently left the show in a huff yesterday after her hair extensions had failed to mask her new bald spots properly, and Anya had simply snickered and said ‘bye!’ in a sing-song tone, before giving us a nice little interview about how she was glad that Emily had quit, leaving only four contestants still in the running. Troy really seemed to believe Anya was just playing up the mean-girl attitude for the cameras to boost her acting career, but I wasn’t sure. Honestly, I didn’t know what to think. Who was it more likely to be at this point—her or Blair? Or was it someone else entirely? Until now, I hadn’t considered this, but what if our saboteur was actually an angry crew member? That opened up the issue to a whole other realm of possibilities, and I felt like I was drowning in a sea of confusion as I considered it all. I got an answer to all my questions sooner than I thought I would, though. It was about seven o’clock P.M., and I had a rare night off while a small dinner party scene between Troy and the remaining contestants was filmed. I was in my trailer, eating a microwave meal and listlessly watching the empty footage from Blair’s bedroom, but I perked right up when something caught my attention on the screen. The time-stamp was from earlier in the day, and it showed Blair doing something strange on her dressing table; it looked like she was chopping something up with a knife. I squinted at the screen and zoomed in on her as much as I could, wondering what on earth she was up to, and then my blood ran cold. Right next to her was a bag, and I recognized the label because it was the same brand my parents used to eat on family movie nights. It was a bag of unsalted peanuts. Oh, shit. Blair really was the saboteur, and she was crushing up peanuts, most likely to slip them into Cailin’s food. Cailin was severely allergic, and something like this wouldn’t just hurt her. It could kill her. My whole body went numb with pure shock at my discovery, and the next few minutes flew by in a haze of fear and adrenaline. I quickly saved the video to a thumb drive and then left my trailer before dashing towards the mansion, where I knew the contestants would be starting the dinner party soon, and I burst into the main dining room five minutes later. “Wait,” I gasped out.

Glenn turned to me and held his hand up. “Shh!” he said. “We’ve just started filming. I thought this was one of your scheduled nights off.” I turned and looked at the table. Shit. I was too late; they were already at least halfway through dinner. Cailin had just finished polishing off a small bowl of what looked like chicken curry, and she smiled as she finished chewing her last bite. “That tasted amazing,” she said, patting her stomach. “I love Indian food. It reminds me of the time I went to…” She suddenly coughed and squinted her eyes, and then she brought a hand to her chest. “Call an ambulance,” I said, whirling around to Glenn. “I think there’s peanuts in that curry she’s been eating, and she’s allergic.” Cailin nodded, her eyes watering now. “Yes,” she gasped out. “I’m having…I can’t breathe properly. Get my Epi-Pen!” “Where is it?” Candice asked, racing towards her. “My purse. Right…there. Floor,” Cailin managed to choke out as she gasped for air. Troy was sitting at the head of the table, and he got up so fast that he knocked his chair right over before racing over to Cailin, concern etched into his face. “Just try to breathe,” he said, gently patting her on the shoulder. “It’s gonna be fine, I promise. Candice is getting your medication.” Glenn dialed 911 as Candice went through Cailin’s purse in search of the Epi-Pen, and he barked orders at the operator to send an ambulance as soon as possible. Cailin’s neck, chest and arms were starting to break out in angry red hives, and I watched helplessly as Candice continued her search. “Where is it?” I asked. “What’s taking so long?” Candice finally tipped the entire contents of the purse on the floor, and then she stood up, her eyes wide. “It’s not here,” she said. “The Epi-Pen…it’s gone!”

Chapter Twenty-Two Eden The next few minutes sped by in a flurry of panicked activity. Glenn shouted at one of the crew members to go to the first aid room on the ground floor and grab one of the spare adrenaline shots that were thankfully kept on site in case of emergency, and Troy continued in his attempt to keep Cailin calm as she gasped for breath. Even though her life was in serious danger, his words seemed to soothe her, and she nodded as he told her that help would be arriving any second now. I was so proud of him for being such a wonderful, calm person. He really had changed from the boy he used to be, back in the day when he was a douchey heartbreaker who didn’t care about anything but getting laid and starting fights. He wasn’t that boy anymore. He was a real man now. I kept my USB stick gripped tightly in my right hand, and I began to cross the room towards Blair, ready to give her a piece of my mind before outing her to everyone. “Eden! Can you help?” I turned at the sound of my name to see Candice holding the adrenaline shot that’d just been brought in from the first aid room. “I have no idea how to do this,” she said. “You took an advanced first aid course once, right?” I nodded and dashed over to them before grabbing the little syringe and holding it above the muscle on Cailin’s left thigh. “This will only sting for a second,” I said before jabbing it into her flesh. She winced with pain, but the shot had its intended effect within a minute, and she began to take big gasping breaths. “Oh, thank god,” Candice muttered as she watched. “Thank god.” Two EMTs dashed into the room about ten minutes later, and Candice helped Cailin into the back of the ambulance after they’d checked her vital signs. They said she was going to be fine, but she needed to be taken to a hospital to monitor her condition for a while just in case. Glenn came running over as they got inside the ambulance with the EMTs, and he gestured to Troy. “Troy, you go with them as well. And you,” he said, pointing at a few filming crew members now. “Take a car and follow them with one of the handheld cameras. I want some footage of Troy holding Cailin’s hand in her hospital room.” I rolled my eyes, unable to believe that he’d turn a serious emergency into a plot device for the show. Actually, wait…I could believe it. He was totally and utterly shameless. Troy climbed into the ambulance with the others, and when they’d taken off, I turned and marched over to Blair, finally ready to let her know that I was on to her. She was standing at the far end of the room, silently watching everything unfold around her, and when she saw me coming, she hurried towards me, her eyes wide. “Oh my god, Eden, I can’t believe this happened!” she said.

I gritted my teeth. “I can’t believe it either. I really, really can’t.” “Those chefs should be fired. They knew about her allergies!” “I don’t think it was the chefs,” I said. “I think someone spiked the food with peanuts tonight.” She widened her eyes. “Who would do such a thing? That’s crazy.” “Yes, yes it is,” I said with a nod. “Luckily, I have proof of the crazy culprit right here on this USB.” I held up the USB stick, and I saw a brief flicker of surprise and fear flash in Blair’s eyes. She regained her composure immediately, though, and she raised her brows. “Really? What proof?” she said, choosing to call my bluff. “We can quit playing this silly little game, Blair. I know it’s been you this whole time, trying to sabotage everyone else to either upset or hurt them badly enough so that they’d leave the show. All so you’d have more of a chance to win,” I said. “And I guess it’s working. Emily left yesterday, as you know, and I bet Cailin will too after this.” “What? You think it’s me?” she replied, casting a horrified look at me. “How could you think that?” “Because I have a video of you crushing peanuts in your room, right here on this USB,” I hissed. “The same peanuts I assume you slipped into the curry tonight after sneaking into the kitchen, much like you did a couple of months ago with those laxatives.” Blair scoffed. “You don’t have a video of me. There’s no cameras in the bedrooms,” she said. “Did you hit your head or something? Maybe you should’ve gone to the hospital too. There’s clearly something wrong with you.” My hands curled into little fists by my side. “Don’t try and turn this around on me to make me sound crazy. That teddy bear I had Troy give you was a nanny cam bear. So yes, I do have video evidence of you,” I replied. “But before I turn you in, I want to know how you could do this. And why. I just don’t understand.” Blair finally dropped all pretenses of innocence and rolled her eyes. “Oh, of course you wouldn’t understand. You’re absolutely fucking clueless about needing to do anything to get ahead. You’ve always had everything handed to you!” “What on earth are you talking about?” I said. She leaned forward and jabbed me in the chest. “You had a perfect family, perfect childhood, always got perfect grades all through school and college, got chased by great guys like Troy, and then you got this awesome TV job given to you straight after graduation. Meanwhile all I’ve ever had is shitty luck and assholes hitting on me while I’ve had to slave away at dead-end jobs for the last few years. I’ve never had a chance to win at life like you have, until now. This was my chance. Of course I’d do anything to keep it!” “Are you serious?” I said. “That’s all such crap! I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am! Do you have any idea how many unpaid internships I had to do to score this job?” “I’ve worked my ass off too, and look what I have to show for it,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “So you decided to get ahead by sabotaging everyone on the show and nearly killing someone so

you could win and get some attention?” I asked, barely able to process the crazy mental hoops she had to have been jumping through to decide on her recent path of action. “Did you really think that would be the magical cure to all of your issues?” She sneered at me, and I took a step back as a sudden realization dawned on me. “Oh my god. The letter you hid from me all those years ago…that was the same kinda thing, wasn’t it? You didn’t care about me like you told me in that big sob story the other month, when I found out you’d hidden it. You just couldn’t stand seeing me happy with Troy, and you couldn’t stand seeing me making new friends apart from you. You wanted me to stay miserable forever, just so you could feel good about yourself and keep me on your level. Even back then, you were just as jealous and spiteful as you are now.” “Doesn’t seem to have stopped you from picking up where you left off with him now that you’re both here,” she said, a smug smile crossing her face now. “I bet your boss would love to know what you’ve been doing. Ooh, and he’s standing right over there. Why don’t I call him over?” I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t try to blackmail me, Blair. I’m showing this footage to everyone, whether you tell anyone about me and Troy or not. I don’t care if I lose my job. It’s better than letting you get away with this crap.” Blair suddenly lunged forward and grabbed the USB stick out of my hand, and she threw it to the ground and stomped on it with her black and silver stilettos, crushing it to smithereens. “Good luck showing anyone that footage now,” she said with a smirk. I sighed at how utterly stupid and deluded she was being. “I’ve got another copy on my computer. I can just—” Before I could finish my sentence, she cut me off. “Don’t bother. Before you even have a chance to get to your computer, I’ll have already pinned the blame on you. You must think I’m stupid if you didn’t think I’d set someone up just in case something like this happened, and you just happened to be the perfect target, seeing as you’re always letting me into your trailer and all, not to mention leaving your spare key out in the same spot every day.” “Go on, then. You won’t get away with it,” I said. “Watch me,” she replied, taking a step closer so that I was almost pinned against the wall. I could scarcely believe this was happening; it all felt so surreal, like a bad late-night thriller movie. How could I have never seen Blair’s true colors? I knew we’d grown apart a bit since we moved apart, but I’d still always thought we were friends, and I’d never had any idea that she was so resentful of me. Why had she even bothered speaking to me and catching up with me every so often if she disliked me so much? Why fake an entire friendship? Even as I wondered why, I already knew the answer. Blair had never been all that good at making friends, especially long-term ones, and I was one of the only people who’d stuck around. She’d probably kept me as a ‘friend’ in order to have someone to bitch and moan to about how much her life sucked—which was exactly what she’d been doing over the last few years—and also kept me around in case I proved to be ‘useful’ to her in some way. Like the opportunity I’d scored for her on The Stud, for instance. I guess we’d never been real friends, at least not in the way I’d considered us to be, and all the help and support I’d tried to offer her over the years had been a colossal waste of time. Even the forgiveness I’d extended to her after finding out about the letter incident had been a waste.

I just wished I hadn’t been so damn blind. Before I could say anything else, Blair turned her head and raised her voice. “Oh my god, it’s her! She’s the one who’s been messing with everything, and she put peanuts in the food tonight!” Everyone who was still in the room turned their heads in shock, and Blair pointed her index finger at me and kept going. “She’s secretly in love with Troy! She dated him back in high school, which she asked me not to tell anyone here, and she’s been trying to get him back by sabotaging everyone on the show so she can try to have him all to herself. I suspected something before now, but I never actually thought it could be her, because we’re friends. But I saw a bag of peanuts in her trailer earlier, and she just threatened me when I asked her about it! She’s crazy!” Glenn’s face was aghast now, as was everyone else’s in the room, and Blair managed to conjure up some crocodile tears as she shrank back from me. “I really can’t believe it,” she said, in her most convincing fearful voice. “You….this whole time…I thought we were friends!” Holy crap, she was a good actress. No wonder she’d fooled me for so long. “Wait, come on, it’s not true,” I said, rolling my eyes and holding my hands up as everyone cast glances at me which ranged from suspicious to horrified. “This is ridiculous. It’s not me, it’s—” “Come to think of it, you did seem to know Cailin was having an allergic reaction before anyone else. Even before she did, in fact. How could you have known that unless you knew there were peanuts in the food?” Glenn asked sharply, cutting me off midsentence. “I…” “And wait…did you really date Troy back in high school?” he added, not even giving me a chance to answer his first question. I felt my cheeks color a little. “Well, yes, but that’s got nothing to do with—” He cut me off again by barking an order at some interns to go and search my trailer for any incriminating evidence. “Are you freaking serious?” I shouted, my eyes wide with incredulity. “You really think I would do this? For god’s sake, listen to me! It’s her, not me! And turn those damn cameras off! This doesn’t need to be filmed!” “Just stay where you are, Eden. Try to calm down,” Glenn said, slowly approaching me. He was using a slow, soothing tone of voice now; the sort of tone people usually reserved for grumpy young children and mentally unstable people. “We can talk about this, okay?” Great, he was treating me like I was actually insane. He probably thought that I was about to throw some sort of psychotic fit now that I’d been ‘caught’, and that’s why he was talking to me like this and trying to get me to stay calm. God, Troy, please get back here quickly, I silently prayed. Aside from Candice, who was at the hospital with him, he was the only other person who knew the truth, and I needed him here to corroborate my story. “Look,” I said, gritting my teeth. “It’s not me. I have proof. Look on my computer. There’s a video.” Before anyone could reply, one of the interns raced back into the room, his eyes wide. “We found this in her bathroom,” he said, holding up an Epi-Pen and looking at me. “It has

Cailin’s name on it. There was also a bag of peanuts in a cupboard.” “Oh, for god’s sake, I didn’t put that Epi-Pen there, or the peanuts,” I said as everyone turned to glare at me again. “Can you not see what’s happening here? Blair obviously planted them in my trailer! Just check my computer!” Glenn finally relented and told the intern to run back and get my laptop, and the next few minutes practically crawled by at a snail’s pace. Blair was now sobbing in the arms of Hayley and Anya, sniffling and moaning about how she ‘couldn’t believe her best friend could be so awful’. I had no idea why she was still putting up this pretense, because as soon as my laptop was here, I’d be able to find the incriminating footage and show everyone. I guess she really was crazy, and she was going to keep up with her story until the bitter end. The intern finally returned, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized I was only seconds from being vindicated. “Got it!” he said, holding up my laptop in one hand. “It was…oh, shit.” The laptop slipped out of his hand as he dashed over to Glenn, and my heart plummeted as it went crashing to the floor. Shit, shit, shit. That computer was the only thing that had the evidence on it now that the USB stick had been smashed under Blair’s shoe just moments ago… and now it was smashed into several pieces as well. Even if Troy and Candice returned from the hospital and backed up my story right now, we had no hard evidence against Blair anymore, and it would be our word against hers. On top of that, all of the evidence that everyone else had—like the Epi-Pen and peanuts in my trailer, the fact that I’d dated Troy years ago, and the fact that I’d known Cailin was having an allergic reaction before anyone else —currently pointed to me as the prime suspect, whether or not Candice and Troy were here to back me up. I was well and truly screwed.

Chapter Twenty-Three Troy By the time we arrived at the hospital, Cailin had gone to sleep on the gurney in the ambulance. “Probably from all the shock,” Candice muttered. “Don’t worry about getting a shot of you in her hospital room. We’ll come back and do it tomorrow when she’s actually awake again. Fucking Glenn and his bullshit…” We checked Cailin in with the help of the EMTs, and Candice filled out the appropriate paperwork. Once we were done, we met up with the small team of film crew guys that Glenn had sent after us, and we headed back to the ranch with them. “I can’t believe after all this time, the chefs managed to screw up like that,” one of the film crew guys said from the front of the car. “No shit,” Candice replied. “But at least she’s gonna be okay.” As they chatted, I thought back to the awful events of the last hour or so. Something had been bothering me; playing on the back of my mind, and I finally realized what it was. The peanuts in the curry hadn’t been an accident at all. Why else would Eden have burst in like she did? She must’ve seen Blair doing something on the footage earlier, and she’d come to warn us about the food. I’d been so caught up in all the panic earlier that none of this had occurred to me before now, and I couldn’t wait to get back and see what was going on. Hopefully, Eden had told everyone what Blair had done, and the situation was finally under control. I soon found out that quite the opposite was true. We pulled up outside the mansion at the ranch ten minutes later, and we saw a Marin County cop car sitting outside. I initially assumed they’d come to arrest Blair for her attempt at harming Cailin, but when we stepped inside, we realized an entirely different scenario had played out. “Oh my god, you guys!” a petite blonde intern with a snub nose said as she approached us on our way in. “You won’t believe what happened in there.” She jerked a thumb towards the main dining room and went on. “That junior producer Eden basically tried to kill Cailin. Turns out she put peanuts in the food and stole her Epi-Pen. They found it in her trailer.” “What?” Candice said, her eyebrows shooting up. “No way. Eden wouldn’t do that.” The intern nodded vehemently. “She did! Crazy, right? Apparently she’s in love with Troy or something,” she said before turning to me. “She’s been the one sabotaging all the girls from the start. I guess she wanted you all to herself, huh?” She winked at me, and I frowned and strode into the dining room without bothering to reply. Blair was in tears on one side of the room, being comforted by Hayley, and Eden was being held by one of the police officers attending the scene. “I’m telling you, this is all a mistake!” she was saying. “You can’t arrest me!”

“Hey! What the hell is going on?” I asked in an acid tone, my hands balling into fists by my side as I stepped close to them. Glenn hurried over to me and started to explain his version of events, and I held up my hand. “No! I know what you think happened, but it’s total bullshit! Blair is fucking insane! There’s video evidence.” One of the officers looked at me. “Mr. Ballard, please step back. There’s no video evidence. Ms. Zamora claimed there was, but…well…it’s all conveniently gone now.” She gestured towards the floor, and I followed her line of sight to see Eden’s laptop, smashed into pieces. Great. “Convenient for Blair, yeah. What about the CCTV stuff in the network archives?” I asked. “It shows Blair going into the kitchen on the night of the laxative incident. If she did that, then you have to admit there’s a chance she did this too.” “Ms. Zamora said the same thing when we first got here, and we’ve just watched that video to check her story,” the other officer said. “It doesn’t prove anything. All it shows is Ms. Gilbert going into the kitchen that night.” “I was just looking for someone to ask about the carb content of the food that night!” Blair called out, wiping a stray tear from her face. I gave her a filthy look, and she burst into a new stream of faux tears. “Yes, and on the other hand, we have the stolen Epi-Pen and a bag of peanuts in Ms. Zamora’s trailer, not to mention the fact that she knew you and apparently dated you many years ago in high school, Mr. Ballard,” the officer continued. “It seems she never got over that and subsequently developed a bit of an obsession with you.” I narrowed my eyes and shook my head. “This is ridiculous,” I said. “Sure, Eden and I dated, but that was a high school romance. It was years ago. She’s been nothing but a consummate professional towards me since the show started.” I saw Eden exhale slightly with relief as I spoke. She must’ve been worried that I was going to try and save her by admitting to our current relationship, but I wasn’t going to risk that—I didn’t see how it would even help all that much, and there had to be another way of solving this problem without getting her fired for sleeping with me. Candice put her hand on my shoulder. “Troy, let it go. Eden fooled me too, but I guess it all adds up,” she murmured. “I can hardly believe it.” I couldn’t believe it either. Blair had spun an absurd web of lies that everyone actually seemed to believe, and even Candice was falling for her bullshit. I couldn’t stand this; couldn’t stand seeing Eden looking so sad that no one believed her. All I wanted to do was whisk her far, far away from this shitty situation and make her happy again. There was nothing better than seeing her smile— whenever she beamed with happiness, she brought so much light into the surrounding area that she could probably bring the sun out from behind a cloud, and there was truly nothing I loved more. Wait…a cloud…. I suddenly had the flash of inspiration I needed, and I knew exactly how to help Eden. Under the stress of the situation, she had likely panicked and forgotten about it, just like me. “Hold on,” I said, holding my hands up. “I know how to sort this out. I was in the media room the other day, when it was raining, and Eden was in there with her laptop.”

“That’s true,” Candice interjected with a nod. “I was in there with them for a while.” Glenn waved his hand. “All right, go on, Troy. What’s your point?” I nodded. “Well, we got chatting about computers, and at one point she mentioned that her laptop automatically backs up every bit of her data to the iCloud. So even though her computer is broken, she can still log in and access her data online from any other functional device. Right?” Eden’s face suddenly brightened. “Oh, yes, that’s right! Let me get online and show you the video. Please!” The officer holding Eden took a step back as Candice stepped towards them and handed over her smart-phone. “Here. Log in,” she said, a suspicious look still clouding her features. As Eden typed her credentials into the phone, Blair’s demeanor changed from fearful and teary to purely psychotic. “No!” she screamed. “Don’t! I have to stay! I want to win!” She made a mad dash towards Eden, trying to knock the phone out of her hand. The other officer quickly grabbed her, and she flailed in his arms and continued to scream as he restrained her. “Well, I guess that proves who the guilty party is,” Candice said, giving Blair a disdainful look before turning back to Eden. “I’m sorry, Eden. It looked pretty bad for you for a minute there.” Eden gave her a shaky smile. “I get it. No hard feelings.” She located the video on her online cloud storage account, and she showed it to Candice, just to prove her innocence beyond a shadow of doubt. One of the officers watched it with interest as well, and he nodded to his colleague. “Cuff her. We’re taking her in,” he said, gesturing to Blair before turning back to Eden. “Ma’am, you’re going to have to allow us access to this video. We’ll also need a statement from you at some point soon. And I apologize for restraining you while we tried to get the full story. We were just doing our job.” Eden nodded. “I understand.” Blair continued to scream and cry hysterically as the officers slapped handcuffs on her, read her rights to her and led her out of the room a few minutes later, and Glenn looked at the remaining film crew, who were apparently still capturing every second of the madness. He waved his hand at them. “Show’s over, boys! Turn those cameras off,” he said. Then he looked at Eden, his eyes flashing and his voice surprisingly frosty, given that he’d been in the wrong when it came to accusing her. “Eden, I’m sorry we believed her over you. We have some other things to discuss, though, and I’d rather not say it here, so you’re going to have to come and talk with me in my office. Clean yourself up first. Your mascara is running and you look like a damn panda.” With that, he turned and marched out of the room. “Ooh, she’s totally gonna get fired,” a nearby lighting technician with zero filter whispered, loud enough for us to hear. Candice shushed him, and I threw him a dirty look before turning back to Eden. Her eyes were wide, and her hands were shaking. I knew exactly what she was thinking. She was the one who’d recruited Blair as a contestant for the show, and now Glenn might hold her responsible for all the craziness which had just occurred. Like the tactless lighting crew guy had just said, there was a serious chance that she could lose her job over this, and I quietly murmured at her and handed her a tissue to wipe her tearstained face. “It’s going to be okay,” I said. “Try to stay calm.”

“I can’t. I’m pretty sure Glenn’s going to fire me,” she whispered in response. “No matter what happens, I’ll support you,” I replied as Candice finally stepped out of earshot to admonish the lighting crew. “You know that, right?” She nodded. “Yes. I know. But still…” I took a step closer. “Look, I know it’s a terrible moment for me to say this for the first time, but I want you to know something. I love you, Eden.” Her face lit up, and I grinned back at her, glad to see that beautiful smile of hers again. “I think that’s exactly what I needed to hear right now,” she replied. “I love you too, Troy. Now wish me luck…”

Chapter Twenty-Four Eden Have you ever felt two completely different conflicting emotions at the same time? I was experiencing that right now, and it felt completely crazy. On the one hand, I was over the moon with joy—Troy had just told me he loved me for the first time, and the thought sent constant thrilling tingles up my spine. On the other hand, I was terrified. Was I about to lose my job? Probably. Sure, Glenn knew I was innocent of all the crap Blair had accused me of earlier, but I was the one who’d recruited her as a contestant for the show. He’d been gunning for the saboteur to be booted from the show for weeks now, and surely he would recognize the part I’d played in the debacle. Obviously I hadn’t known it was Blair at all, but I’d been friends with her for years. He’d either think I was a total idiot for not knowing, or that I’d somehow been complicit in her antics. Either of those things could see me lose my job tonight. I stepped into Glenn’s office and shut the door behind me with shaky hands. He was standing behind his desk, pouring himself a glass of scotch, and he nodded towards me as I came in. “Drink?” he asked. That’s it, I’m definitely getting fired. He thinks getting me a bit merry will make it easier, I thought as I took a seat. It was expensive scotch, though; I may as well have a glass while I had the opportunity. “Sure. Thanks,” I said. He poured me some of the dark amber liquid, and then he sat down across from me, his expression still hard. “So, Eden,” he began, folding his hands in a V shape on the large desk. Suddenly his face broke into a grin. “Congratulations! Absolutely fantastic work. Sorry about the attitude I gave you out there—I didn’t want the others to get suspicious about the offer I have for you.” My eyebrows shot up as my mind muddled with confusion. Why was he so happy, and what was he congratulating me for? And what offer was he talking about? “Sorry, I don’t follow,” I said. “What are you congratulating me for?” He arched an eyebrow. “Everything that happened out there! Bringing Blair onto the show and letting her run rampant like that; we haven’t had such amazing drama in over five seasons now! We’ll be able to turn what happened out there tonight into a double episode, and thank god for that; with Emily quitting and Cailin in the hospital, we’re in dire need of extra material to make up for their absence,” he said, his grin widening. “God, the way Blair was screaming while those cops handcuffed her….our viewers will be Twittering and Facebooking about this for weeks!” My face was still blank as I processed his words, and he went on. “Obviously you knew she was a crazy bitch when you signed her on to our show, and you were banking on her doing something like this. I had no idea what you were planning, but by god, it worked. Really fantastic work, Eden. I’m

proud of you.” I knew what he meant now. He thought I’d planned this from the start; thought I’d known full well what Blair would do once she got onto the show, and he thought I’d used that to create drama for the show. He was obviously very pleased with me, and that meant my job was probably safe for now, but I had to come clean—I couldn’t take credit for something I hadn’t done. Especially when what he thought I’d done was so underhanded and malicious. “Glenn, I’m sorry, but I didn’t plan it. I had no idea Blair would do something like this,” I said. “Sure, sure,” he said with a wink. “You’ve made her a star, you know. In a bad way, mind. People will be talking about her psychotic meltdown for years.” I sighed dejectedly, although I knew he was right. In a strange way, Blair’s wish for fame had come true for her, though not in the way she'd hoped. “If I had known what she was really like, I would’ve told you weeks ago so we could’ve gotten rid of her. You did make it pretty clear that you wanted the saboteur gone,” I said. He waved his hand. “I did, but when I said that, I didn’t realize it was all building up to everything that happened today. I’m glad we kept her around, because like I said a moment ago, what happened out there tonight is pure ratings gold,” he replied. “And don’t be so modest, Eden! You don’t have to be ashamed of your success. Be proud!” I narrowed my eyes slightly. “With all due respect, Glenn, it wasn’t a success. Cailin was in serious danger tonight. Blair could’ve killed her.” Glenn scoffed. “Cailin’s allergy is nowhere near as bad as she makes it out to be—I’ve seen her medical files—and we always have spare epinephrine pens around anyway, just in case of emergency. She was always going to be fine,” he said before taking a big long gulp of scotch. “Christ, the network directors are going to cum in their pants when they see the ratings this episode will get. You’re more like me than I thought, Eden. You’ve got a real talent for creating trouble and juicy drama.” He winked, and I gaped at him in disbelief, unable to form a coherent response yet. His blatant disregard for the truth about my involvement in the Blair incident—and for the contestants’ wellbeing, too—was making me furious, and worst of all, he thought he was actually giving me a massive compliment for being ‘like him’. But I wasn’t; I’d never be like him. I’d never think it was a good idea to exploit people’s weaknesses for good ratings on our show like him and some of the other producers, and I’d never have let Blair come within ten miles of the show if I’d known what she would get up to. “Glenn, I really can’t take credit for doing this,” I said, my voice firm. I was honestly so close to adding, ‘And by the way, I can’t stand this soul-sucking bullcrap anymore—I quit!’ but I managed to stay calm. He rolled his eyes. “Oh, I know what this is. You’re acting like this because all you women are taught from birth that you have to be all meek and modest at all times, while we men are taught to grab stuff by the balls. Well, act like a man and grab this by the balls, Eden! I think you’ve done a fucking great job this season, even without counting the Blair stuff, if you truly don’t want to take credit for that. The reason I brought you in here was to chat about a possible promotion.” My eyebrows shot up. “A promotion?”

“Don’t get too excited. It’s not set in stone. I just wanted to let you know that there’ll be a senior producer position opening up at the start of next season, and right now, you’re my favorite for it. I do have my eye on some others, but keep up the good work for the next few episodes, and you’ll be golden.” The words ‘I quit’ couldn’t be further from my lips now. As much as working on The Stud bothered me sometimes, I knew I couldn’t just walk away from it when an offer like this was on the table. There was plenty of work on other far more decent shows for people with a résumé which boasted a senior producer job title, but there was far less out there for someone in my current position, because junior producers like me were a dime a dozen. If I just stuck it out for a while longer, I could get the senior promotion and leverage it to get a better job on a less soul-sucking show…a better job that I sorely needed if I was going to make a real career for myself without losing every shred of integrity I had. As much as I loved Troy and was proud of his football career, I couldn't allow myself to just quit and live off his money. I knew he would support me without question, but I didn't want to be one of those WAGs whose only job in life seemed to be looking pretty and staying thin and tanned—I wanted to earn my keep, not be a kept woman. “That sounds great,” I said, swallowing my pride and anger towards Glenn. “Thank you for considering me.” “Ah, I knew you’d come round when I mentioned the promotion,” he said with a gleeful smile. “But keep quiet about it. Last thing I need is everyone sucking up to me for the next few weeks.” “I will. Thank you, Glenn.” I swallowed my last drop of scotch before standing up and turning around to leave, and Glenn coughed. “Oh, Eden? Before you go, I wanted to ask you something.” “Yes?” “Why didn’t you mention that you already knew Troy from high school before now?” My heart began to race, and I gulped down a big breath of air and tried my best to give him a casual shrug. “It was so long ago. Like he said earlier, it was just a high school romance. No big deal, right? He barely even recognized me when he arrived here.” He leaned forward at his desk, his hands still clasped together. “So there’s definitely nothing going on between the two of you? Not even a bit of flirting for old time’s sake?” I shook my head. “No,” I replied, my voice almost cracking. Just two more weeks of hiding, I thought, trying to stay strong and resolute. Two more weeks till the season is wrapped. Glenn’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction. “Good. Anyway, you better get some sleep. We’ve all had a long night.” I gave him a tight smile, and then I turned and fled from his office, every inch of my body wracked with guilt. I was so tired of all the lies. It felt like I was losing a tiny piece of my soul every time I denied my relationship with Troy or thought about different ways of hiding it, and it was driving me insane. I didn’t know how much longer I could last…

Chapter Twenty-Five Troy “You have to admit, this has all been worth it, if just for this exact moment.” I turned and looked at Eden as we basked in the warm Caribbean sun, and she gave me a lazy smile and pushed her sunglasses back up her face from where they’d fallen down her nose a little. “It is nice to have a few minutes off to just lie around in the sun,” she replied. “Although it’ll be work, work, work all over again in just a couple of hours.” Now that Blair had been arrested and subsequently removed from the show, there were only two contestants left—Anya and Hayley. Cailin would’ve made a third, but she’d quit after the peanut incident last week and threatened to sue. Luckily for the show creators, she couldn’t do that (something to do with some clause in the contract she’d signed), but it’d made her mad enough to refuse to return to even shoot a goodbye scene. Never one to give up on creating dramatic content even when it seemed like there wasn’t any available, Glenn had made a montage of her using past unused footage and sad music, and that’d made up the last five minutes of the most recent episode. After all the Blair drama, of course. Now we were up to the final episode, which was taking place on a luxury cruise ship in the Caribbean. The entire crew had been flown down to Aruba, as well as me and the contestants, and our ship had left the main port there this morning. No filming was currently taking place—the crew had already obtained their requisite shots of Anya and Hayley oiling themselves up and playing in the cruise ship’s swimming pool—so everyone was hanging out on the sun deck, reading or working on their tans. Filming was due to start again upon the arrival of a famous R&B singer, Tay Drake, who would be performing a private concert for everyone in the early evening during the beautiful Caribbean sunset. Apparently he’d been caught up with something back in the States, so he hadn’t departed on the ship with us earlier, and he’d be arriving from Aruba on a smaller speed boat fairly soon. During the concert, I was supposed to join Tay on stage and accompany him in some sort of duet —a sappy romantic song which Anya and Hayley would apparently sigh and swoon over—and after that, I was meant to give a big speech which would culminate in me picking the winner to ‘propose to’ with the big fake diamond ring the show had provided me with. I wasn’t sure who I was going to pick yet. Obviously, I didn’t want to pick either of them, because the only woman I wanted to make loving speeches to was Eden, but I had to pick one so we could get this show over and done with. Then I could finally be with her out in the open without her risking her job. Glenn had been heavily hinting that he wanted me to pick Hayley, because she was seen by viewers as the typical sweet girl next door type of woman, and Anya was viewed as the nasty alpha bitch who was mean to everyone. To be honest, though, I was leaning towards picking Anya to win— she was one of the only women on the show who’d always been honest and upfront about her

intentions, and she wasn’t really a nasty person at all; it was all just a show she put on for the cameras. As for Hayley, she seemed sweet when the cameras were rolling, but I’d heard her making nasty comments about other people on multiple occasions, and I’d heard her bragging to her producer about how she ‘had this competition in the bag’, which would then help her swimsuit modeling career. I didn’t want to pick her, but I also didn’t want to piss off Glenn too much, because that man could be an absolute prick when he didn’t get his own way, and I had a feeling he’d probably try to engineer a situation where I had to pick Hayley anyway. I guess I’d found out in about four hours. “Tay’s boat is coming,” Candice called out from over by the edge of the ship. “Where’s the landing deck? I want to be the one to greet him, he’s sooo hot. Eden, want to come?” “Yeah, Eden, do you want to meet the hot singer?” I teased, arching a playful eyebrow. She laughed and shook her head. “I just want to soak up a few more minutes of sun before we have to start work again,” she said. “Why don’t you go down and meet him, Troy? You’ll need to be introduced to him anyway.” “I definitely won’t say no to meeting a hot man,” I joked with a wink. “All right. See you later.” I put a shirt on and followed Candice down the stairs from the sun deck to the lower deck, and she quickly consulted a cruise ship staff member to find out exactly where the landing deck was situated. When she found out, she led us down to it, and I squinted my eyes in the hot afternoon sun as I saw a large silver speed boat approaching the ship in the distance. “Nice boat,” I said, letting out a low whistle as waited for it to arrive. “Teammate of mine has one of them. The thing is worth something like fifty grand.” “Wow,” Candice said. “Maybe I should take up NFL so I can afford to spend that much on a speed boat.” I chuckled. “All right, I’ll help you train.” “You’re on,” she replied, laughing as well. Then she lowered her voice. “By the way, I think it’s cool about you and Eden.” My pulse began to race, and my voice stiffened. “What?” She gave me a funny look. “Oh, nothing. Never mind.” “No, what is it?” “…I just meant it’s cool how you guys can just act like friends. If I dated some dude in high school who turned out to be one of the most famous athletes in the country, then there’s no way I’d be able to act all cool and professional around him if he came on the show. I’d totally be trying to rekindle something and become a WAG,” she said with a grin. “No, just kidding. But really, you guys seem to get on great. I think that’s cool.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief; for a second I thought she’d known about me and Eden secretly being together. “Yeah, it is cool,” I replied. I wasn’t exactly lying; Eden and I were friends as well as lovers, and friendship was one of the most important aspects of a relationship, in my opinion. Still, I felt a twinge of guilt in my guts. I was sick to fucking death of deceiving everyone and not being able

to crow my true feelings about Eden from the rooftops. “They’re almost here,” Candice said. Tay Drake’s boat was pulling up now, and droplets of salty water sprayed up in the air as it slowed down and maneuvered into the landing deck area. The driver of the boat turned the key off in the ignition and swung a rope over to the deck to hold it in place, and Tay himself stepped out a few seconds later. He was a tall, muscular man with close-cropped black hair and smooth mocha-toned skin, and his pale green eyes sparkled in the bright sun. Christ, no wonder all the ladies liked him so much—he was a handsome dude. “Tay, hi!” Candice gushed as he came closer. “My name is Candice McClure. I’m a producer on The Stud. Thanks so much for coming, it’s a real pleasure to meet you.” “It’s a pleasure to be here,” he replied, extending a friendly hand to each of us in turn. “Gotta admit, The Stud is one of my guilty pleasure shows. I couldn’t say no to coming.” “You really watch it?” Candice said, fluttering her eyelashes. “Of course. That twist in the last double episode really got me. Who would’ve seen that coming from Blair? She seemed so nice.” Candice was practically salivating at this stage, and I grinned and let her chat to Tay for a while. Hey, maybe she’d get lucky with him later in the evening. My smile grew wider as I thought about tonight and all it would entail. After the concert and the picking of the winner, that would be it—my contractual obligations would be finished, and we’d only have to film a couple of lovey-dovey filler scenes to use in show finale TV teasers. Then I’d be free to be with Eden out in the open. Of course, we wouldn’t tell everyone at her work right away (because then we’d just be rubbing it in their faces that we’d lied and got away with it) but still, it felt great knowing that Eden wouldn’t be in danger of losing her job over me anytime soon. I couldn’t wait for the night to end. *** Raucous cheering erupted from the other side of the velvety blue curtains near me, and I heard Tay Drake thanking the audience for their appreciation before launching into another song. The sun was just beginning to dip over the ocean in the beginnings of a glorious sunset, and Tay had been singing and rapping for about ten minutes now on a stage on the upper deck of the ship. It seemed like the crowd was loving it—the showrunners wouldn’t even have to get fake footage of people screaming and cheering like they often did with other events. Seeing as The Stud execs had booked the luxury ship out privately, the crowd was entirely made up of crew members, paid extras, and the two final contestants. That didn’t make it any less nervewracking that I had to go out and there and perform with Tay in fifteen minutes, though. I was used to huge crowds at games with thousands of people watching my every move, but that was okay because I was actually good at football. As for singing…eh, I was only halfway decent. I was totally gonna embarrass myself out there on that stage, but hey, if it was what Glenn wanted to finally finish this shit-show, then I’d do it. Hell, I’d act like a dancing monkey if that’s what it would take to hurry the

end of the show along. I’d decided that I would pick Anya as the winner, because earlier when I’d been chatting to Tay and getting to know the lyrics to our duet song, I overheard Hayley making even more bitchy comments. She’d been standing nearby and chatting to her producer about how much she ‘hated’ one of the interns for being overweight, and when that very intern approached her to give her a drink a moment later, she’d smiled sweetly and thanked her effusively. It’d be funny to see if that two-faced bitchery came out in full force when I picked Anya over her, and surely Glenn would appreciate that sort of drama for the finale. He’d always loved capturing contestant tantrums on camera. “Boo.” Two hands covered my eyes from behind, and I smiled as I recognized Eden’s voice. “Hey, what are you doing back here?” I asked, turning around and slipping my arms around her. “I came to make sure you aren’t too nervous,” she said. “It must suck waiting back here in the wings and twiddling your thumbs.” “Waiting to be embarrassed, you mean,” I replied with a good-natured grin. She smiled. “You’ll do fine, don’t worry, and even if you’re a terrible singer, the editing team will make you sound like Pavarotti before it’s ever shown on TV,” she said, before looking around. “Where’s your producer? Wasn’t he meant to wait back here with you to tell you exactly when to go on?” I shrugged. To be honest, the guy responsible for producing all my scenes this season (a senior producer named Wren) had barely been around for most of it—he’d usually tell me what to do and then disappear back to his trailer. Now that we were on the ship, he didn’t have that trailer haven to disappear into, but he still had a cabin below decks, and as soon as he’d made sure I knew what time to go on stage with Tay, he’d patted me on the back, said ‘good luck’ and then vanished. “No idea. In his room, probably. Or at the bar,” I said. Eden rolled her eyes. “No wonder there’s a position opening up for senior producer soon. Glenn’s probably sick of Wren’s crap and wants to fire him, but he can’t because he’s still doing the minimum work necessary for his contract. Barely, though.” “No shit. You’ve helped to direct me through this season way more than he has,” I said, tightening my grip around her waist. “You’ve got that promotion in the bag, babe.” Eden smiled and thanked me, but she began to squirm out of my grip at the same time. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She glanced around nervously again. “It’s still not over,” she replied. “We can’t do this yet; not here.” I leaned closer and planted a kiss on her forehead. “No one’s around,” I said. “They’re all out there screaming for Tay Drake. I’m not due on stage for what…twelve minutes now? I think that’s enough time for a proper make-out session, like we used to do back in high school. How about it, huh?” Eden giggled, but she continued to push me away. “Someone might still come in here and see us. It’s already happened before. Remember when Blair walked in and caught us? And also the time

when Glenn nearly caught us in the locker room.” “That was different. We weren’t in a dark room behind a stage on either of those occasions,” I murmured, desperate to taste those sweet lips of hers for just a moment. She looked at her watch and finally relented. “One kiss. A quick kiss,” she said, holding up her index finger. “And then I’m going back out there.” “Good enough for me,” I replied. I wrapped my arms around her again, sliding one hand to the small of her back as she tilted her beautiful face up, and then I leaned in to kiss her. My mouth closed over her hot lips, and our tongues battled in a clash for domination as we furiously tasted each other like it was the last time. Eden moaned softly into my mouth as I squeezed her harder, and my cock stiffened in my pants at the sound. I loved how easy it was to turn her on, like our bodies were simply made for each other, and I could only dream of moving my mouth further down her body right now. As much as I would love to flick my tongue over her clit until she came, it would have to wait. Eden took in a big gulp of air when my mouth finally broke the seal over hers, and she touched her lips with her fingers. “Maybe just one more,” she whispered before tilting her chin upwards again. I kissed her again, and this time it was sweeter, gentler than before. From outside the curtains to our far right, I could still hear the roar of the audience as Tay performed for them, but I was so wrapped up in Eden that I didn’t realize he’d stopped singing and was now speaking until it was far too late. “I was meant to wait for this, but screw it…let’s bring on our main man right now! You ladies are gonna go wild when you hear him sing with me! So let’s do this…” The curtains dropped and crumpled to the floor instead of parting slowly like I’d assumed they would, and Eden and I sprang apart like scalded cats. It was too late. A collective gasp went up in the audience, and Tay stopped talking mid-sentence and turned to stare at us with wide eyes. For once, even Glenn was completely speechless as everyone registered what they’d seen as the curtains dropped, and Eden let out a low whimper next to me. Fuck.

Chapter Twenty-Six Troy “Wow! That’s not what I expected, but I guess The Stud always delivers with the great twists!” Tay Drake awkwardly spoke into his mic again, trying to relieve the stark tension in the silent atmosphere, but it didn’t work. Everyone was still staring at Eden and me with expressions of pure shock on their faces. Next to me, Eden began to tremble, and she whispered to me. “Please tell me this is just a bad dream.” I shook my head. “No,” I replied. “This isn’t a bad dream. It’s a good dream. Because fuck it… now I can finally do what I’ve wanted to do for weeks.” “What? Troy…” Before Eden could stop me, I held up a hand and called out to the crowd as the cameras continued to roll. “Well, now you all know the truth. The only woman I love is on this show, like I hoped for, but it’s not one of the contestants. It’s Eden Zamora, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve loved her since the first moment I saw her seven years ago.” Glenn finally stepped forward, his face like thunder. “You….you….” he spluttered before finally finding his tongue. “You’ve ruined my show, you cunt! I’m going to fucking kill you!” With that, he began to run full pelt towards the stage, and I grabbed Eden’s hand. “Run!” I said before breaking into a sprint, pulling her along behind me until we reached the steps on the left side of the stage; the opposite direction from where Glenn was coming. By now, everyone else in the audience had finally begun to make noise again, tittering amongst themselves and throwing dark looks at us. I would’ve thought that Hayley might throw a tantrum upon realizing she wasn’t going to be picked by me, but instead I was surprised to see and hear Anya screaming. “How dare you, Troy!” she shouted, her face red with rage as she watched us dash away. “You fucking bastard!” She kept screaming and crying hysterically as Eden and I reached the far end of the cruise ship, and I could still hear her as we headed below deck. “Where are we going?” Eden asked as her little legs worked overtime to keep up with me, her hand still entwined with mine. “The speed boat on the landing deck. Tay’s driver left the key in the ignition earlier!” I called back to her. “You won’t find the key there.” We both stopped dead in our tracks at the sound of another person’s voice, and my pulse began to race even more than it already was as Candice stepped out of the shadows near the white door which led to the landing deck. “I saw him leave the keys earlier too, and I told Tay I’d go back and grab them for him later, just to make sure no one decided to go for a little joy ride. That boat is worth fifty grand, remember?”

Candice said. “You told me that, Troy.” I nodded, and Eden opened her mouth to speak. “Candice, I’m so sorry. I…” Her voice trailed off, and I knew she had no idea what to say, or how to apologize for all the sneaking around and lying. Candice stared at us for a moment, and then she reached into her pocket and pulled the keys out, jangling them in the air as she held them up. “So I guess it’s lucky for you guys that I grabbed them before someone else,” she said with a wry smile as she tossed the keys in our direction. “You better hurry. I can hear footsteps above us.” My eyebrows shot up as I caught the keys. “You’re helping us?” “Yeah. Unlike everyone else on this show, I’m not a blind, selfish idiot. I could tell how you felt about Eden every time you looked at her for the last two months, and vice versa. I tried to bring it up with you earlier to see if you wanted to talk about it, but you clearly wanted to keep it under wraps,” she said. “And I kept my mouth shut to everyone else this whole time, because you know what? Fuck Glenn and everyone else on this goddamned show. I wasn’t going to see Eden lose her job just because she loves someone.” She turned to address Eden. “Eden, you’re one of the only decent people I’ve met the whole time I’ve worked on reality TV, and I’ve been here a while. It’s toxic. So fuck everyone else. You deserve to be happy,” she said. She hesitated a little before speaking again. “Also, I still feel a bit bad for not trusting you during the Blair situation. I should’ve known better, and I owe you something like this as an apology. So hurry up and get on that boat! I’ll stall the others.” Eden jumped forward and tearfully hugged Candice, and I nodded at Candice over her shoulder. “Thanks.” “No worries. Just put in a good word for me with Tay Drake, now that you two know each other,” she said with a wink. Eden and I raced through the door to the landing deck, and I quickly helped Eden onto the boat before sticking the key in the ignition and starting the motor. I’d driven one of these boats in a California marina with my friends a few times, which wasn’t exactly the same as driving on the choppy ocean, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly, and soon we were zipping well away from the cruise ship, the sun setting over the horizon behind us. I was glad my relationship with Eden was out in the open now. Maybe not so glad that it was literally out on the open ocean, but still, a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Nothing felt better than admitting my feelings out loud to everyone back there, and I didn’t care what the world decided to throw at me anymore. The showrunners could sue me for breach of contract, the media could paint me as a complete and utter asshole for abandoning the two final contestants at the last minute….I didn’t care. Not one bit. All that mattered was Eden. I could see the coastline in the distance, and I slowed the boat down a bit as we headed towards it. I had a vague idea of where the nearest marina was, because the cruise ship hadn’t headed out too far from the port when we left earlier this morning, and I switched the boat’s lights on via the panel near the ignition as I saw that the sun was almost gone. Eden leaned down and trailed one hand in the aquamarine water as we cruised along, and she let out a sigh. “The water is still so warm. I feel like it’s a good allegory for my life right now.”

“Because you’re in hot water career-wise?” I said gently, turning my gaze from the ocean to her for a second. She nodded. “Yeah. I’m screwed. No one will ever hire me again,” she said softly. “That won’t happen. You’ll be fine,” I said firmly. “I know you’ve never cared about this kind of stuff, but I’m a pretty famous guy, Eden.” “I can’t live off your money—” she began to say, and I cut her off. “That’s not what I meant. I mean I know people in the media industry. I can help you get another job; a better job. No matter what, I’ll support you. You know that.” She gave me a watery smile and nodded, and I squeezed her hand with one of mine as I kept the other on the boat’s steering handle. I knew exactly how guilty she felt—it was the same guilt I’d felt a couple of years ago when I’d stupidly gotten a DUI. My teammates, coaches, and the team owners had been understandably pissed at me for the bad press I’d brought upon the team, and at the time I’d been concerned that my career was already over. But it wasn’t. I kept clean and refused to make the same stupid choice again, and it blew over eventually. This wasn’t the exact same situation, but that horrible guilt and worthlessness I’d felt over possibly destroying my career and everything I’d worked so hard for was exactly what Eden was going through right now. Whatever it took, I was going to find a way to show her just how much she was worth.

Chapter Twenty-Seven Eden “Are you ready?” Troy gave me a concerned look as he squeezed my hand, and I shivered and shook my head. “No. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.” “C’mon, it’ll be okay,” he said in a soothing tone. “Even if Glenn verbally tears your head off, you’re already expecting that, so it won’t be shocking. Aside from that, what’s the worst that could happen?” I let out a heavy sigh and nodded as I stared at the big wooden sign which spoke to our arrival back at Palomar Ranch. It’d been three days since Troy and I had fled the cruise ship down in the Caribbean, and the first thing we’d done was fly back to California from Aruba to sort ourselves out. I’d been dreading returning to the main set at the ranch to get my belongings from my trailer—I hadn’t received word that I’d been fired, but it was pretty obvious that I would be—and late last night, I’d received a short, sharp text message from Glenn. We’re all back at Palomar. See me in my office tomorrow. Ten A.M. Don’t be late, and come alone. That was all it said, but I already knew what the meeting would be about—something along the lines of, ‘We’re suing you and Troy for wrecking the show, you’ll never work in television again, now grab your things and get the hell out of here.’ I hadn’t wanted to go, but Troy had convinced me that I needed to. He’d been nothing but supportive of me over the last few days as I tried to grasp what we’d done, but I was still terrified of what my future held. It didn’t matter how many contacts he had in the media; Glenn had far more, and if he blackballed me in the TV industry, then that was it for me. My TV producing career would be over for good. “You can do this. You’re strong, smart and talented as hell, and you can manage anything,” Troy said. “Remember, you’re a badass TV producer and a badass person in general. Don’t let this get you down.” I smiled weakly. “Thanks. I’ll be back soon.” I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car, and as I headed towards the mansion, I saw a familiar face approaching me. My heart sank as I realized who it was. It was Anya, carrying two suitcases. Troy had always seemed to think she was cool in the past— he’d even decided she was going to win the show over Hayley—but the hysterical tantrum she’d thrown when we’d been caught on the cruise ship seemed to suggest otherwise. She obviously hated me now, and the last thing I expected to see on her face when she saw me was a smile. But that was exactly what I saw. “Hey! You’re here,” she said, dropping her suitcases on the ground and rushing towards me. “I

was wondering if you would come back. We were all placing bets, and I bet that you would. It’s so good to see you.” I gazed at her in surprise. “Um...I don’t really know what to say, Anya,” I replied. “I thought you hated me.” Her smile grew wider. “Hell no, I don’t hate you,” she said. “Wait, you’re talking about the fit I threw on the ship, right?” I gave her an uncomfortable nod. “Yes.” She laughed. “I was just trying to help you guys out. I was never going to win this show—they were totally lining up Hayley to win over me. I was just the bitch villain of the season; at least that’s how they cast me. I’m lucky I got as far as I did. So when those curtains dropped and I saw you and Troy kissing, I figured everyone else might be mad, and you might need time to make a getaway. So I threw an epic tantrum to cause a distraction, and it worked. Glenn needed to personally restrain me before I quietened down.” My eyebrows shot up. “Really?” “Yep. I’m an actress, remember?” she said with a wink. “And besides, I told Troy from the start —if he had my back and didn’t cut me, I’d have his back in return. And he never cut me, so I managed to get all the way to the final two. That’ll do wonders for my career, you know.” My face began to heat up with shame. “Anya, thank you so much, but I have to tell you something. Troy wasn’t going to pick Hayley. He was going to pick you as the winner. So that would’ve been even better for your career. I kinda helped ruin that for you.” She shrugged and waved her hand. “Eh, whatever. Like I said, I was never expecting to come this far, let alone win. We’re cool,” she said. “And don’t worry. Half the crew is on your side with this too. They think it was worth having the season ruined just to see the look on Glenn’s face when he saw you guys kissing. He literally turned purple with rage.” I smiled faintly, unable to believe how lucky I was. Not only had Candice supported me and Troy throughout this, Anya had too, along with half the crew. I hadn’t even been aware how many other people had my back, and finding out that they did was making my confidence grow in leaps and bounds. Just because Blair had betrayed my friendship didn’t mean everyone else would, and just because I’d made one big mistake at work didn’t mean my entire career would be left in shreds. I knew exactly what I needed to do. Troy was right—I was a badass TV producer, and I finally had a plan to boot. “Don’t leave just yet,” I said, gesturing to Anya’s suitcases. “I think I might know a way we can fix this season and give it a proper ending. There won’t be a real winner like there usually is, but it’s better than the show just ending its run on TV with no finale being aired at all.” She arched an eyebrow. “What’s the plan?” I shook my head. “I can’t say just yet. I need to talk to Glenn first,” I replied, glancing at my watch. “In fact, I’m due in his office in three minutes. I better go.” “Good luck. I’ll tell Hayley to stay too.” I thanked her and continued on my way to Glenn’s office, and when I reached it, I knocked firmly

and confidently on the door. I wasn’t going to be meek any longer. Glenn himself had told me to grab life and its opportunities by the balls, and that was exactly what I was going to do. If it worked, then great, and if it didn’t—well, at least I tried. Troy would be proud of me if he could see me right now, and I had to admit, being with him had been the first real boost to my confidence in years, well before my conversation with Anya a moment ago. His love for me had given me a strength I never really knew I had until now. It was because of him that I’d come up with this plan, and it was because of him that I was going to try and see it through. A man like him was all the inspiration I needed. “Come in.” Glenn’s booming voice carried through the door, and I stepped inside. “Shut the door behind you.” I remained standing, and Glenn stood up too. “Well, well,” he said. “You actually showed up. I didn’t think you’d have the balls. Then again, I never thought you’d have the balls to steal my Stud from under my nose and wreck my show, either.” “I’m sorry for the trouble I caused, Glenn. But I have an—” “Don’t talk yet,” he said. “I’m not done. Let me speak.” I nodded my assent, and he continued, his face getting progressively redder with each second that passed. “We almost had a full season here, Eden. A goldmine season too; the ratings were through the roof compared to last season. All we needed was that finale episode. But you took that away with your little dalliance with Troy, and now the show is fucking ruined. There’s no winner, no proposal, no nothing! And worst of all, the finale was meant to air in just two days. So now I have to explain to the network execs why our season has to be axed this far in, despite all those great ratings we’ve been pulling in.” “I know,” I said solemnly. “I lied straight to your face, and I kept things from you when I should’ve come clean a long time ago.” “No, you should’ve just not fucked my Stud!” he shouted, slamming his fist down on the desk. “So give me one reason why I shouldn’t absolutely blackball you from ever working in this industry again. One reason, Eden!” I threw my shoulders back and stood up straight. “All right, Glenn. I’ll give you your reason. And it’s a pretty fucking good one, in my opinion, especially in terms of my junior producer pay grade.” His eyebrows shot up at my response; he’d obviously expected me to run away with my tail between my legs instead of standing up for myself. “Okay. What is it?” he said, sitting down with his forehead still lined with surprise. “Troy and I have given you an amazing gift, Glenn. Something this show has needed for a long time.” He arched an eyebrow. “Oh really?” I nodded. “Yes. You know, when I was a kid, I used to read romance books and watch shows like this, and I’d think it was all real, and that one day I’d find my very own Prince Charming and live happily ever after. That’s the kind of love books, TV shows and movies try to sell,” I said. I hesitated and took a breath before continuing. “I lost that belief in true love a long time ago, though, and

working on this show hasn’t helped. There’s no love in this place. We all know it’s manufactured horse-shit. Hell, we’re the ones who manufacture it, season after season. But then I reunited with Troy, and I realized I’d been wrong. True love is real. It is out there. And we’ve found it together.” “And?” Glenn said, narrowing his eyes. “And we’ve given you the best drama this show has ever had in any season, bar none. Not once has a Stud ever run off with a crew member in such a dramatic fashion. I mean, for god’s sake, we stole Tay Drake’s boat and escaped from a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean!” Glenn’s lips curled. “Yes, and you’re lucky Tay thought it was so damn hilarious, or you’d both be sitting in prison for that right now.” “What I’m saying is, you can’t make this stuff up, Glenn. You can’t write and manufacture anything as amazing as real love and the stories that go with it. And that’s what we have. Unlike literally every other so-called romance on this show’s history, ours is actually real. And what better story for our viewers could there be than real love for once?” I said. “You know the show was getting stale and getting a reputation for selling fake fairytale love. But we can fix that now. We can give our viewers the real love story they deserve this season.” “How?” “Air the final episode. You’ve got all that footage of the concert, the drama when we got caught, and us running away. You’ve also got Anya throwing that epic tantrum, among other things. And most of all, you’ve got true love. It’s all there. Just edit it together and have Anya and Hayley do postcruise interviews, explaining how they feel about it all, and you’ll have your finale. They’ll still get the attention they want for months after it airs, even though neither of them won, because people will be talking about this forever. You know that’s the truth. This’ll be the best finale in the history of the show.” I knew I was taking a huge risk in saying all of this, but it was all true. It would work, and Troy and I were in love. Real love. The kind of dramatic, soppy, heart-wrenching love that people write poems, books and songs about. Yes, that sounded arrogant, but it wasn’t, because we weren’t the only ones. Absolutely anyone in the world who loved someone deeply was exactly the same as us, and they deserved to have that true love recognized, rather than sitting through more fakery on reality shows. Glenn sat and listened, his lips set in a thin line, and when I was done talking, he simply stared at me without saying a word for two whole minutes. “So…what do you think?” I said, uncomfortable with such a long silence. He gestured for me to take a seat. “Sit. We need to discuss the termination of your contract.” My shoulders slumped. It hadn’t worked, and I was losing my job after all. “You’re absolutely right, Eden,” Glenn went on. “Uh, what?” I said, my eyes widening. I hadn’t been expecting to hear that; I thought I was midway through being fired. He let out a heavy sigh. “I really hate to admit it, but I’ve dropped the ball on this show. The ratings for this season have been stellar, but that’s only compared to the last few seasons. If we compare it to other shows, then we’re not doing amazingly well. But this idea of yours about adding

in reality—actual reality—that could change it. We could stop the obvious fakery, let real drama happen. Let real people compete, not just these hot wannabe models and entrepreneurs who say the same stuff season after season and are only in it to promote their brands. That’d really set us apart from all the other so-called reality shows, which we all know are total bullshit which couldn’t be further from reality.” “But you’d rather I wasn’t here working with you,” I said with a nod. “I understand. I know I betrayed you and the rest of the crew, and I take full responsibility for that. I—” Glenn waved his hand and cut me off. “Oh, stop with all the mea culpas. I’m not firing you. We’ll just need to terminate your current contract with the network so we can do up a new one for you in your new senior producer position.” My eyes felt like they were about to pop out of their sockets. “You’re promoting me?” He nodded. “You have a talent for this. I’ve been telling you that for a while now. It just never occurred to me that you—or any of the other producers—might actually know better than me. I really want you for the job.” I took a deep breath as tingles of elated surprise crept up my spine. “Thank you,” I said. “I really wasn’t expecting that at all.” “And I wasn’t expecting you to come in here and unload all that on me, but you were right,” he said. “So will you accept?” I hesitated. “Yes, but with one caveat. I think Candice deserves a promotion too. She works just as hard as me, and she has great ideas too. I think she’s been in her junior producer position for far too long.” “I agree. She was the other one I had my eye on for the position,” he said. “I think we can swing two new seniors instead of just one, especially given the huge makeover the show needs.” “Great. Thank you.” I left Glenn’s office ten minutes later with my head high and my face glowing with pride and happiness. I finally had it all. Good friends, good career trajectory, and the love of a wonderful man. What else could I possibly want out of life? Well, maybe one more thing….

Chapter Twenty-Eight Troy Five months later “I once read that pro athletes aren’t meant to have sex before a big game. Is that true?” Eden looked at me with wide eyes from the walk-in closet entrance at our new penthouse apartment, and I groaned as I took in what she was wearing. Or rather, what she wasn’t wearing. “Don’t play innocent with me,” I said, my eyes sliding over the sexy black lingerie and heels she was wearing. “You know it’s not true. You’re just trying to make me think about sex when I’m meant to be thinking about the championship game this afternoon.” After a challenging season, my team were lucky enough to have made it to the finals again this year, and the big game was today. I wasn’t too nervous about it—after dealing with all the screaming Stud fans who’d been throwing themselves at Eden and me for the last few months, it would take a lot more than a championship football game to scare me. Eden had been dead-on in her prediction about the finale episode she’d suggested all those months ago. TV viewers had loved it, and Glenn and the network executives had been thrilled with the response. Now a new season with the revamped image of a ‘real reality show’ was being planned, with Eden’s help in her new role as senior producer. I couldn’t be more proud of her; she was doing amazingly well, and she loved her new job. Candice had received the same promotion as well (as well as several dates with Tay Drake, from what I’d heard), and she and Eden had become closer than ever before, along with Anya, who’d been offered a great position as the show’s new host after the old host Fabian’s decision to quit and focus on his family. I was glad that Eden could trust other people so willingly after Blair’s betrayal, and I always jokingly referred to her, Candice and Anya as the Three Musketeers of Television, seeing as the three of them were so close and worked together all the time. Eden kept the sweet, innocent expression on her face and took a step closer to the bed, where I was sitting. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not trying to make you think about anything. If you mean this outfit, it’s just something old I threw on before I go to work today.” I arched my eyebrows. “Oh, so those designer heels and expensive-looking bra and panties are just something old, huh?” I said, standing up and striding over to her. “In that case, you won’t mind if I do this.” As I spoke that last part, I reached down and tore the panties right off her, and she gasped. “Hey! They were expensive!” “Your fault for teasing me,” I said with a wink as I reached around and unclasped her bra at the back. Seconds later, her breasts were in my hands, and she looked up at me with lust-filled eyes as I

squeezed them and tweaked her nipples. My mouth moved down to hers, and my cock ached to fill the perfect slit between her legs as our lips clashed. With one quick movement, I scooped her up in my arms and threw her over my shoulder, and she gasped as I carried her back over to the bed and threw her down. Her high heels fell off and clattered to the floor as I did so, and I grabbed one of the cushions from the bed and slid it under her ass to lift her body up a little, granting me easier access to her pussy. A war began between my mind and body; my brain was telling me to savor every moment of this, and my cock was demanding I push inside her right away. Eden raised her head and flashed an inviting smile down at me as I waited between her legs, and the decision was immediately out of my hands. I had to be inside her now. Her thighs parted, and I gripped her hips before reaching down with one hand to guide my cock to her slick entrance. It seemed to get harder and harder the closer it got to those pink folds, and I ran it up and down between them, making her cry out with heady desire before I plunged inside her. Another cry escaped her plump red lips as I buried myself deep within her tight pussy. I pulled out and thrust back in, a little slower this time, giving her body time to get used to me, but she dig her fingernails into my ass and demanded I give it to her hard, just the way she liked it. This wasn’t the tender, soft lovemaking of sappy romance novels; this was primal, animalistic sex. And it was fucking great. I balanced on one elbow as I slammed my hips forward again and again, and my cock slid into her slick tightness like a glove every single time. Each thrust drew moans and sighs of pleasure from Eden’s lips which called for me to pound her even harder and faster, and her ankles crossed behind my ass, making her even tighter. “Yes! Right there…oh, fuck…” She reached a hand down to try and rub her swollen clit, but before she reached it, my own fingers closed over it, rubbing in fast circles. Her screams came in short, sharp bursts just seconds later as her muscles squeezed around my cock, and I kept thrusting hard as she came, loving the way her whole face turned pink with pleasure as she reached her climax. She squirmed for a moment longer as the waves of pleasure continued to crash over her, and she was so wet that I almost slipped out of her. I buried myself deep inside her again, and my pace went higher this time as Eden bucked against me with expert timing. Our bodies had always worked so well together, and now that we’d been together almost every day for the last six months, it was even better. We both knew exactly what the other wanted without either of us saying a word, and we both knew exactly what would make the other explode like crazy. When I was about to reach the precipice of my own orgasm, I groaned and pulled out before leaning back, giving Eden the chance to ride me. She held herself steady by keeping her hands on my abdomen as she worked me with her hips, moving in little circles, and her knees dug into the muscles of my thighs as she rode me like a cowgirl. Her breasts bounced up and down with each movement she made, and I watched, totally mesmerized by her as I tried to stop myself from coming yet. Another orgasm hit Eden a moment later, and as she writhed and gushed on me, I groaned and finally let myself go, fiery pleasure draining out of me and into her. As Eden rolled off me, I dropped onto my back and lay there next to her, trying to catch my breath.

“Now your mind will be all clear for the game this afternoon,” Eden said breathlessly, propping herself up on one elbow and staring down at me. “Doubt it. I’ll either have no energy and drop like a fly within the first few minutes, or I’ll be picturing you in that black lingerie again and accidentally pass the ball to the other team five times.” Eden giggled, and I smiled back and drew her in close for a tight hug. “Think we’ll win today?” I asked. “Nah, I hear the QB on your team is a bit of an idiot,” she replied, sticking her tongue out. I grabbed a pillow and jokingly brandished it at her, and she squealed. “I’m sorry, I was kidding! Of course I think you guys will win! And even if you don’t, that’s not what matters. What matters is that you all tried.” I cocked my head to the side. “All right. I’ll accept your apology if you give the idiot QB a big kiss before he has to leave.” She leaned over and planted her sweet lips on mine, and I closed my eyes and savored her taste for as long as I could before the clock on the wall chimed out the time. “All right, Little Miss Senior Producer, it’s already nine A.M,” I said. “I’ve gotta head down to the stadium, and you better head to work.” “You don’t want to have breakfast with me first?” Eden asked. “With afternoon games, you usually don’t need to head down there till about ten or eleven.” “Uh…this is different because it’s the championship,” I replied. “Lots of stuff to go over before it starts, so I’ll just eat when I get there. But I’ll see you there later for the game, right?” She gave me a suspicious look for a second, and I feigned innocence, hoping she wouldn’t question my lie. She finally smiled, nodded and hopped off the bed, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief, glad that I was safe for now. I didn’t like lying to Eden, but in this case it was necessary. I had something big planned for after the championship—regardless of whether we won or lost—and my team was helping to plan it. I didn’t want her getting wind of it, so I had to play it cool and act like nothing was going on other than the fact that today was a big game day. Truthfully, though, something huge was going on. While Eden had been visiting her parents about a month ago, I’d gone down there with her. They seemed glad that I’d sorted my shit out and grown into a man who was good enough for their daughter, and after dinner on our second night there, I pulled them aside and asked for their blessing. I told them how I didn’t think I could’ve become the man I was today without her influence, because she had changed the path I was originally on by showing me that I could be a good person. I didn’t have to booze it up and stay in trouble all the time like my parents had; I could be good, I could be tender, and I could love. They were thrilled, and Eden’s mother had immediately started offering me advice for engagement rings. However, I already had an idea in mind for that. While Eden was showering the next morning, I went back to the park with the hollowed out tree where I’d left the ring for her all those years ago, praying that it was still there. I figured it should be—not many people would go and stick their hands in deep little holes in the side of a tree—and it was. It was right where I’d left it almost eight years

ago, only the box was now dusty and covered with crunched up dead leaves. Now that I had the ring, all I needed was the perfect proposal, and that’s what my teammates and I had been planning for weeks now. Today was the day. *** “Shit…we’re screwed.” I heard my teammate curse near me, and I gave him a brief look before turning my attention back to what was happening in our final game for the season. Our defensive lineup was currently on the field, so I was standing on the sidelines with the others who were off at the moment. We’d played really well so far, and our team was up by two points with only seconds to spare—the score was currently 22-20—but that didn’t necessarily mean we were going to win. An incomplete pass on the third down had forced a field goal attempt for the other team, and their kicker was a guy named Todd Durban. That posed a problem, because he was one of the best kickers out of all the NFL teams at this point. Maybe even the best. He’d made nearly one-hundred percent of his field goals and extra points in the past, and he was about to kick a 38-yard field goal. That was child’s play to him, and there were only forty seconds left on the clock, so if he got it and we didn’t manage to score in the remaining few seconds afterwards, then we’d lose the championship. I wasn’t holding out any hopes, because Durban had such a stellar record—a perfect record, in fact—but that was okay. We’d all played our best, and it was great that we’d come this far in the season, regardless of whether we won or lost today. Besides, I was going to walk off this field a winner today anyway, because Eden was going to be my fiancée in under an hour. I watched Durban line up to make the kick, and the crowd went quiet with excited anticipation as his foot connected with the ball. It sailed through the air, and time seemed to slow down as it went. Thirty-nine seconds left on the clock….thirty-eight….thirty-seven…thirty-six… And then time seemed to stop altogether. “Holy shit, he missed!” Our team’s fans began to scream with joy as they realized what had happened. Durban had shockingly missed his goal. With just thirty-five seconds left on the clock, our offensive lineup had to go back on the field. As we headed back on, I searched for Eden in the crowd, and I spotted her smiling and cheering as she watched us take our places. I grinned; she’d never been a sports fan when she was younger, but now she was at every game she could possibly get to when her job wasn’t too busy, cheering for us from the crowd. The last seconds of the game went perfectly. I threw a pass to our wide receiver, who charged down the field and scored the touchdown we needed to guarantee our victory beyond a shadow of doubt, and as the clock ran out, the crowd went wild around us, screaming and whooping their joy at the top of their lungs. Blue and white confetti began to rain down on us all as we celebrated on the field—our team, coaches, team owners and support staff—and I soaked up the attention with a grin, waving and nodding at everyone around me.

This was our third championship since I’d started playing for the team, which was simply unbelievable, and absolutely fantastic. However, no amount of trophies could put the same smile on my face that Eden could—only she was capable of igniting that real fire in my heart. She was running out onto the field right now, looking for me, and she looked emotional already; she was clearly overjoyed about my team’s win. As soon as she found me, she jumped on me for a tight hug, and I squeezed her while I gave the signal to one of my teammates, Kayden. Kayden was the fastest guy on our team, and he nodded and ran full pelt through the crowds and up to the room where the stadium lighting and Jumbotrons were controlled from. The big screen behind Eden was currently playing footage of this very field with all the celebrations and confetti-showering, but within a few minutes of Kayden running off the field, the screen went black for a second before being replaced with a picture of Eden and me along with some text which read, ‘Eden, will you marry me?’ “Look behind you,” I murmured into her ear, finally breaking away from what had been the longest hug ever. “Why?” she asked, jerking her head around. “Oh…oh!” She saw the screen and turned back to me, her jaw practically on the floor, and I dropped to one knee and held out the ring. One of the team coaches had been holding it for me during the game, and he’d slid it to me as soon as he saw Eden racing towards me a few moments ago. “Eden, will you spend the rest of your life with me?” I asked, looking up at her. Her eyes were already shining with tears of joy after seeing my team win, and my question sent her over the edge into full-on bawling. “Oh my god,” she choked out through sobs. “Oh my god!” “Is it really that horrifying to think about marrying me?” I said with a grin. She laughed through her tears at my ridiculous crack. “No! I mean, yes,” she replied. “I mean, no it’s not horrifying. And yes, I will marry you!” Despite the chaotic celebrations going on around us, it felt like Eden and I were the only ones on the field. I didn’t even know what was going on with the trophy or anything else, and the world somehow seemed quiet despite all the screams and cheers. Maybe it seemed quiet because I was finally completely and utterly content with life. I had everything I’d ever wanted or needed, and most importantly, the only woman I’d ever loved had just agreed to marry me. I was officially the happiest man in the world.

Chapter Twenty-Nine Eden

Six months later “It’s not too late to change your mind.” I peeked out through the gorgeous archway in the back of the church to see everyone I knew and loved sitting in the pews, anticipating my arrival. Troy was up at the front, looking handsome as hell in his tuxedo, flanked by a couple of his teammates as his groomsmen. My bridesmaids—Anya and Candice—were standing opposite them, looking beautiful in dusky pink gowns. “I’m not going to change my mind,” I said, shaking my head. “Are you sure?” Glenn cocked an eyebrow at me. “Yes!” “It’s really not too late. Half the crew are already here as guests, anyway. It’ll take ten minutes for me to set up. Twenty, tops.” I smiled and lightly hit him with my bouquet. “Glenn, I’m not televising my wedding to Troy for a special Stud episode! This is our special day. Our special private day.” “But can you imagine the ratings?” he replied, throwing his hands in the air. “The episode where you two got together stunned everyone so much that people are still talking about it a year later! They’d go crazy to see your wedding celebrations in a big double episode.” “Life is not all about the ratings!” I said with an exasperated grin. “Now get out to your seat! You aren’t even meant to be back here.” Glenn gave me a hangdog expression for a second, but he perked up again quickly and patted me on the back. “Good luck, Eden. I’m proud of you.” He turned and headed towards the arch, but before he went through it, he looked back at me with a hopeful expression. “What about a post-wedding interview for the network magazine? You give us exclusive rights, and we…” “Go!” I said, brandishing my bouquet. “You’re shameless, you know that! Always have been!” He chuckled and headed into the church, and then my father took my arm a moment later, giving me a broad smile before beginning the slow march down the aisle, towards my fiancé. Towards my future. I still couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to have so many wonderful things in my life. My job was going well, my friends and family were all here to celebrate this day with me, and I was about to marry the sexiest man in the world. One of the best parts about that was that he thought I was the

sexiest woman in the world, which he made sure I knew every single day. Love had always been a crazily unpredictable thing for me. For a long time, I’d been convinced that it wasn’t real, but when Troy came back into my life last year, he’d shown me that it was. I’d been right as a starry-eyed teenager—true love did exist, and being with Troy was all I needed to realize that. Who would’ve thought that it would take him hunting me down on a reality show to get me back? Even thinking about it made it sound crazy, but god, I was glad he’d tried so hard, because we were made for each other. There would be no more awful misunderstandings, no more silly miscommunications, no more years apart….just pure, wild, wonderful love. My heart raced as I reached the altar, and Troy looked down at me, his face glowing. Everyone else in the church seemed to fade away as we stared at each other, and I was slightly afraid that I might actually explode with excitement. The priest began to take us through the ceremony, and I felt giddy with joy as I finally spoke the two words that I felt like I’d been waiting a thousand years to say to Troy. “I do.” “You may kiss the bride, Mr. Ballard,” the priest said, grinning as he watched me pre-emptively tilt my face up. Troy leaned down and kissed me, one hand tucking a strand of hair behind my ear as everyone else cheered and whooped. When he pulled away from the embrace, his lips moved to my right ear, and he murmured into it. “Fuck going to the reception. I want to take you to that honeymoon hotel suite right now and screw your brains out.” I giggled softly. “I think the priest just heard you say that.” He winked. “I’ll throw a Hail Mary pass in my next game to make up for my sin, then.” “Not sure that’s how it works,” I said, still giggling. “But I think we’re already in a bit of trouble with regards to the church, anyway.” He arched an eyebrow. “How so?” I leaned closer to him, and this time it was my mouth on his ear. “Let’s just say I wasn’t entirely pure and innocent when I walked down that aisle,” I whispered. “I already know you aren’t a virgin, Eden,” Troy replied with a wolfish grin. I drew back, my eyes sparkling, and I waited for him to finally get what I meant. “Wait…” he finally said, his eyes widening. “You mean you’re already…” I nodded and put my hand on my abdomen. “Yes. I just found out yesterday. We’re going to have a baby in about seven months.” Troy’s blue eyes lit up with joy, and he gripped both my hands in his. “I didn’t think I could possibly be any happier today, but this is the best news I’ve ever heard. Thank you, Eden,” he murmured. “You don’t need to thank me; you helped make the baby,” I said with a cheeky grin. “You big stud.” “You’re never going to let me live that name down, are you?” he replied with a grin. “That’s the last time I go on a reality show for your sake!”

We laughed as we finally turned and made our way through the cheering wedding guests towards the main church door, clutching each other’s hands. This was exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of my days; laughing, smiling, and beyond happy with Troy by my side. He was once my first love, and now he was also going to be my last. I wouldn’t have it any other way. THE END Thank you so much for reading my book! I hope you enjoyed Stud, and I hope it made your day a little brighter :) If it did, I’d love it if you could leave me a review on Amazon – it helps my books reach more readers. If you would like to receive a FREE bonus chapter to Stud, you can sign up to my newsletter and receive it here: As a bonus, I’ve also included a free book for you in here – keep reading to find it.

Thanks again <3 Love, Avery

Playing Dirty A Bad Boy Sports Romance

Chapter One Kate Letting out a heavy sigh and rolling over in bed, I looked out the window at the darkening sky. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so lonely. I knew it probably sounded crazy; before I moved to New York City for my TV show, I didn’t think I’d ever feel lonely in a city with over eight million people. But here I was, lonely as hell. I knew I was unbelievably lucky to have scored my own talk show, though, so I couldn’t complain too much. It was very hard work—lots of research and practice went into it—but it was entirely worth it. It was a talk show called Keeping Current With Kate, and it was aimed at a mostly female audience. I’d scored the gig in what seemed like a little piece of serendipity. I’d always been interested in working on TV, although in more of a sideline capacity rather than actually being filmed, and after working as an assistant news network producer for a few years, I’d had a chance to pitch an idea to an executive over drinks at a Christmas party. She’d loved my idea of a show that discussed important modern women’s issues in a relatable way without being kitschy, but for some reason she’d accidentally thought that I was also pitching myself as the host of the show. I hadn’t intended that at all, but she’d told me she loved my ‘vibe’ and attitude, and she’d asked me to host the show after it had been officially picked up. I’d been thrilled, terrified and excited all at the same time, and while I knew that being on TV could be horribly nerve-wracking for someone like me who was rather shy, I’d seen it as too big of a career opportunity to be missed. Chances like that didn’t come along every day—for some people, they never came along—and I also saw it as an opportunity for personal growth. Being a TV personality had forced me to come out of my shell a lot more, take risks, and learn how to be far more confident, and it had been worth every second of the nervousness I’d initially felt. I checked the clock on my bedside table and frowned. Despite what my sister Lizzy had told me in a rush of excitement before her recent trip, I couldn’t remember whether Manchester was five or six hours ahead of NYC. It was already after seven here, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to relax and sleep until I’d talked to my sister. Besides, she was a complete night-owl. It was hard to imagine

her turning in before two or three in the morning. The phone rang and rang. Just when I was about to hang up, I heard a familiar, perky voice. “Kate!” Lizzy cried. “It’s been so long!” I laughed. “It’s only been a few weeks, Lizzy. I know it feels like longer, though.” “Damn straight,” Lizzy mumbled in a low tone. “What’s up?” “Not much. I can’t believe you’re actually home,” I said, an incredulous inflection in my tone. “Not out partying? Not out chasing after those jocks?” “Hey, I came here to study,” Lizzy said in a playfully defensive tone. “And besides, they’re out of town.” I could practically hear the pout in her voice from across the Atlantic. “Is everything okay? Aren’t you going to sleep soon?” I rolled my eyes. “It’s not even dark here,” I said. “For your information, I actually stayed up pretty late last night!” “Like until nine?” We both cracked up laughing at that. The air crackled on the phone line and I shifted position, sliding down and stretching out my legs on the bed. I loved lying in the middle of my giant bed by myself most of the time, but right now it just made me feel even more alone. “So what’s up?” I asked, trying to keep my voice cheery. “Met anyone yet?” “Tons of people,” Lizzy said. She yawned loudly into the receiver. “This is a really fun town, Kate.” “I bet,” I said. A trace of wistfulness crept into my voice. “Got any plans for this weekend?” Lizzy yawned again, louder this time. “I think I’m supposed to meet some of my uni mates for a trip to London,” she said. “But I went last weekend and I think I might stay home this time. Or maybe rent a car and drive around. It’s really beautiful here, Kate. It doesn’t feel like home. Everything feels so ancient. The Peak District is right out of Manchester, you know, that awesome park from Pride and Prejudice. The remake, with that sexy Mr. Darcy!” “That’s awesome,” I said. I laughed, thinking about my brash younger sister tromping around in Georgian mansions, looking for a Mr. Darcy of her very own. There was a pause. “So what about your plans for this weekend? Hanging out with Josh again?” she asked. I bit my lip. “Nope,” I said, aware of how brittle I sounded. “Probably just some shopping and checking out the farmer’s market. I still have a few weeks before the show comes back on the air.” “What happened?” “We take a break every summer,” I explained. “Some of the producers are traveling and looking for new talent, so we use the pre-recorded episodes and then I’ll do a big special episode at the end of August. I think for that one, I’m going to talk about how current dress codes in a lot of schools can

be sexist and harmful to healthy sexual development in high school girls.” Lizzy let out a long sigh. “Not that,” she said. “I mean, what happened to Josh? Why aren’t you seeing him?” “Um…” While I tried to think of a decent enough reply, Lizzy kept going. “You’ve only been together about a month,” she observed slyly. “I thought you were still pretty excited about him.” I frowned. As usual, my baby sister had a perfect knack for digging far into my life. I sighed. “We broke up,” I said. “He wanted something more, and I wasn’t really willing to give that when he started really pushing for it.” “Is that why you’re so depressed?” I winced. In addition to being frightfully quick, Lizzy was always the first to nose her way into a situation. “I’m not depressed,” I said. “I just feel kind of weird about the whole thing. I mean, we work together. And I didn’t exactly expect things to work out to the point where we’d get married and be together forever, but I didn’t really think I’d have any problems with him, either.” “What kind of problems? Do I need to come home and kick his ass?” I laughed. “No, but you could do it in about five seconds,” I said, quite honestly. Josh was one of the younger producers on my show, and we’d dated casually for a couple of months. From the beginning, I’d been really clear about what I was expecting: absolutely nothing for the time being. I preferred to get to know people well before committing to too much, rather than jump in feet first and risk having my heart broken. Josh seemed to understand my need to take things slow at first, but then he’d quickly started getting clingier and clingier. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him— because I did, at least when we were together—but I felt intimidated by all of the pressure he’d been putting on me, and I was also very put off by his lack of respect for my need to take things slow. That disrespect didn’t bode well for the future. “So what’s the problem?” I sighed. “He just…he won’t leave me alone, honestly. And it was okay at first, but since we have to work together, it’s frustrating. He just doesn’t seem to get it that I’m not interested in falling in love with him. Not since he disrespected my boundaries so much.” “Men are so arrogant,” Lizzy said with the practiced air of someone who had dealt with similar. I had to laugh; even though she was five years younger than me, she was clearly the more experienced of our pair. I’d always wanted a serious boyfriend, but honestly, finding time to date was hard. And ever since my show started getting more popular, I was suspicious that men just wanted to use me for fame. I was sick of getting dates with supposedly perfect men only to have them spend the entirety of our time together talking about themselves and hinting at how I could get them a job in TV, or telling me how I could improve my show...with public credit to them, of course. It was enough to turn me off dating altogether.

“They can be,” I said. “I think I just need a break from men altogether, to be honest.” “Hey, why don’t you fly out here?” Lizzy’s voice perked up and I could practically hear the gears spinning in her head. “I’ve got an apartment to myself and it’s pretty quiet around here, at least compared to New York. I think you’d love it.” My first instinct was to refuse, but suddenly I couldn’t believe how much I actually wanted to go. I didn’t exactly have a reason to stay, and I hadn’t taken a real vacation in a few years. I looked out the window, and I could see a plane in the distant night sky, heading east. Maybe it was a sign. “You know what? That’s a great idea,” I said. “I’ll book a flight in the morning.” Lizzy squealed into the receiver and I practically dropped my cell into my lap. “This is so great!” she gushed. “I can’t believe you actually said yes!” A real smile, the first in days, crept onto my lips. “I think a break is probably just what I need right now,” I said honestly. “Besides, I have a ton of leave saved up. And the show doesn’t start again until the end of the summer.” “I’m glad,” Lizzy said. She yawned again and I felt a little twinge of guilt. “I’ll let you go,” I said. “I’m going to book a ticket now and I’ll forward the reservation to you. Can you pick me up from the airport?” “Of course,” Lizzy promised. “It’ll be just like old times.” I knew she was talking about when I first moved to NYC, after college. Lizzy and I had grown up in the country, about as far away from chic New York as we could get. I’d always wanted to get out and do something, but sometimes I couldn’t deny that the big city made me feel claustrophobic. Lizzy now sounded much happier than she had when she’d first picked up the phone, and as we said our goodbyes and hung up, I reflected that even though she was the more outgoing of the two of us, she still must have been feeling lonely. After all, she’d only been in Manchester for a few weeks. The darkening sky outside no longer looked so intimidating to me, and I smiled and stood by the window of my bedroom, watching the people mill about on the streets. From the twenty-first floor, they looked like little ants. Waltzing over to my bed, I sat down and pulled my laptop close to me. I hadn’t checked my email in a few hours, and as it loaded, I felt the familiar twinge of anxiety creeping up my throat. After Josh and I had split up, he’d taken to emailing me almost compulsively. It was something he’d done while we were together, too, but after the split his emails were primarily sent in the middle of the night, rife with spelling mistakes. I frowned when the page loaded and I saw I had two emails from Josh. With a touch of hesitation, I clicked on the first one. ‘Kate the Great, I’m at happy hour, u want to join? I promise I’ll keep my hands to myself. That is, unless u beg me to touch u. ;) PS did u change ur number? I haven’t heard from u in days and I know u must be

missing the biggest part of me…. Josh’ Groaning, I hit delete and sent the offending message to the recycling bin. I didn’t know how someone could be so obnoxious all the time. It wasn’t that I was prudish, but drunkenly emailing an ex from happy hour just seemed like such a bad, childish move. The kind of thing I would have (maybe) done in college, if I’d had less self-respect. The second message was time-stamped an hour ago. ‘Katie, Can I come over? I really need 2 talk 2 u. We need to work things out, ok? U understand that? Rite? Your Josh’ I rolled my eyes. I knew it was stupid, but he was really getting on my nerves. I wanted to block his email, but he always sent the emails from the television studio-issued iPhone. I briefly wondered if I could report him for harassment, but thinking about that put a whole new knot in my stomach. For a while now, I’d had an odd feeling that the head producer didn’t particularly like me, and I didn’t want to give him another reason to bother me. I could just imagine how that conversation would go, me trying to explain that I’d broken up with Josh and that he was harassing me. I could picture exactly how it would end: we’d both get a lecture on behaving unprofessionally by dating work colleagues, and then Josh would just go on badgering me because he’d know he could get away with it. Starting a new message to my boss, I told him that I was going out of the country for a few weeks and that I would be able to stay in touch via email while I was gone. After I hit send, there was a ping of a new message. I was incredulous; I couldn’t believe he’d responded already. My boss was always glued to his BlackBerry but this was unusual, even for him. ‘Katie, I’m going to come over so we can talk, and don’t shut me out this time. I miss u and we really need to talk about how we’re gonna work things out. I can’t live without u, Kate, I need u in my life. Why don’t u understand that? I---‘ I clicked ‘delete’ and slammed my laptop shut before I could read any more of Josh’s poisonous words. My head was swimming; I couldn’t believe I’d gotten in such a mess. The whole time, I didn’t exactly think that dating a colleague was a good idea, but I’d had no idea it was going to turn out like this. The startling thing about all of it was that for most of the time we’d dated, it hadn’t been like that. Josh had been perfectly content to get some takeout, snuggle on the couch, and sometimes sleep together—as in literally sleep together in the same bed, keeping each other warm. And then as soon as I started pulling away because I thought we were spending too much time together, he got really clingy and intense. The final straw had been when I’d broken a date because I had a splitting headache, and he’d shown up drunk at three in the morning. I’d told him in no uncertain terms to piss off and then slammed the door in his face.

Predictably, he hadn’t even remembered doing it the next day. While I usually told Lizzy almost everything, I didn’t exactly want her knowing about how bad Josh’s stalker-ish behavior had gotten. She was younger, and I prayed she wouldn’t ever have to deal with the same kind of crap from a suitor. Then again, Lizzy was a lot different from me. Over the years, I’d had to really push myself to become confident and strong, while Lizzy had been like that since the beginning. She’d been the younger tomboy to my girly girl. Hell, one of the reasons she’d gone to Manchester was because she was obsessed with some soccer team who were based there. Thinking about Lizzy in Manchester reminded me that I should do some research. I didn’t really know anything about England, except for London. And even then, my knowledge of London was outdated—mostly from reading old novels and seeing TV shows and movies that were based there. As I checked out a Manchester website on my laptop a few minutes later, I was pleased to read that the current weather there was quite a lot cooler than the humid NYC summers here, but I had to roll my eyes at the constant references to Manchester United. There were even pop-up ads for flights to Manchester with pictures of the team carousing and partying. Yeah, like I’d want to spend eight hours crammed into a jet with a bunch of drunk playboys, even if they were admittedly kind of cute. When I went to the site for the Manchester Evening News, there was an article featuring one of the star players from the team. The large bolded headline practically yelled ‘Belfast Playboy Plays Dirty With the Ladies,' and splashed underneath that was a shirtless photo of a very muscular man named Jay Walsh. Even though I felt like rolling my eyes at the sports worship—I’d never been a particularly sporty person—I couldn’t deny that he was incredibly sexy, and my knees felt a little weak as I took in the picture. He had a sculpted face and body—slightly wild, like he could be dangerous—and piercing blue eyes that made my stomach do flip-flops. His dark brown hair was cropped close to his head, and I found myself admiring the strong line of his jaw. “Stop it,” I muttered to myself, slamming my laptop closed. The last thing I needed to do was start fantasizing over completely unobtainable men….especially arrogant playboys. From what the article had said about Jay Walsh, he was the kind of guy who took home a different woman each and every night. Maybe sometimes even more than one woman. Ugh. As I imagined an English person might say, a man like that really wasn’t my cup of tea. Standing up, I stretched and walked over to my closet, and after throwing the doors open, I grabbed a handful of dresses and tossed them on the bed. They were mostly the kind of thing I could wear to work; stylish, simple, attractive but not really sexy. For my job, I always had to look perky and relevant. The sexiest I could dare go on the show was ‘girl next door,’ and that was honestly fine with me. I smiled when I saw one of the dresses in the pile that I’d selected. It definitely wasn’t a work dress; it was a close-fitting black sheath with lace sleeves and a pencil skirt that hugged my ass to perfection. It was one of the dresses I’d bought right before moving to the city, when I thought that I’d actually be going to bars and looking for men to pick up after being inspired by one too many re-run

episodes of Sex And The City. I’d almost never had the nerve to wear it, and I was honestly glad Josh hadn’t ever caught a glimpse of me tucked into the silky fabric. If he had, it would probably be harder than ever to make him stay away, because knowing him, he’d try to say I was ‘asking for it’ by wearing it around him. After a moment of hesitation, I folded the dress and put it to the side. I’d take it with me just in case, even though there was probably no way in hell that I’d get to use it. After all, staying with Lizzy didn’t exactly scream ‘single woman on the town,’ but maybe there would be a decent guy or two there… The muscular, tattooed guy from the soccer team—Jay Walsh —popped into my mind automatically, and I laughed out loud. One thing was for sure; even if I met a man on vacation, it definitely wouldn’t be a man like him. No flippin’ way.

Chapter Two Jay

Jesus… how much did I drink last night? “My head is fucking pounding,” I mumbled to no one in particular as I swung my legs over the side of the bed and padded across the unfamiliar carpet to the gleaming white hotel bathroom. From the bed, there was a slight stirring sound, and I glanced up and saw a naked torso, attached to an attractive strawberry-blonde head. Blue eyes were staring right at me, dry pink lips working their way into a faint smile. “Hello, sexy,” the girl said softly. Her voice was attractively raspy, but when I blinked and looked closer, I saw crumbs of mascara under her eyes, complete with massive circles. “Why don’t you come on back to bed?” She gave me a lascivious look and I rolled my eyes before stepping into the bathroom and closing the door behind me. My body ached like I’d been running all over the pitch, and I blinked and shook my head, trying to clear the hangover. I could barely remember last night, but that was nothing new. I grinned as an image flashed into my mind: the blonde in my bed, plastering herself against me at a pub and slipping her hands into my pants. She’d been so hot to get me out of there, she’d practically dragged my pants off in the alley and tried to finish me off right then and there. With satisfying forcefulness, I took a piss, sighing at the feeling of immediate relief. “Jay, are you gonna be much longer in there?” The girl’s voice sounded loudly from the other side of the closed door. “I need to use the loo!” “I’ll be right out,” I muttered. “Christ, can’t a man take a piss in peace?” I heard pearls of giggles from my one-time companion, and a trace of irritation flickered through me. What was with these birds who thought that the morning was a fun time for chatting? “Jay!” The girl squeaked when I opened the door. I thought she was going to dash past me for the loo but instead she wrapped her arms around my waist and pulled me close. “Come back to bed.” I shook my head. “Can’t,” I said casually as I peeled her arms away from my body. “I gotta get down to the pitch. I’m already late.” She giggled again, and I felt the mild annoyance getting stronger. “Come on, it’ll be fun,” she wheedled. Blinking up at me with vacant blue eyes, she bit her lower lip and went on. “After all, you were game last night!” “Last night was last night,” I said mildly, pushing past her and reaching for my jumper and pants on the floor. “And this morning, it’s time for you to leave.”

She pouted. “Come on,” she said. Her resolve was clearly weakening but she shot me a hopeful smile anyway. I shook my head. “Jayyyy,” she continued, drawing my name out in a long, teasing way as her expression became coy. “Let’s take a shower together. I know you want to. You know…you can even fuck me in the ass if you want.” My skin itched at the mention of a shower, but I wasn’t in the mood to share my time under the hot water, and god…her desperation was not sexy at all. “Don’t be such a melter,” I told her. “Time for you to go. Come on.” She pouted again and I resisted the urge to go in the bathroom and lock the door until she’d gone. “You don’t even remember my name, do you?” she asked in a hurt voice. I shot her a guilty grin and shrugged. “Don’t take it personally,” I said. “Trust me, this happens a lot.” Yeah, I was an asshole, but at least I was honest about it. The blonde’s smile finally vanished, and I watched with mild interest as she collected her clothes from the floor and stepped neatly into a tiny pair of pink panties and an even tinier black mini-dress. Oh, yeah. The black dress. That’s what had drawn me to her in the first place. I was a sucker for girls in tiny black dresses. I knew it was stereotypical, but I couldn’t help it. Every time one of those birds walked by, I felt my leg twitch like a pup’s. The girl finally left, slamming the door behind her and stalking to the lifts in a huff, and I checked my phone and saw that Coach had called a few times. Bloody hell, I thought. Just my fucking luck right now. I was lucky I was so good, or else my antics probably would have gotten me booted off the team, and there was no way I could let that happen. Football was my life. I loved the adrenaline of running onto the pitch with my mates, kicking and tackling our way to victory. The adrenaline after winning a match was like nothing else I’d ever experienced, and it even beat out the feeling of going home with a new girl for the first time. There was nothing else like it in the world. The blonde girl had flipped the TV on while waiting for me to come out of the bathroom earlier, and for a minute, I stared at the screen, enchanted by what I saw. It was a re-run of an American show called Keeping Current With Kate. The hostess was a sexy brunette who always wore shift dresses with mandarin collars, and seeing her was enough to get my cock hard and my balls aching. Even though she talked about a lot of serious issues, she managed to act playful and intelligent in turn, which really helped convey her points, and while the show was aimed at women, I liked to catch it whenever I could, just so I could watch her. She was one of the hottest women I’d ever seen on TV, but knowing what most media personalities were like, she was probably nervy as hell in person. I couldn’t imagine her tossing a shot of tequila down her throat and dancing with me until the wee hours of the morning, that was for sure.

Still, she was a fox. I grinned at her figure on the screen. After my shower, I toweled off and slipped into my white shorts and red jersey. I felt almost as good as new. The lovely Kate had disappeared from the TV now, and I switched it over to the local news before rolling my eyes. There I was, or at least, there was my drunken doppelganger in a photo, his arms around a cheap blonde at a pub. Frowning, I turned up the volume. “Jay Walsh, perennial playboy and star of Manchester United is up to his old tricks again,” said a wily female voice. “According to gossip blogger Hannah Joyce, he was seen with not one but two women late last night. We’ve brought Hannah on site today for an interview. Nice to see you, Hannah!” My stomach churned as I watched the lithe figure of my ex-girlfriend parade across the screen. She was a petite platinum blonde, dressed to kill in a white slip dress and heels that were much too high for morning telly. “Hi there,” Hannah said, fluttering her heavy black false eyelashes. She settled down in a chair and crossed her legs at the ankle. “So, are we here to dish about Jay?” She turned to the camera and winked, and a laugh-track played. I knew that I should turn the TV off and leave, but there was something hypnotic about watching others discuss you onscreen, like you were right there in the room. “So, Hannah,” the voiceover continued. “Is it true? You really saw Jay with two women last night?” Hannah let out a studied giggle. Then she winked at the camera again, and I felt faintly nauseated. “Well, actually, it was more like three women,” she said. She pouted and the announcer cooed sympathetically. “Can you believe I used to date that playboy?” “He certainly keeps busy,” the announcer commented. “You think he was celebrating, or this is just typical behavior from Jay?” “Just another Monday night, really,” Hannah replied breezily. I felt anger rise in my throat, and I finally clicked the TV off. I didn’t want to hear anything else she had to say. Even though we’d been broken up for almost a year, she still went out of her way to make my life miserable. I’d dated her when I first moved to Manchester from Belfast, and at first, it had been great. But then she started getting jealous and possessive, and we started fighting all the time. She couldn’t handle me going out with my mates. Ever. It was like she thought I’d take the first possible chance to cheat on her, even though I wasn’t that kind of guy. Sure, whenever I was single, I was a total player, but if I was in a relationship, I deeply respected the need for commitment. I didn’t cheat at my sport, and I definitely didn’t cheat on girlfriends. The jealousy had been bad enough, but the lying was even worse. Hannah had started using any excuse possible to make up shit about me to my mates and my family, trying to claim that I was a verbally abusive, cheating asshole. For a while, even my best friend Connor hadn’t talked to me. When I realized what she was doing, we broke up, but she’d obviously refused to accept the end of the relationship.

Nowadays, she worked as a sports reporter, but I most often saw her on gossip shows. She had no shame in stalking me professionally, and I knew she was waiting for the right moment to pounce and try to ruin my career for good out of revenge for me dumping her and moving on. All I could say to that was ‘good luck’. I hadn’t worked my ass off to get where I was only to be taken down by a nutty ex. After heading downstairs, I checked out of the hotel, and thankfully, the valet didn’t recognize me when I handed over my ticket. By the time I was in my car and cruising to the stadium, Hannah’s pernicious lies were starting to fade from my head. Now that I was famous, I couldn’t believe the amount of attention celebrities received. While I loved meeting girls who knew my name, it often felt like a double-edged sword, and I cursed myself for getting involved with someone like Hannah and falling for her lies for so long. My mobile phone buzzed, and I picked it up and held it to my ear. “Hey, mate,” I said. I knew it was Connor without even checking the caller ID; he often called right before a big match to wish me luck. “Hey,” Connor replied. I frowned; he sounded more distant than usual. “Hey, how’s things? New job any good?” I asked. He’d just started a new job with a new construction firm after being unemployed for a while, and I was glad he’d managed to find something. We’d been best mates for years, and I hated seeing him struggle to survive, but he was too proud to take handouts, so I could never convince him to take anything from me. We’d grown up together in the worst part of Belfast, rife with IRA violence and bombings, and despite the odds, we’d stayed mates. Connor had always supported me. He was a great friend, and I missed having him around all the time. He let out a long yawn. “I’m tired,” he mumbled, sounding irritated. “The job is killer.” I swallowed. “You know, man, I could always help you out for a little bit,” I said. “I’d even let you pay me back.” He didn’t reply immediately, and I knew he was going to refuse me, just like he always did. “You know I don’t take charity,” he grumbled. “I’ll be fine, I’m just a wee bit off.” “Right. Hope it all works out.” “Yeah, it’ll be all right. Anyway, how about you? How’s things?” I chuckled. “Man, I had the weirdest chick stay with me last night,” I said before launching into a story about the anonymous blonde who’d bedded me all night and then snored so loudly I barely slept. “I’ve got the worst fuckin’ hangover, too,” I finished. “Time to get back to the bottle, then,” Connor said in an exaggerated accent. We both laughed; it was an old inside joke of ours. “Hair of the dog, they say.” “Not today,” I replied. “I’m on the way to the pitch. I’m already late, can you believe that?”

“That’s a bit rum of you,” Connor said. He laughed. “Being late on a Monday! You’re lucky they don’t chuck you aside.” “I’m blessed,” I said, grinning even though he couldn’t see. “Anyway, I’m driving, so I’ll let you go, mate. Talk to you soon.” “Yep. Have fun.” We hung up and I continued the drive in silence, mulling over the conversation. Connor had sounded far more tired than usual, and if he stayed in the construction industry for much longer, I didn’t think he’d have any joints after a few more years. He’d always been a smaller guy, and I thought a less physical job would suit him far more. I desperately wanted him to get out of the business and find something like an office job, but he was too determined to stick things out on his own. When I pulled into the stadium parking lot, reporters mobbed my car. I groaned. “Just what I bloody need right now,” I mumbled. “Thanks, you lot.” “Jay! Jay!” The reporters cried, and I tried to flash a friendly smile. One of them elbowed her way past the crowd and kept pace with me despite being a foot shorter than I was. “Jay,” she began with a winning smile. “Is it true you spent last night with three different women?” I laughed. “Love, if that were true, I wouldn’t be walking today,” I said with a grin. “You know that’s bollocks.” The reporter giggled politely. “So am I to take it that you have a new lady love?” When I didn’t immediately answer, she pressed on. “Someone serious that you’re going to settle down with?” I snorted. “Nope. Not at all,” I said with a grin, shaking my head. I knew it wasn’t what she wanted to hear; she wanted to hear me say something like, ‘oh, I’d love to settle down, I’m just looking for the right person’. But that wasn’t true. I wasn’t looking for Mrs. Right at the moment (more like Mrs. Right Now, if you catch my drift) and as far as I could see, I wouldn’t be settling down anytime soon. If I actually did, then the woman would have to be someone special. Really bloody special. And that definitely wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Chapter Three Kate

After seven hours in a cramped jet, I was dying to get out and stretch my legs. Thankfully, the plane wasn’t stuffed full of tattooed soccer players like the online ads had suggested, but there were a couple of squabbling kids to my right that kept me distracted for most of the time we were in the air. I’d never really been a huge fan of kids, and I’d always thought I’d be the kind of woman who never had them, but there was something so cute about this pair. Even their little accents were adorable. “Are the little ones bothering you?” A kindly woman looked at me from over her knitting. “These were the only two seats together on board.” I blushed. “No, they’re fine,” I said. “They’re cute.” The woman gave me a tired smile. “Just wait until you have wee ones of your own,” she said in a sage tone. “They won’t be so cute then.” Aside from the kids, the ride had been pretty quiet, and although I normally liked flying, the last couple of hours had been torture. My ass ached from the thinly padded seat and I felt like I’d been breathing in the same air for my whole life. I couldn’t wait to get a breath of the fresh Manchester air. “Kate!” Lizzy screamed my name as she saw me finally enter the arrivals lobby, and she threw herself in my direction. I barely had time to recognize her before she hurtled across the room and wrapped her thin arms around my neck, and I was surprised to find tears in my eyes. What was happening to me? Why the hell was I becoming so sentimental? I’d only seen her a few weeks ago before she left. “God, it’s good to see you,” I said, inhaling the floral fragrance of her shampoo. “You look great!” She really did. Instead of her usual ripped jeans and button-down, Lizzy was wearing a cute navy blue sundress and flat tan sandals, and she looked more European than I’d ever seen her. Her hair was in a messy fishtail braid, and I caught myself admiring it from all angles. I was going to have to get her to teach me how to do that. Lizzy and I could have been twins, except she had lighter brown hair compared to my dark shade, and she was slightly shorter and thinner. Locks and height aside, we had the same pert nose, the same cheekbones, and the same green eyes. She stepped back and gestured down. “I went shopping,” she said. “Well, you look amazing,” I said, more modestly this time. “So, what are we doing once we get my luggage? Lunch?” Lizzy grinned. “Not exactly. But you’re gonna love it,” she said, taking my hand and swinging me around in a circle. I felt slightly dizzy; my body clock was still set to American time and it felt like it should be the middle of the night. But instead, Manchester was sunny and bright.

“What do you mean by ‘not exactly’?” I asked, arching a suspicious brow. “We’re going to a football match!” I wrinkled my nose. “I haven’t seen you in a month and you’re dragging me to a soccer game?” Lizzy grinned. “It’ll be fun, I promise. You can drink some wine there. And sis, it’s football here. Not soccer. You sound like a Yank.” “I am a Yank!” I said. “And so are you, missy.” “Whatever. But I know you’ll like this one,” Lizzy said, her voice packed with enthusiasm. “I won a contest and we get to go meet and greet the team in the locker room after the match.” “Oh, really?” I said, wondering how that was actually a contest prize. “Isn’t that kinda gross? It probably smells like sweaty dude in there, Liz.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “Where’s your sense of adventure? They’re like, the hottest guys on the planet.” I rolled my eyes but kept my mouth shut. At least I could use this as leverage for the rest of my trip whenever I wanted to do something. I grinned at the thought; Lizzy owed me at least three shopping trips for dragging me straight from the airport to a sweaty soccer game even though she knew I didn’t like sports. “Oh, we’re going home first,” she said, as if reading my mind. “That way you can change and shower.” I looked down at my boyfriend jeans and artfully-wrinkled linen tunic. “I think this is fine for a game.” Lizzy rolled her eyes. “For someone who has a stylist for her own TV show, you should know better,” she said. Linking her arm through mine, she led me out to the parking lot and to her tiny little rental car. We zoomed through the countryside and I gripped my door with blind fear. Lizzy laughed when she saw my expression. “I know, it’s scary suddenly being on this side of the road,” she said, her voice softening. “But it’s nothing compared to driving. You should try shifting with your left hand!” I had to keep my eyes closed for the rest of the drive, and when we pulled up at Lizzy’s apartment, she helped me lug my bags inside. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “I made a room in the living room for you.” “Cool, thanks!” Lizzy’s apartment was tiny but comfortable. She’d dragged a screen over to the corner and made a little private area with a camp bed and a nightstand for me. “I know it’s not ideal,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “But I figured you’d rather have your own space.”

I grinned. “This is great,” I said. “Honestly, it’s perfect. I love it.” And I did. Lizzy’s apartment was about as far away from mine as possible. My apartment was rather large, elegantly bare, with high ceilings and everything painted white. Lizzy’s looked like it was part of a building from another time, with a smooth tiled floor and dark appliances. It already felt like I was a million miles away from NYC, and I was even starting to feel better about going to the soccer match. This trip was exactly what I needed. I took a shower and got dressed in the same boyfriend jeans with a different top. The weather was humid, so I braided my hair in a lazy crown and pinned the ends up, and after a touch of lipstick and mascara, I was ready to go. Happily, I noticed that my reflection was a lot different than the Kate of ‘Keeping Current With Kate’. I actually looked relaxed. “Let’s go,” Lizzy said. She was bouncing up and down excitedly. “This is gonna be so great!” “I’m bringing a book,” I said with a teasing grin, pointing inside my bag. “And I might even take it out and read it depending on how things go.” Lizzy opened her green eyes wide and stared at me. “They’re playing Liverpool,” she said dramatically. “That’s like, huge rivalry, Kate.” “That’s cool,” I said breezily. “But really I’m just looking forward to being outside with some wine and a good read.” Lizzy chuckled, but she didn’t say anything. I had to laugh as well; this was so typical of us. She’d always been the tomboy out of the two of us, into every sport with a ball and cute guys. I usually watched the Super Bowl with friends, but that was it. Aside from that, the closest I’d been to sports in recent years was when I’d done a special edition on how harmful jock culture could be to young women in our home country, featuring a woman who’d been gang-raped by a drunken college lacrosse team at a house party. The football stadium was packed with fans, all done up in face paint and scarves featuring a red, black, and yellow pattern. Interested, I stared at the emblem. I did have to admit, at least European logos were cooler than American ones, and I felt an odd sense of excitement rush over me as Lizzy led us to our seats. We were packed in like sardines, but the good mood of the crowd was infectious. When Lizzy caught me smiling, she grinned. “I knew you’d have fun here,” she said. “Look! Those are the guys!” She pointed down at the field, and I saw tiny handsome figures in red running out on the pitch. We were so far away that I had to use Lizzy’s binoculars to zoom in, and when I recognized the features of one of the guys, I gasped. It was him. Jay Walsh—the very same guy that I’d seen prominently displayed all over the Manchester pages I’d visited online. I groaned. “I recognize that guy,” I said, pointing in his direction. “He’s Jay Walsh. When I was booking my flight, there were tons of ads with his face on them. And erm…his body too.” I recalled his tattooed chest and sculpted abs, and I felt a tingling warmth between my legs, which

I immediately ignored. Lizzy raised her eyebrows. “Oh, my god, you actually remembered his name?” She cackled and I blushed hotly. “He’s like, the most famous one on the team! Isn’t he dreamy?” He was, but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing she was right. “He’s okay, I guess, if you like those big beefy types,” I replied with a shrug. Lizzy rolled her eyes. “Come on, just admit he’s hot!” she said. “It’s okay to be normal for once, Kate.” “Fine…he’s kinda hot,” I said, blushing as Jay’s eyes swept over the crowd and loud female voices shrieked their approval. His eyes seemed to linger on me, but I knew that was impossible. After all, we were in the nosebleed seats of the stadium. Once the match started, I felt myself zone out a little bit. The crowd booed every time Liverpool scored, and by the middle of the game I was starting to get back into the energy. It was so different from an American game; the energy was electric, happy. There seemed to be a very friendly, bluecollar attitude among almost all of the onlookers, and I almost felt like I was bonding with everyone else there. Lizzy was clearly having the time of her life, screaming and cheering every time Manchester scored. Plus, the men were gorgeous. They moved across the field like spirited, sleek animals, and Jay especially had a kind of magnetism about him that made me keep searching for him. Every time he scored, he’d smirk and look around the stadium, taking clear pride in his popularity. “Seems like a big head on that one,” I said, pointing at Jay again as I passed the binoculars back to Lizzy as the first half of the game ended. “He’s awfully proud of himself.” “Probably because he’s a hotshot football player,” Lizzy said with an arched brow. “You’re telling me you wouldn’t be proud of that?” I frowned. “It’s cool and all. Good for him,” I said. “But I mean, he’s not really making a difference, is he? He’s getting rich playing a sport, and aside from that, all I’ve read about him is that he goes out clubbing a lot and has sex with tons of women.” Lizzy looked at me and shook her head. “I guess the media does focus on his playboy side a lot, but he’s actually a pretty good guy,” she said. “He’s from Belfast, and he spends a lot of time working with charities up there. I think he grew up really poor or something.” “Oh,” I said, feeling slightly guilty for having judged the guy so quickly. But then as I kept watching him, I saw him lightly slap the ass of a squealing female fan who’d run out to hug him as the team headed off the field for halftime, and I rolled my eyes. Just because someone contributed to charity didn’t mean they weren’t a sleazy ass; maybe my initial assessment of him had been right after all. When halftime ended, Lizzy hoisted the binoculars to her eyes, and she let out a soft little sigh as she watched her favorite players run around. She didn’t say much for a while, and I realized how utterly enchanted she was with the game. It was obviously something that meant a lot to her, and I started feeling guilty for giving her crap earlier. Manchester United ended up winning the game, and Lizzy and the other fans went nuts, jumping up

and screaming and hollering loudly. I even got caught up in the excitement and started clapping, smiling as I saw everyone’s utterly thrilled reactions. However, I was also absolutely starving, so part of me was definitely glad that it was over. Maybe I could talk Lizzy into finding a nice pub for dinner later. I was almost starting to salivate, thinking of the scotch eggs that I’d eat, when Lizzy tugged at my sleeve. “Come on,” she hissed in my ear. “We’re going to the locker room now!” “We don’t have to wait for them to change?” “No. And don’t worry, it’ll only be a few minutes,” she said. “Come on, I think they’ll be nice. As long as we don’t go in there wearing Liverpool banners, at least.” “Damn, I was totally gonna do that,” I teased, and she giggled. Ruffling her hair, I fell into step behind her in the crush of people. The huge crowd was moving down and out of the stadium, like a slow-moving, sweaty river. The closer to the pitch we got, the stronger the scent of stale beer became. Some of the men leaving the stadium were drunk and really raucous, and I clung to Lizzy’s hands, not wanting to be separated from her. The accents were different than what I’d always imagined them to be—not posh London, but harsher, with lots of emphasis on the vowels. I couldn’t even understand what some of the drunk guys were talking about, and despite my slight discomfort, I couldn’t help but grin. I felt as far away from NYC as ever. Lizzy showed some papers to a security guard outside the locker room, and he waved us in. The air was hot and humid, like a shower, and it smelled of pure masculinity. I wrinkled my nose, but in reality it wasn’t as unpleasant as I’d expected. It actually smelled kind of good. God, what is happening to me? I thought. One day away from home and I’m turning into a soccer groupie. We weren’t the only fans going in; there was a crowd of screaming, shrieking, squealing girls, and as soon as the team appeared, the girls launched themselves at various players. Jay Walsh had the biggest fan crowd to contend with, and I watched as he grinned and obligingly took selfies with all of his fans. “How long are we allowed to stay, Lizzy?” I asked. But she had already disappeared. When I turned around, I saw her chatting up another tall Adonis. Unlike Jay, this guy had let his hair grow slightly long, and it was a lighter shade of brownish-blond, which highlighted his bright blue eyes and complemented Lizzy’s darker beauty. She looked happy and without a trace of self-consciousness, and for a moment I was envious of her ability to just walk right up to a soccer star and start chatting with him. “This is a prime bunch,” one of the guys called to Jay. He grinned. “We’re gonna get our pick of the pussy tonight, boys,” he replied, just loudly enough for me to hear him from where I was standing off to the side. I wrinkled my nose. The girls were draping themselves on him and begging for autographs, and Jay was indulging them the same way that he might indulge a litter of puppies, all smiles and cajoling. Seriously, why did women go for guys like him? He’d literally just referred to the women here as ‘pussy’ like that’s all they were to him; not human women, just slabs of meat to devour whenever he

felt like it. “What do you birds think of coming to a party with us tonight?” Jay said to the girls with a grin. “I think you girls would be a hit.” As they all squeaked their unanimous acceptance, I rolled my eyes and turned around. Lizzy bounded back over to me, a signed soccer ball in her hands. “Come on,” she said, grabbing my hand and dragging me across the room. “Let’s meet Jay!” “I don’t know,” I said. Some of my good mood had vanished. “He seems like a real asshole. He was talking about those girls like they were a herd of cattle.” And they were eating it up, I thought to myself with a scowl. It’s like they want to be objectified! “He’s not really like that,” Lizzy said. “I mean, he’s just excited. They just won a huge match and he has all these cute girls around him. Wouldn’t you be excited?” I sighed. She had a point, and even nice men did tend to act like meatheads on occasion, especially when they were around a lot of other big, masculine guys. “Fine, we’ll go meet him,” I said, remembering my earlier guilt for not getting excited about her interests. “Yay!” Together, we crossed the room and stood in front of Jay, and Lizzy chirped his name. “Hello there,” he said. He smiled warmly at Lizzy and me, and I could barely manage to wipe the scowl off my face. “You ladies like the match?” His accent sent shivers down my spine. It was really sexy, but there was no way I’d ever admit that to Lizzy. I barely wanted to admit it to myself. “Nice win,” Lizzy said. “You showed those Liverpool arseholes!” Jay laughed. “We did,” he said, grinning and exposing a mouth full of even, white teeth. In person, he was even more handsome than he had been in the ads. I could see that his blue eyes were flecked with gold, and his tan skin practically glowed, even in the dull lighting of the locker room. As we posed for a picture together, I felt my heart racing in my chest when he casually draped his arm over my shoulders. “Say, why don’t you two come by our party later?” Jay said. “It’s gonna be real craic!” I blinked. Aside from not knowing what ‘craic’ meant, it seemed like the worst idea I’d heard yet. “I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I just got in from the States today. I’m exhausted.” And I don’t really love the idea of watching you preen around for hours in front of your adoring fans while referring to them as ‘pussy’, I thought to myself. What a great way to make me lose my appetite. “Aw, come on,” Jay said. He winked at me and I felt my stomach do a flip-flop. “You look like you could use a night out. And if you come, I’ll score a goal for you at the next game. I promise.” I snorted. “You’re going to have a lot of goals to score first,” I said, gesturing to the gaggle of girls that were now swarming another soccer player. “What about all of them?”

Jay shook his head and grinned, and I felt the same butterflies in my stomach. “I didn’t promise any of them a goal,” he said. “Just you. So will you come?” “ “She’ll come,” Lizzy broke in. “Right?” She looked at me and I felt her green eyes boring intensely into me. From that alone, I knew I was defeated. “Okay, I’ll come,” I said with a nod. “At least for a few minutes.” “Good,” Jay replied, before winking at us again. “As long as you behave and don’t act like an ass,” I added. “That’s my condition.” Jay slapped one of his giant hands over his heart and gave me a solemn look. “I’ll behave,” he said, holding his serious expression. Then he grinned at me again, and I felt my stomach flutter. I smiled. I liked that he had a good sense of humor, and it made me wonder if I’d overreacted in my initial assessment of him. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. And even if he is, I thought. It’s just one party. How much harm could that do?

Chapter Four Kate

“I can’t believe you said yes!” Lizzy’s face was glowing; she practically looked as though she was lit from within. “This is going to be so much fun, I promise.” “As long as you don’t keep saying ‘arsehole,’” I replied with a giggle. “It makes you sound weird.” Lizzy shrugged. “When in Rome,” she said, winking at me, and I blushed again. “So, you liked Jay, huh?” I bit my lip. “He was fine,” I said, trying to keep a nonchalant tone to my voice. “Sexy. But kind of full of himself, right?” Lizzy rolled her eyes. “I think something would be wrong with him if he wasn’t. He’s famous, right?” “True,” I said, narrowing my eyes and digging through my suitcase. “What should I wear to this party, anyway?” Before Lizzy could see the black dress, I tucked it behind a pile of other clothes. “Jeans?” Lizzy shrugged. “I’m wearing pants,” she said. “It’s not formal. They’re just having people over to their football club for drinks.” I settled on black skinny jeans and a tank top with intricate silver beading on the front. The air had turned chilly since dusk had set in, and I shivered as I rummaged through my suitcase again. “I can’t find any of my cardigans…got a spare?” I asked. Lizzy nodded and tossed me one of her jackets, and I gratefully slipped it on, pulling my arms tight over my body as we stepped outside and began the short walk to the public transport which would take us to Manchester United’s FC. As we walked, Lizzy pointed out various shops and cafes that she liked, and I made mental notes to come back and try them all. So far, Manchester was absolutely charming. I’d heard some bad things about it before, but I decided that I liked it. It was definitely more relaxing than a trip to London would have been, and I silently thanked my sister for inviting me and pulling me out of my depressing rut. I wasn’t nervous until we were almost there, and suddenly, anxiety slipped over me, making me close my eyes and take a deep breath. It’d been a long time since I’d felt like this; working on my show had knocked most of my old nervousness out of me. “Is this going to be wild?” I asked. “I haven’t been to a rager since college, you know.”

Lizzy playfully slapped me on the arm. “It’s gonna be fun,” she replied. “That’s all. Just a few drinks. We don’t have to stay long. Just find me when you want to leave and we’ll go home together. “ I nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” Then, taking a deep breath, we entered the club. It was crowded, loud, and warm with the crush of people, and Lizzy spotted the blond soccer player she’d been chatting with earlier before darting off in his direction. I was left standing alone in the foyer, tapping at the ground with the toe of my shoe as I tried to figure out my next move. Lizzy was already making herself at home—when I looked over, she was throwing her head back in laughter as the blond player pulled her onto his broad lap. She tossed back a shot glass filled with vile-looking pink liquid before letting out a screech, and I smiled and shook my head. Lizzy may have been mature for her age, but she was definitely still a college student. I envied her ability to have fun like that. My own college years hadn’t been exactly filled with partying. I’d been on a scholarship, and I’d been so afraid of losing it that I almost never wanted to sit back and let go. I’d gone to a few parties and watched my friends turn into drunk messes, and that wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that inspired me to let my hair down. “Glad to see you here, Kate.” A low voice greeted me, and I practically jumped a foot in the air as I heard a masculine chuckling sound. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” I turned and blushed hotly. “It’s fine,” I said. Jay was leaning up against the wall. He’d changed into dark jeans and a clean button-down shirt that clung to his muscular frame, and I felt my mouth go dry as he stepped closer. It suddenly occurred to me that he knew my name, and I wondered how— Lizzy and I hadn’t actually told him our names earlier when he invited us to the party. I got my answer a split-second later. “Y’know, I’ve watched your show,” Jay said. He gave me another one of his lazy grins, and my stomach filled with butterflies. “I really liked that segment you did on dealing with loss. That was good. I watched the whole thing.” My eyes widened. I couldn’t believe it. A world-famous soccer player actually knew who I was? My show did quite well back home, but it wasn’t exactly primetime TV, and it certainly wasn’t something I thought British people would bother watching. “Really?” I asked. Jay nodded. “Yep. That segment was dead-on,” he said. “A lot of people here watch your show, actually. They run it in the mornings and late at night.” Wow. I’d honestly had no idea I was even remotely popular or well-known anywhere else in the world other than the States, and I couldn’t help the smile that was creeping over my lips. “I wasn’t aware of that, but thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward. Jay was sizing me up carefully, his gaze sliding over every inch of my body. I wasn’t used to being this thoroughly checkedout, and it was making me feel more self-conscious than ever. “I know what you’re thinking,” Jay said in a teasing tone. “You probably don’t think someone like

me would watch your show. Well, we’re not all a bunch of jocks, as you Yanks would say.” My blush deepened. It was like he’d read my mind; that was exactly what I’d been thinking when he told me that he watched my show, but all the same, it was embarrassing to have been called out on it. “I’m glad to know you’re not a dumb jock,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse, and I mentally kicked myself. Get it together, Kate. “Can I get you a drink?” Jay asked, gesturing to my empty hands. “Sure. Vodka tonic,” I said automatically. ‘Thank you.” Jay grinned at me and I felt a little flutter in my chest. There was no doubt about it—he was gorgeous. Every inch of him seemed to be made out of tanned muscle, and when his blue eyes stared at me, I felt a kick of arousal in my lower belly. “I’ll be right back,” Jay said. He touched me on the shoulder, and I felt sparks fly between our bodies. “Don’t go anywhere.” He sauntered off, and I noticed with a gleam of pride that he ignored the lusty looks from all of the other women in the room. Lizzy was in the corner, wrapped around her player and kissing him so hard that their heads looked like they’d melted together in some sort of freak accident. I felt a buzzing in my pocket and reached down for my cell phone, and I groaned when I saw the number. It was Josh. My heart sank. What does he want? And why does he have to call me now? I knew if I didn’t answer, he’d just keep trying, so I picked up. “Hi,” I said. “Now isn’t a really good time to talk. If this is about work, please email me.” “That would be pretty fuckin’ hard to do, considering you never answer your emails,” Josh replied, his voice slurring slightly. I realized he was drunk, and I frowned. It was barely midafternoon back in NYC! “I saw you on TV,” he continued. “You were at some soccer match. They zoomed up on you.” I winced. I hadn’t thought of that. In fact, during the game, I’d barely paid attention to the cam shown on the big pixelated board. I’d been too busy concentrating on Jay and pretending like I wasn’t. I bit my lip. “I’m visiting my sister in Manchester,” I said. “I sorted it out with the boss, so if you have any questions, ask him. I’ll be back before we start taping the back-to-school specials.” “I’m not calling about that,” Josh said. His breathing sounded heavy and ragged. “I’m calling to tell you that you need to come home. You belong here with me and you fucking know it.” There was a pause, and I didn’t answer. I was too shocked at his incredible arrogance. “Kate? You still there?” “Yeah. What on earth are you talking about?” I asked. “I mean…are you kidding me? We broke up. We’re done. We’re not getting back together, and I’m not interested in you anymore!” Josh laughed harshly. “Yeah, I guess you’re having too much fun whoring yourself out to soccer

players,” he said. “If you knew what was good for you, you’d be on the first plane back to America.” Rage filled my body but I somehow managed to keep my tone curt and polite. “Shows how much you know,” I said. “Over here it’s called football. Bye, Josh.” Before he could answer, I ended the call and shoved my phone back in my pocket. I was seething mad. Just who the hell did he think he was? And why on earth did he think he could control me like that? I wasn’t his. I’d never even come close to being his, because he’d been such a disrespectful prick! Jay finally returned, carrying two drinks in his hands, and when he handed me one of the glasses, I threw my head back and sucked every drop of vodka down my throat. The alcohol hit me at once; heady, strong, hot. A pleasantly warm feeling soaked through my limbs, and I closed my eyes, enjoying the familiar sensation of the vodka. When I looked at Jay, all thoughts of Josh slipped out of my head and vanished. His blue eyes sparkled with mischief and desire, and before I knew what I was doing, I leaned up on my tip-toes and crushed my body against his. Oh, god… This was a bad idea. I barely knew the guy, and up until a few minutes ago, I hadn’t even liked him. And yet, kissing him was the only thing I wanted to do right now. Our lips met, and I tasted salt and musk as desire flowed like lava through my body. I wrapped my arms around Jay’s neck, pulling him closer, and as he slipped his tongue between my lips, I moaned softly. Pulling away, I fixed him with my lustiest gaze. “Come with me,” I said in a husky voice. Jay looked surprised, but also smug, like he’d won the lottery. He took my hand and I led him through the crowded room. All around us, couples were making out, but I didn’t want to do this in front of a huge crowd of people. I was already anxious about my picture appearing on the big cam at the football match, and the last thing I needed was to be plastered on the cover of some tabloid, wrapped around a Manchester United player. Jay grinned at me and tugged me through a back doorway until we were alone in a deserted little hallway. My heart was pounding in my chest as I stepped closer and pulled him to me again. His lips were soft against mine, and I felt my lower belly thump with lust as he twined his fingers through my hair and gently tugged at my scalp. Up close, he smelled like spicy cologne and musk, and the scent flooded my senses as I closed my eyes, twisting my head to the side and deepening our kiss. Jay groaned softly and pulled me close against his rock-hard chest, and his pecs pressed against my chest, making me shiver with the slight stimulation on my nipples. He slipped his hands down my back and kneaded my ass firmly through the jeans. It felt incredible, and I spread my legs, allowing him to nudge one of his muscular thighs between my own. “Kate,” he murmured into my neck as he nuzzled my skin. “I want you…I really fucking want you.” I looked up at him, my heart pounding and my skin tingling with anticipation. I didn’t do things like this, ever—I wasn’t usually that kind of woman. But right now, I desperately wanted to be that

kind of woman, and I wanted him just as much as he said he wanted me. On top of that, I wanted to rebel against my usual state of mind and the relationship rut Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d found myself in time and time again. Maybe this was exactly what I needed to get out of that rutâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;a fiery fling to keep me satisfied while I sorted myself out and figured out what I needed. But could I really do it? Could I really just hook up with a big beefy football player who was essentially a complete stranger? I took a deep breath as I quickly thought it over. And then I kissed him again.

Chapter Five Jay

As Kate leaned into me and kissed me fiercely with her hot little mouth, I let out an involuntary groan. My cock twitched between my legs and I shuddered, pulling her as close to me as I could without crushing her. As I slid my hands down her smooth back and grabbed her pert ass, lust tore through my body at the thought that I was finally running my fingertips over her excellent figure; that same body I’d pictured myself touching so many times whenever I saw her on TV. I just knew that she’d be a wildcat in the sack, the kind of girl who wouldn’t stop until we were both sore, satisfied, and slick with sweat. A lady in the street and a freak in the sheets, as they say. “You’re so fucking sexy,” I murmured into her soft, fragrant neck. “I can’t wait to fuck you.” She tensed up, and before I knew what she was doing, she’d suddenly pulled away. She looked up at me, her eyes wide, and I thought she was going to say something, but instead she bolted out of my arms and down the hallway. What the fuck was going on? She’d been totally into it just a second ago; hell, she’d been the one to kiss me, more than once. I followed her outside of the club and onto the street, and when she realized I was chasing after her, she turned around. Her beautiful face was flushed, her green eyes were sparkling and alive. Her dark hair was mussed and wild, and more than anything, I wanted to reach out and grab her again. I could still taste the sweetness of her lips on mine, and my balls were aching with the urge to take her right then and there. “Kate, what’s wrong?” I asked, taking her gently by the shoulder. She looked up at me with anxiety clear on her face. “I don’t know,” she mumbled, flushing as I stared deeply into her eyes. “I wanted to be someone else for a change, and I really thought I could, but I guess I’m not good at doing that after all.” She looked at the ground, and I could tell she was out of her element. Some of the wind went out of my sails; I still wanted to fuck her more than anything, but I could tell it wasn’t going to happen. At least not right now. “Must be nice to try on personalities,” I said with a gentle grin. “I’m always stuck being Jay.” Kate giggled and blushed again. The red on her cheeks and neck was absolutely deliciouslooking, and my cock twitched when I imagined what she’d look like topless and flushing, with the pink spreading down her chest and over her tits. “I’m sorry,” she said in a soft voice. She looked thoroughly humiliated. “That’s never happened before. I should go.”

I shook my head. Normally, I would have agreed with her. Hell, in most cases, I wouldn’t have even chased a girl outside. My general philosophy on women was ‘live and let live.’ If one left, I knew another would take her place in no time flat. But there was something different about Kate, something that was drawing me in. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful; she had a serene spark to her. She was quietly intelligent and funny, but I could tell she was a kind person too. “You know what?” I said. “It’s fine, and I’m hungry anyway. Let’s go get something to eat. I know a good place just a few minutes away. You like Chinese?” Kate nodded. “I love it,” she said. “That’s my favorite cheat food. I’ll just text my sister and let her know I’ll be back soon.” I chuckled as she tapped away at her phone. She was the last person who needed to be dieting— her voluptuous curves were perfect and exactly what every red-blooded man wanted—but I wondered how strict her network was with her appearance. She skipped alongside me to keep up as I led her towards the food place, and I almost laughed out loud when I saw how she was trotting to match my pace. I slowed down and she let out a grateful sigh. When we got to the food stall nearby, Kate gave me a questioning look. “You eat at places like this? You’re not mobbed by fans?” I laughed. “No,” I replied. “No one looks for me in digs like this. They’re always searching the posh steakhouses and pubs.” Kate nodded and stared at the menu. “Sometimes dives have the best food. But I don’t know what to get,” she said. “Maybe just order whatever’s good, and I’ll share?” “Sure.” With Kate in tow, I ordered us a lavish spread. After paying, we took our food over to a side street and sat down at a table belonging to a shuttered café. It wasn’t cold out, but Kate shivered as a breeze blew past us. I raised an eyebrow. “Cold?” Kate laughed. “No,” she said softly. She gazed at me with her green eyes and I felt a shiver of lust run down my spine. “Just enjoying myself. This isn’t exactly what I’m used to.” I leaned back and looked at her. I’d always thought she was a fox, but in person, Kate was even lovelier than she was on the TV. When she was doing her show, she radiated a kind of perfect warmth, but in person, she seemed all too wonderfully real. She was still poised and charming, but she wasn’t too uptight. I liked that. “I like you like this,” I mused. “You seem so much more real than you do on the telly.” Kate blushed. She reached forward and took a prawn cracker from one of the baskets in front of us, popping it in her mouth and grinning at me. “I like to have fun like anyone else,” she said softly. “I just don’t really do things like this in New York all that often. I mean, I would. I just…well, I don’t really have time.”

“Being a busy famous woman and all that?” I winked at her, and to my intense pleasure, the pink blush on her cheeks deepened. “Not really,” she said. “I mean, yeah. I don’t really see my friends very often. They’re busy, too. Everyone in New York…” She held her hands up in the air and waved her fingers around, and I laughed. “I’m a sucker for beautiful women doing silly things with their hands,” I said. She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Well, it’s true. I mean, everyone goes crazy. It’s like a contest—who can be the busiest and the most tired from working too hard. Do you have friends like that?” I nodded. “My best mate, Connor,” I said. “We grew up together, and he works construction. He’s busy, but he makes time to chat with me from time to time. He usually calls me before a game to wish me luck.” I didn’t tell her about how worrisome he’d sounded the last time we talked. Besides, I was probably just imagining things. The stress of worrying about a game combined with seeing my exgirlfriend bitching about me on the TV probably hadn’t done wonders for my self-assurance. Kate smiled. “That’s sweet,” she said. “The only person I’m really that close to is Lizzy. And here I am. She invited me over so I could have a break from real life.” “Lizzy’s your sister, right?” “Yep.” I dug around in one of the baskets and pulled out an interlocking clump of fried prawns. “These are the tops,” I told Kate. “They’re my favorite snack here. You want one?” I held out some of the steaming food to her. “Sure.” She smiled and reached for a tiny fried prawn that was left in the basket. “I don’t eat a lot of fried stuff,” she said as she popped it into her mouth. “The showrunners are really strict with my diet.” She chewed and closed her eyes, throwing her head back and moaning softly. “But oh my god, that’s so good! No wonder you love coming here!” I grinned. “One of my favorite spots,” I told her. “And besides, don’t you love the atmosphere?” I was being sarcastic, but as Kate looked around, I could tell that she really loved the dark little alley with the tiny lights strung in the tree branches above us. The night was a little chilly and very dark—the occasional breeze smelled fresh, not like rubbish. “I do,” Kate admitted in a tone more solemn than appropriate. “I mean, it’s just nice to be outside. Sometimes I have similar problems to what I imagine you do, you know. Being recognized.” “Yeah, I’m not surprised. Your show really is great.” “Thanks. I really hate complaining about it because almost no one else understands and they just

think I’m bragging. But you get it, don’t you?” She looked up at me and I felt another urgent pulse of lust throb in my body. “I mean, you understand.” I nodded. “Definitely,” I told her with a grin. “I can’t even go out with the blokes anymore without being mobbed. You girls are mad, always wanting me to sign your tits!” Kate laughed out loud and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god,” she said. “You’re kidding, right? Women actually want you to sign their breasts?” “You’re barking mad, the lot of you,” I told her with a grin. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a member of some bloody band. I can’t even go for a walk without being spotted.” Kate laughed and looked at me with her green eyes twinkling. “It can be just as bad in New York,” she said. “I get people glaring at me when someone else recognizes me and says hello. Like they have the nerve to be jealous when I don’t have privacy or anonymity half the time.” “That sucks.” “I really don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I love meeting fans, and I know I’m lucky; I’ve been given amazing opportunities. I never even wanted to be on TV, honestly, but now that I’m actually doing it, it’s become my dream career, and I really can’t imagine not doing it.” I shook my head. “You don’t sound ungrateful,” I said. “I understand. Sometimes you just need a break from all the attention. But you’re right; this isn’t the kind of rubbish I can complain about when I’m talking to Connor. It’s like he lives in a different world.” Kate smiled, and she took another handful of prawn crackers and nibbled at one of them delicately. “Does he live around here?” I nodded. “He lives in Manchester, but on the other side of town,” I said. “Moved from Belfast to be here around the same time I got picked up by Manchester United.” “Did you grow up here?” I shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “Well, sort of. I lived in Belfast with my parents until I was almost a teenager. Then I moved here to live with my uncle. He keeps a shop around that corner,” I said as I pointed down the appropriate street. “Oh, okay,” she replied with a nod. “So did you play soccer as a kid? Er, football, I mean.” “I didn’t get into it until I moved, actually,” I said. “If you can believe it, not many kids in Belfast are out kicking a ball around.” Kate nodded. “I‘ve heard it can be kind of a rough city. At least I heard it was a few years ago, anyway,” she said. “So why did you move out here with your uncle? If you don’t mind me asking.” “Something bad happened,” I said, not wanting to tell her about my parents dying in a car bombing. “I moved here when I was about twelve.” Kate nodded. I could tell she was curious but that she wasn’t going to press the issue. “I’ve never been to Manchester before,” she said. “But I really like it. I know why my sister is so happy here. I’m going to have to drag her home once her semester is over.” She cracked a grin at me. “And she loves

football, by the way. She took me to the game as soon as I flew in. We barely even had time to change.” I chuckled. “It’s always nice to meet a fan,” I said, winking at Kate. She blushed again. “I know it probably wasn’t your first choice of entertainment, though.” She looked awkward for a second. “I enjoyed myself,” she said softly. “I mean, yeah, honestly I wasn’t sure that I would. But I really enjoyed the game. The energy was pretty infectious.” “Yeah, it’s like that. So why don’t you have a boyfriend?” I raised my eyebrow at her. “You’re bloody gorgeous, I bet you’re beating blokes off with a stick.” She laughed and blushed again. “I’m not beating them off with a stick.” “Liar.” “I guess I just don’t really have time to date,” she continued, in a brisk, professional way. “I couldn’t prioritize a relationship over the show right now, and I think men seem to know that.” She paused for a second and I wasn’t sure whether or not she was going to continue. But then she said: “And I know this sounds weird, but I think sometimes men are put off because I’m on TV. It’s like they feel they have to overcompensate.” “Like they’re threatened?” I asked. “Not exactly,” she said. “It’s more of a status thing. Like they don’t like being with a woman who can pay for everything if she chooses to. I think it makes them feel a little emasculated, as 1950’s as that sounds.” She licked her lower lip and I had the sudden urge to grab her and press her frame to my body. I’ll show you a man who’s not put off by you, I thought wickedly. Just come a little closer and you’ll see, I’m not like the rest of those blokes. “I understand,” I said smoothly. Kate seemed to relax a little bit. “You promise you don’t think I’m a brat?” She looked up at me and I stared at her lips, desperately wanting them against mine. “I mean, because I’m complaining when I’ve been so fortunate? I really do sound like a brat, I know it.” I laughed. “Trust me,” I said, holding up my hands. “I’ve had to hide from girls in alleys before. I understand. It’s distracting, even if I love it most of the time.” “Do you?” The question caught me off-guard. “What?” “Do you, I mean do you really love it?” Kate raised an eyebrow as she took another bite of fried prawns. “You don’t think it’s too stressful? You don’t want a normal life?” “Fuck no,” I said, shaking my head. “Take my best mate, Connor. I love him, he’s a brother to me from another mother. But he has to work his arse off, just to make ends meet. And he’s always worried about money. I can tell he feels uncomfortable around me. I wish he’d just take my bloody money already. But he’s too proud, says some inane bullshit about how he won’t take any bloody

charity.” Kate nodded. “It’s frustrating, isn’t it?” She pursed her lips. “I tried to help Lizzy with school, but she wouldn’t take any help.” Just then, my mobile buzzed in my pocket. “Hold on,” I told Kate. “Better make sure they know we didn’t wander off too far.” When I pulled my phone out and checked the screen, I saw a text from one of my mates. ‘Your bird’s sister is tossing up in the bathroom. Sick as a dog.’ Shit. “Kate, you better read this,” I said as I held up my phone to her face. “Your sister’s in some trouble.” “Crap,” Kate muttered as she read the text. “How the hell did that happen?” “Aye, if your sister thought she could drink my mates under the table, she was mistaken,” I said sorely. “They can down booze with the best of them. We should go check on her, come on.” Kate stood up from the table and wrapped her arms around herself, and as we started walking back to the clubhouse, I saw she was shivering. “Are you cold?” “I’m fine.” Kate shook her head but I saw she was lying, and with a grin, I handed her the light warm-up jacket I was wearing. It was one of my official Manchester United pieces, and I didn’t like the idea of wrapping a girl up in it—just in case Hannah (or any other snoopy reporter) was lurking. But Kate didn’t just seem like any girl. She was different. Hell, I’d already wanted to tell her about my parents and that was the first time I’d ever actually felt like talking about it. “Thanks,” Kate said after she’d wrapped up in my jacket. It was huge on her; the fabric billowed around her small frame as she pulled it close. “This helps a lot.” We headed back to the football club, and I saw one of my mates standing outside, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Jay! She’s in bad shape, man,” he said as we stepped into the clubhouse. “She’s in the back bathroom.” “I’m sorry,” Kate said. She looked up at me with her bright green eyes; her face was twisted and pale. “I had no idea this would happen.” I shrugged. “Shit happens,” I told her with a grin. “We’ve all had too much to drink one time or another.” Kate suppressed a nervous laugh, and just then, I knew everything would be all right between us. She gave me an apologetic glance before dashing off towards her drunk sister, and I watched her go with a small smile playing on my lips. Just this morning, I’d been going on about how I wasn’t even close to meeting the right girl for me, and how I wasn’t even close to wanting to settle down in a monogamous relationship again. Now I was starting to think I’d been totally wrong about that.

Chapter Six Kate

My head was filled with horrible thoughts: Lizzy passed out on a dirty, tiled floor with vomit caked around her mouth. Lizzy passed out, draped over the couch, a spilling drink still clutched in her hand. Jay was amazing laidback about the whole situation, but I was terrified. I’d barely even seen my baby sister drunk before, and I’d definitely never seen her get anything like alcohol poisoning. “Kate?” One of Jay’s teammates called me from the back of the clubhouse. “She’s back here, in the loo.” “Thank god,” I muttered under my breath as I rushed towards him. “At least one of them had the good sense to stay with her during this.” Lizzy was sprawled out on the floor, but she looked relatively sober by this point. There was vomit—all over the room. The lid of the toilet was up and I could see brown and yellow splashes on the inside of the rim. Wrinkling my nose at the acrid scent of bile, I stepped closer. “Lizzy, it’s me,” I said softly. “I think we might have to take you to the hospital.” Lizzy glared at me. “I know who you are,” she said in a hoarse voice. Groaning, she tried to lift herself up. I rushed forward and grabbed her under the arms, helping her back towards the toilet. As Lizzy leaned over the bowl and gushed a torrent of vomit, I pushed her light brown hair away from her forehead. “Feeling any better?” She leaned back and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I feel like shit,” she said in the same voice. “Don’t ever let me drink around those assholes ever again.” Her head lolled forward and I reached forward to hold her chin in an upright position. “I really think we need to go to the hospital,” I said, looking back at the player who’d been in here with her. “She seems really sick, and I’m worried about her passing out and choking.” “She was already passed out, lass,” the bulky footballer said. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I’ll go get Jay.” I nodded my thanks and turned my attention back to my inebriated sister. She was bracing herself against the porcelain structure, head propped up on the bowl. I tried not to make a face but I couldn’t help it—I wasn’t good around vomit. Then again, who was? The smell alone made me want to vomit myself. “I don’t wanna go to the hospital,” Lizzy whined. “Please, Kate, don’t make me go.” “You’re going, and that’s that,” I said firmly. Lizzy moaned and lowered her head as she retched into the bowl again.

“No,” she said, but she didn’t resist when I tried to pull her body away from the toilet. “No, Kate, let me go, please.” “Sorry,” I said as I stroked her hair. “I’m worried you’ve got alcohol poisoning. Better safe than sorry.” “Rubbish,” Lizzy mumbled. She curled up in the fetal position on the floor. “Everything okay?” Jay’s voice floated over the two of us. “How is she, Kate?” I turned to him and was shocked at the level of concern on his face. If he wasn’t a world-famous football player, I would have thought he was an actor. His forehead was creased and his blue eyes were keenly focused on Lizzy’s prone figure. “She’s not great,” I admitted. “I’m going to take her to the hospital. Can you call a cab for us?” Jay shook his head. “Don’t be bloody ridiculous,” he said. “I’ll drive the both of you. And don’t worry, I barely had one drink—I can drive safely. Come on,” he said, gently nudging me to the side. “I’ll carry her.” I wanted to protest, but watching Jay carefully heft my sister into his arms robbed me of words. He gently cradled Lizzy, propping her head up on his shoulder and carrying her past me as if she weighed nothing at all. An unpleasant sensation, something like jealousy, wormed its way through me. Don’t be stupid, Kate, I told myself. You just met this guy, and he’s carrying your sister because she can’t walk. Don’t be jealous. It’s not a good look for casual flings. I stopped for a moment. A casual fling? Is that what this was? Yeah, in your dreams, I replied in my mind. You know a guy like him would never want to hang around with you for too long. Flavor of the week, that’s what you are. Or the day, more like it. “My motor’s outside,” Jay said in a quiet voice. “I’ll bring her out and put her in the backseat.” “Thank you,” I said softly as I watched Jay carry Lizzy outside. I was struck again by the sheer size of him: he was so muscular that his body didn’t have an ounce of fat on him. My mouth went dry as I watched the muscles in his back work as he balanced Lizzy carefully while opening the door. Shaking my head, I blinked and followed Jay outside. I knew there was no use in getting caught up in how sexy he was, but I couldn’t help it. Whenever I was around him, I felt something pulling me towards him. Yeah, you and about a million other girls, I thought wryly. Jay drove a late-model Mercedes but it wasn’t as flashy as I would have expected. It looked very much like a normal car; the kind a relatively successful doctor or lawyer would drive. Definitely not the car of a world famous footballer. I bet he probably had a whole garage full of cars, and maybe this was the ‘seduce her by making her think I’m oh-so-practical’ car. I snorted at the thought as I tried to stop myself from letting out a laugh at such an inappropriate moment. “What’s so funny?” Jay turned to me after he’d finished setting Lizzy down on the rich leather of the back seat. “You sounded amused,” he added when I didn’t reply. I felt a blush spread over my cheeks. “Nothing,” I said. I wasn’t quite ready to tell Jay exactly what I’d thought yet. I had to keep

reminding myself that we really didn’t know each other very well. In fact, we barely knew each other at all. Just because we’d sat for a couple of hours and shared some food and talked about ourselves… well, that didn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, right? “Kate!” Lizzy’s voice was hoarse from the backseat. I turned around, expecting to see her crouched over the floor and vomiting. But she was grinning at me; a lopsided, cockeyed smile. “Katie, you need to go kick Josh in the balls. You wan’ me to do it for you?” She was still slurring, and her eyes rolled back in her head. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said with a smile as I turned back around in the seat. Jay looked at me from the driver’s side of the car with his eyebrows raised, but he didn’t say anything. “I’m not being ridiculush,” Lizzy slurred. “Kick Josh in the balls and hop on the Jay train, girl, choo choo!” I blushed a deep red. “Lizzy,” I said through gritted teeth as I turned around in the seat to face her. “No more talking, okay?” She gave me a blank look that was such an artful imitation of her sober self that I almost burst out laughing. “Don’ tell me what to do,” she managed to get out. I was dreading another outburst but she simply yawned loudly and propped her head up on her arm. “Are we almost there?” I turned to Jay. “Thank you again for driving.” “Not much longer now,” he said as he expertly navigated the Mercedes through the narrow streets. He raised an eyebrow at me. “I really appreciate this,” I said quickly. “I mean, thank you so much for your help.” “No worries. Anytime.” Jay pulled into the hospital a moment later and I leapt out of the front seat and darted around to the back. “Please help us,” I called to the nurse who rushed out to greet the car. “I think my sister has alcohol poisoning, she’s really sick!” “Hold tight, love,” the nurse said. She took a quick look at Lizzy. “She doesn’t have alcohol poisoning. She’s just arseholed.” I blinked at her colorful language. “I’m really worried about her,” I stressed. “Can you please take her in to see a doctor just in case?” The nurse ducked her head to the driver of the car, and I could tell she was just about to ask about Jay when he stepped out of the car and grinned at me. “I’ll go park this and meet you inside,” he said. “Be two ticks.” The nurse gave me an incredulous look as we supported Lizzy upright and carried her inside. I was left sitting in a green-colored waiting room as Lizzy was admitted, and when the nurse came down to get me, Jay was just walking in. “Your sister’s down this way,” the nurse said. Her eyes were focused on Jay and she was practically drooling. I felt a wave of intense annoyance wash over me, which I tried to brush aside

again. After all, Jay wasn’t mine. “She’ll be fine, ma’am. Just give her some time to rest.” “Thanks very much,” I said to her. Jay flashed her a wink, and I swear she almost fainted. If he’d wanted to come here just so he could flirt with nurses, that was fine. See if I care, I thought, just as I felt a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I looked up. “I’m coming with you,” Jay said in a pointed voice. I had to work hard to hide my smile at that. Lizzy was propped up in a hospital bed, against some massive white pillows. Her skin was pale and sallow but she already looked better than she had at the clubhouse. As I got closer to the bed, she covered her eyes with her hands and moaned. “I feel so bad,” Lizzy moaned. “My head hurts so much, Kate. I want to die, seriously.” “Well, don’t, please,” I said. I smiled at her. “You gave me a scare, though. Did you really have to try drinking those guys under the table?” Lizzy grinned at me. “I thought I could take ‘em, too,” she said in a more subdued voice. Jay and I watched as she yawned and closed her eyes, settling against the pillows. “Can we dim the lights in here or something? They’re killing my head.” “I’ll see what I can do,” I said. I fiddled with the light switch, and then Jay and I watched as Lizzy fell into a restless sleep. “She’ll be fine,” Jay said, patting me on the shoulder. A tell-tale tingle crept up my spine at his touch, and I shifted nervously where I stood as heat gathered in my core. “Should I stay?” I shook my head. “No, you should get home,” I replied. “You’ve already helped so much. Go and get some rest.” He sighed. “I really don’t want to leave you,” he said. “But if you’re going to be stubborn like that, I’ll head off. Promise you’ll call me if anything bad happens?” I nodded. “Will do. I’m going to sleep here,” I said as I pointed to the chair in the corner of Lizzy’s room. “Thanks again, Jay. You’re a real lifesaver.” He lifted his hand up in a little wave, then gave me a boyish grin and walked out of the hospital room. My stomach did a flip-flop and it was only when he was gone that I realized I’d been holding my breath almost the entire time. Being with Jay was exhilarating, no doubt about that. Lizzy was snoring softly in the bed as I curled up in the chair and tried to make myself as comfortable as I could. I was tired as hell, but I didn’t think I could sleep. Luckily, the lights in the room dimmed even more after a few minutes, and Lizzy’s rhythmic snores finally lulled me to a place of comfort.


“Kate! Wake up!” A familiar voice roused me, and I opened my eyes and blinked. My skin felt scratchy and hot and my mouth was drier than I could ever remember it being. Lizzy was sitting up in bed and grinning at me, looking no worse for wear. “Kate, look at these,” she said as she pointed to a gigantic bouquet on the nightstand of the bed. “Holy shit,” I breathed. It was the biggest floral arrangement I’d ever seen—it was so big that it took up almost the whole surface of the table. “Who sent that?” Lizzy gave me a curious smile. “Let’s just say I don’t think they’re for me,” she said. “Why don’t you read the card?” I frowned, and standing up, I stretched. My limbs felt like they were all asleep and I had trouble shuffling the few feet towards the flowers. Up close, they were even lovelier. The bouquet was comprised of all different types: roses, tulips, peonies, lilies… all pink and white. It was beautiful. I lowered my head and sniffed the delicate aroma before searching for the note Lizzy had mentioned. There was a card printed on heavy white stock paper, and I took it with trembling fingers. “Kate. Thank you so much for such an eventful evening,” I read out loud. “You’re right; they’re for me!” “Duh,” Lizzy said. She rolled her eyes. “Is that all the card says?” I blushed. “You already read it, didn’t you?” I said as my eyes skated over the ‘P.S.’ part on the bottom of the card. “I’ve been awake for an hour,” she replied. “You were snoring like anything, though! I figured you could use your rest. A certain footballer must have tired you out…” My blush deepened. “Okay, okay, shh. The other line on the card says: Fiddler’s Green. 19:30.” “That’s a pub here in Manchester. And he wants you to meet him tonight! Are you going to go?” I smiled. We both already knew the answer to that.

Chapter Seven Jay

Before going down to Fiddler’s Green, I noticed an odd feeling in my chest. It felt like my lungs were tight and my heart was pounding. It was the same kind of feeling that I had before a game— nervousness, mixed with excitement and anticipation. Whenever I thought about Kate, her curvy little body, her melodic laugh, her sharp mind…I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I hadn’t felt this crazy about a girl in ages, and I couldn’t believe it was happening with someone that I’d just met yesterday. As if to prove a perfect counter to my mood, it was pouring with rain outside. I took a taxi to the pub and waited for Kate nervously at the bar. Normally, when I was waiting for a girl, I’d have a pint or two, but there was something disarming about Kate, something that made me want to wait until she got here. “Hey, Jay,” the bartender said. He reached out and we slapped hands. “How ya been?” “Tops,” I said. “We won the other day, against those Liverpool bastards.” “I saw,” he said with a grin. I’d been coming into this pub for ages, and everyone who worked there was like an old mate at this point. Plus, it was one of the few places I could go and not attract a ton of attention. Fiddler’s Green was a tiny little pub, in the heart of Manchester, and it wasn’t frequented by the kinds of birds who would have watched my games. It was more like an old man’s kind of bar, with dim lighting and dark wood fixtures everywhere. “I’m waiting for a girl,” I said impulsively. “This American bird I met the other night. Her sister’s a real nutter for football.” The barkeep laughed. “You’ve got a new bird every week, Jay,” he said teasingly. “What’s so special about this one that she gets to come here, eh?” “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But it feels… different.” Every time the door to the pub banged open, I jumped a foot in the air, convinced it was Kate, but after the fifth or sixth time, I stopped looking. It was already a half-hour past when I’d told her to meet me, and I wondered if she’d even bother showing up. I thought I was getting to a point where she might like me, but then I remembered her disdain when I’d first met her. She’d turned her nose up at me, like she would have rather done almost anything on earth rather than talk to me. Maybe she was embarrassed. After all, her sister blew chunks all over the loo of my club, but she didn’t seem like the type to be put off by something like that. Finally, almost an hour late, Kate walked through the door. Her dark hair was soaked, and she

looked more disheveled than usual, but she was still striking and beautiful. When she saw me, a guilty look flashed across her face. “I’m so sorry,” she said as she rushed over to me. “This is so embarrassing. I’m so late!” I laughed out loud. Her self-flagellation was adorable. “What happened? Did you lose track of time?” I didn’t want to suggest it, but I wondered if she wasn’t used to 24-hour time. “It’s worse than that,” Kate mumbled. “I need a drink before I can even tell you.” The barkeep bustled over to us and looked at Kate, and when she wasn’t looking, he winked at me, then turned to her. “What can I do you for, love?” Kate looked around frantically for a menu. “Do you have any wine?” she asked as she draped herself across the bar. I watched her curves shift on the stool and I felt my mouth go dry. “I like whites,” she added. “But if you have a red, I can do that, too.” “Sorry, love,” the barkeep replied. “We only have ales here. We’ve got a house pale and a house stout, which will it be?” Kate looked at me with a helpless grin on her face. “Which is better?” “The stout,” I advised. “Plus, higher alcohol content.” Kate blushed. “I’ll take one of those,” she said softly. The barkeep nodded and handed her an overflowing pint glass full of dark beer a moment later. Kate regarded it cautiously before closing her eyes and taking a sip. “This is really good,” she said. “Thanks!” He smiled and walked away, and I chuckled to myself. “So, what happened?” Kate blushed again, and she took another long pull of beer, swallowing appreciatively. I watched the muscles work in her throat and felt my cock twitch between my legs. Her mouth was so soft, so luscious. I wanted to have her all over me, right then and there. “I waited for the bus on the wrong side of the road,” Kate said. She looked down at her full glass of beer. “Isn’t that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard?” I laughed. “You’re a funny one,” I told her, reaching over to ruffle her wet hair. “What did Lizzy have to say about that?” “She laughed at me,” Kate said ruefully. “And then it started raining but I was already late so I figured it couldn’t get much worse. England is still confusing for me. It somehow feels like home, but not. Does that make sense?” I nodded. “Sometimes I feel a bit lost myself,” I told her. “Being from Ireland and all. How is Lizzy doing, by the way? All healed from her night with the boys?” Kate laughed, showing perfect white teeth. She took another polite sip of beer. “She’s much better,” she said. “I think her pride got hurt more than anything. She didn’t want me to tell anyone that she had to spend the night in the hospital.”

“It happens to all of us sooner or later,” I said with a grin. “When I first started playing for Manchester, the blokes had it in their heads to haze me. You ever heard of a beer bong?” Kate laughed. “I did go to college in America,” she said. “I know all about beer bongs.” “Right, well my mates would pour me one for every goal I missed during the game,” I said. “That was about eight in one night. I bloody thought I was going to drown in ale!” Kate laughed again, her cheeks pinking. “That’s horrible,” she said. “I can’t imagine my friends doing things like that.” “I bet you were in a sorority,” I said with a wink. “With all those girls in matching pink jumpers. Did you have a pink jumper, maybe with some Greek letters on the front?” Kate blushed bright red. “I was in a sorority,” she said after a moment. “But we didn’t wear pink sweaters. They were teal,” she said. “And they had to be properly teal. If they didn’t match, we couldn’t wear them.” She laughed. “But I didn’t party very much. I was on a scholarship, so I didn’t want to lose it. Lizzy and I grew up in the country and college was the first chance I really had to be around a lot of people.” I liked this Kate, the kind of Kate that loosened up and told me things about her past. I grinned. “You feel like dinner?” Kate nodded. “Can you believe it, but I’m starving,” she said mildly. “After Lizzy was discharged, I took her home and then spent the whole day walking around. It was so nice outside, but my legs are killing me now. Manchester’s a great city.” “It is,” I nodded. “What d’ya like best about it so far?” Kate grinned. “Well, the food is incredible, despite everyone back home always complaining about how English food is allegedly so bland and boring,” she said as she reached for a menu. “What would you recommend here? Have you been here before?” “All the time,” I replied. “This is like a second home to me. And another one of those few places I can go without being mobbed by fans.” “Cool. So what should I have?” “The fish and chips is good,” I said. “Also the corned beef, if you want something a little heavier.” Kate drained her beer and set the glass on the counter. “I’ll have what you’re having again,” she said. “And another one of those.” She pointed at the empty pint glass. “That was incredible. And I usually don’t even like beer!” I chuckled. “Blimey, I’m in a pub with a snobby wine drinker,” I teased. “If only my mates could see me now!” Kate grinned. I liked that she could take some teasing and knew it was all just a lighthearted joke. “Would they give you hell?” “Oh, absolutely,” I said, making my voice as serious as I could. “Little gives them more offense

than women who refuse to drink beer because it’s not feminine.” “I never got the chance to really get into beer. Even the guys I work with are wine drinkers,” Kate mused. I imagined her colleagues sashaying around the set of her show. “I bet you’re around some real pricks,” I said. “All those media types.” Kate laughed again, louder this time. “You could definitely say that about a couple of them,” she said. “But overall, the people are great.” The barkeep brought us two more glasses of dark ale, and he looked expectantly from me to Kate. “Decide on some grub?” “We’ll both have the brisket sandwich, with a side of chips and slaw,” I said. “And keep the ales coming. Thanks, mate!” Kate turned to me. “That does sound good,” she said. “And I trust your taste after the amazing Chinese food we had the other day. Thank you for ordering.” I grinned. “Not a problem. So, you like this place?” Kate looked around, her deep green eyes taking in everything there was to see. “I do,” she said. “But again, it’s surprising. I keep thinking you’d have more expensive tastes.” “I do, sometimes,” I said. “But I grew up so close to here, I wanted you to see it. It’s one of my favorite places to come when I want to be alone. Remember the other night, I told you about living with my uncle?” She nodded. “Yeah,” she replied. “I remember. Does he live around here?” I pointed up towards the ceiling of the bar. It had originally been white, but it was stained and yellowed with decades worth of nicotine. “He lives right up there,” I said. “He owns this place. I lived with him after my parents died.” Kate looked at me with her mouth in a little ‘o’ of surprise. “They died?” she said. “Oh god, how awful. I’m so sorry, Jay.” “It was an IRA car bombing,” I said sourly as I reached for my beer and poured some down my throat. “Coroner said they had no idea, that they didn’t see it coming. At least they died quickly.” Kate was looking at me with a mixture of horror and pity on her lovely face, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. As shitty as things had been back then, I didn’t want her feeling sorry for me. “I had a rough childhood,” I said. “But my uncle really did me right, he made sure I grew up properly. He had to teach me all about hard work. I started playing football when I moved out here, and he was the one to teach me about dedication.” Kate nodded, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I’m really glad you had someone to support you,” she said. “Me, too,” I said. “And now this place is like a home to me. Mac, the bartender, he’s a great guy.”

I gestured to the man who had served Kate beer. “Looks out for me like a brother.” “That’s really nice.” Impulsively, I asked her: “What d’ya think about coming out with me to see the sights? No tourist traps, I promise. Just real Manchester.” Kate smiled. Then she bit the inside of her lip, which made me want to lean in and kiss her. “I’d really love that,” she finally said. “Thank you.” Mac walked over towards us, carrying two plates heaped with brisket. His eyebrows were furrowed with concern. “Jay, I got somethin’ you might want to read,” he said. After he set the plates down in front of me and Kate with a flourish, he pulled a rolled-up paper out of his back pocket. “Looks like the harpy’s at it, again,” he muttered as he pointed to a headline. “Shit,” I muttered when I saw Hannah’s name under the salacious headline. “What is it this time?” Mac gave me a dark look. “She’s dragged someone else into it now,” he said sourly, shooting a meaningful glance at Kate. “You better get that ex under control, Jay.” Kate looked up from her plate. “What’s going on?” I sighed. “Just more stupid gossip,” I said. “Hang on.” But as I scanned the paper, my heart dropped. Oh, shit. This is bad. This is really, really bad.

Chapter Eight Kate

I frowned as Jay grabbed the paper and read it. His eyebrows shot up and he let out a stream of angry exclamations before slamming the paper down with such force that the silverware on the bar rattled. “Jay, what’s wrong?” He looked at me. “Kate, I am so sorry,” he said. “I promise, we’ll get all of this straightened out.” I frowned. “What the hell is going on?” Jay cleared his throat and pushed the paper towards me. Confused, I grabbed it. There was a headline about him seducing some drunken Americans, and I rolled my eyes and kept reading. Did he really think that a little gossip was going to bother me? But when I saw the picture, my jaw dropped. It was a grainy black-and-white shot of Jay carrying Lizzy, passed out in his arms, and my stomach iced over as I read the accompanying text: ‘Jay Walsh, footballer extraordinaire, has bit off more than he can chew with this one! It seems American sisters Kate and Elizabeth Romero had to jump across the pond to uncover this saucy British stud. Word has it that Elizabeth Romero, who’s studying at university here in Manchester, had a wee bit too much to drink last night! If you recognize her sister’s name, you’re not alone: Keeping Current With Kate is one of the top American women’s talk shows right now. Kate has a reputation for being an advocate for women’s rights, particularly on the topic of date rape, so over here at the Manchester Evening News, we’re having a hard time imagining just how much luck she’s going to have with that cause now. Would it really be a responsible move for Kate to let her little sister keep boozing it up with one of the country’s biggest playboys? Not exactly role-model material now, is she? Weigh in online: we’re curious to see what our readers think!’ I groaned and covered my face with my hands. “This is terrible,” I said. “I have to call my producer. I’ll be right back.” Jay and Mac watched me leave the table with twin worried expressions on their faces. I felt panic rising in my throat but I didn’t want to give away just how afraid I actually felt. Something like this could potentially ruin my career, and if my reputation was damaged, I knew the showrunners wouldn’t want me to continue. I’d take another break, followed by a hiatus, followed by unemployment. Calm down, Kate, I ordered myself. You don’t know just how bad this is yet. Maybe it’s nothing. Noting the time difference, I called my head producer. It was early afternoon back in the States, and I hoped I’d be catching him in a good mood. “Hi, Kate,” Rod said as he answered my call. His tone was both annoyed and expectant. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, as you know, I’m on vacation in Manchester,” I said quickly. “And my younger sister, Lizzy, is studying here. She got a little too drunk the other night and we had to take her to the hospital. She got a ride with—“ “Kate, can you please just get to the point?” Rod snapped. I blinked. He didn’t speak to me this way, even when he was really mad. Frowning, I wondered what had happened since I’d left. “Sorry,” I apologized. “There’s a tabloid here that links me to a soccer player, and calls my reputation into question because my younger sister got drunk with a bunch of jocks. It’s in the Manchester Evening News. It’s a smaller paper, but they do have a website.” Rod was silent, and for a moment, I was worried that he’d hung up on me. “It’s fine, Kate, we’ll handle this, okay?” I was shaking with anxiety before I could even process what he’d said. “Okay,” I replied. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know this would happen.” “Kate, as long as nothing like this happens again, it’s fine,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.” Even though Rod had been reassuring, I still felt shaky when I got off the phone. When I returned to the table, Jay was sitting alone, poring over the article. “Kate, I’m so sorry,” he said. He reached across the table for my hand. Compared to his, mine looked tiny. “There’s more than meets the eye on this….” He trailed off for a moment. “That journalist, if you can even call her that, is my ex-girlfriend. She’s been on this mad quest to ruin my reputation for quite some time now, and I don’t want you to think that’s really me.” “Oh.” A blush rose to my cheeks, and I felt guilty for having judged him so harshly when I first heard of him. He was a bit of a playboy, but at the same time, I was willing to bet that half the media stuff about him was made up by of this ex of his. “Kate, this is a new low for Hannah,” Jay continued. “She’s spent a lot of time trying to ruin me, but she’s never dragged anyone else into this shit before. I’m really sorry.” “It’s okay,” I said as I pushed my plate forward. Most of the uneaten brisket still lay on top. “I can tell it’s not okay,” he said softly. “Let’s get out of here and see the sights for a while. Then I’ll take you back to Lizzy’s, okay?” I nodded. “Sounds good.” Jay was silent as we walked to his car, and when he was seated behind the wheel, he turned to me. “So, what’ll it be?” I shrugged. “I don’t actually know what’s around here,” I said. “But no museums, okay? I definitely can’t do one of those right now.” Jay grinned. “In that case, I know just the place,” he said in a cocky voice as he shifted the car into a higher gear and pressed down on the gas. We shot forward, and I clung to the seat the whole way. I still wasn’t used to riding on what felt like the wrong side of the car, and I had a feeling that it was going to drive me crazy for quite some time. The feeling of barreling down the road, vulnerable

to oncoming traffic, was something that I wasn’t wild about, and Jay seemed to drive like a maniac; none of the careful slow driving that he’d done the other night on the way to the hospital. We careened around turns and more than once, I thought I heard the brakes squeal. When we finally came to a stop, I was breathless. “That was terrifying,” I said in a shaky voice. “Do you drive like that all the time?” Jay laughed, throwing his head back. “Just when I want to scare a Yank,” he teased. “No, just kidding, we really weren’t going that fast. You’re just not used to being on the left yet. Anyway, we’re here. Hop out.” Confused, I climbed out of the car and looked around. “Where are we?” “Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden,” he said proudly. He gestured around. “Am I right? Do you like flowers?” I blushed, thinking of the gargantuan bouquet he’d sent me. “I do,” I admitted. “And this is beautiful.” Darkness was just starting to fall as we strolled around the garden. I still felt on edge and shaky from seeing that clipping in the paper, but being around Jay was incredibly soothing. It didn’t exactly make sense, because he was famous for being a loudmouth playboy, but I was starting to realize there was a side to Jay that someone like me never would have expected. “What d’ya think?” Jay looked at me with his usual cocky grin. “You like?” “This is beautiful,” I said again. “It’s amazing. And so quiet! I can’t believe we’re still in Manchester.” Jay grinned. “Okay, I have a confession to make,” he said. I arched a playful eyebrow. “What, you take all the girls here?” He chuckled. “No,” he replied. “I’ve actually never been here before. I’ve always heard people talking about it, but I’ve never come myself.” “I see. Well, it’s lovely.” “If you’re up to it, there’s something else I’d like to show you after this. But I promise I’ve been there before,” he added, slapping his hand over his heart. “I wouldn’t lie.” I laughed. “I know, I believe you.” Jay winked at me and I felt myself blush for what felt like the millionth time since I met him. Just as I thought he was about to kiss me, I had to twist away and let out a vicious sneeze. “Sorry, I think my allergies are worse here than they were at home,” I complained. “Well, you look amazing,” Jay said. Self-consciously, I reached up and fingered the ends of my hair. It had dried slightly wavy, and I knew that it must look a lot less polished than I was used to seeing myself. “What’s the other place?” I asked, turning to him with my best attempt at a coy smile. “I mean, I’d

love to see it if you still want to show me.” Jay nodded his head towards the car. “If you can stomach another car ride with me, you’re in luck.” The second trip was no better than the first; I still wasn’t used to being on the wrong side of the road at all. It did seem like Jay was driving slower than he had before, hugging all the turns in the road with his little car, but I still felt like we were on rails as we spun around and around. “Relax, Kate, we’re fine,” Jay said. He reached over and put one of his massive hands on my knees. I jumped at the touch, but when he tried to pull his hand away I grabbed it with both of mine. “Sorry,” I said breathlessly. “I’m still not used to this. It’s crazy! I feel like any minute, someone is going to come barreling down the road towards us in our lane.” He raised his eyebrows at me. “And you call yourself a New Yorker?” I had to laugh at that. “Well, I don’t drive,” I said. “I take the subway or cabs, usually. Having a car would be a huge pain in the ass.” “I think you’ve been taking some very boring taxi rides, then.” He cleared his throat as he pulled the car up in front of the entrance to what looked like a giant park. “I present, Kate’s Park.” My eyes widened as we climbed out of the car. It was a beautiful park, and it was huge! I couldn’t even see the other end of it from where we stood, but I could see that it was filled with peacefullooking grass, little hills, and miniature gardens. It seemed like a calm, soothing space in the middle of a bustling city, and I smiled and turned to Jay. “So what makes this my park?” He cleared his throat, then pointed to the sign over the archway. “Romero Park,” he said in an exaggerated suave accent. “Like it was made for you!” “Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty incredible. How did you know my last name?” Jay pretended to look offended. “I know lots of things,” he said casually. “Like you only like white wine, and you don’t like to let your hair air-dry. Also, there’s the fact that I’m a big fan of your show….remember?” I smiled, feeling very silly indeed. “Of course. How could I forget?” I said, giving him a playful elbow. “You make me sound like I’m not very fun, though.” Jay shook his head. “You’re fun, all right,” he said as we strode into the park. I was in awe of the magnificent beauty. It was much lovelier than anything I’d seen back home, even Central Park. “You’re just a bit buttoned up, that’s all.” I rolled my eyes. “That’s a nice way of saying I’m too uptight,” I said. “And I know. People tell me all the time. Everyone just wants me to relax. But I’m relaxed now,” I added as I stepped ahead of Jay and gazed around the gorgeous park. “And this is just the place to do it.” When Jay said it was about time to head home, I was almost disappointed. The car ride back to Lizzy’s wasn’t even that terrifying—I recognized a few landmarks and wondered if I was finally

starting to get my bearings. As Jay pulled up in front of the building, he turned to me and leaned closer, and before I knew it, he was kissing me. His lips were warm, smooth, and soft, and his masculine scent invaded my senses. I closed my eyes and moaned softly as I felt his tongue slip between my lips, caressing the inside of my mouth, and as the kiss deepened, I leaned forward and wrapped my hands around his neck, pulling him close. Arousal started building in my lower belly, and I felt the insides of my thighs turn slippery and wet as Jay’s strong hands kneaded my back, making me feel both tiny and delicate in his arms. When he finally pulled away, I was shaking with desire. I wanted him right then and there, no matter what the consequence. “Can I have your number?” Jay asked, looking up at me with a wink. “Please?” “Of course,” I said. I typed it into his phone and handed it back to him. “I thought you’d never ask.” Jay texted me while we were still sitting in the car. “So now you have mine in case you need it,” he said. “I had a great time, Kate.” I blushed a deep pink. “I had fun too,” I said. As I climbed out of the car, Jay pulled me back by the wrist and crushed my body to his again, and his lips pressed urgently, his tongue searching my mouth. I felt myself barely able to cling on to reality, and as I broke the kiss, I was aware of myself panting. Pull yourself together, Kate, I thought. You can’t act like a freakin’ schoolgirl around him! As I climbed the stairs to Lizzy’s apartment a moment later, I felt dazed. Earlier, Lizzy had said she was going to be out studying with uni friends of hers till quite late tonight, which was good—I wanted to be alone for a while so I could take a nice, long bath. But when I opened the door, I saw the apartment was in complete disarray. “What the hell?” I mumbled under my breath as I gazed around. Someone had definitely been inside, and someone had been rifling through my stuff. Panic clenched my heart in a vise grip and made it difficult to breathe. What the hell was going on here? Who would break in, and why would they want to go through my belongings? “Hello, operator?” I said into the phone a moment later, my voice quavering slightly. “I need the police.” As I told the operator the address, I texted Lizzy about what had happened, and then I texted Jay. ‘Someone broke into Lizzy’s apartment. Can you come back? If it’s not too much trouble.’ I knew he wasn’t my boyfriend, and I had no right to expect him to do anything for me. And really, I didn’t expect him to do anything at all—I just thought it was worth asking, because he was the only person I could think of who might make me feel safe in this moment. That was crazy, right? We barely knew each other. But deep down, I could feel it; a warmth inside whenever I pictured him by my side, a warmth that told me I’d be safe. My phone buzzed a second later, and I breathed a grateful sigh of relief as I scanned Jay’s reply text.

Of course. Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll be there.

Chapter Nine Jay

As soon as Kate texted, I turned my car around and raced back to her apartment. The idea that someone had broken in was crazy, yet I didn’t doubt her. She didn’t seem like the type of girl to invent a crisis just for attention. I knew she had to be feeling on edge from Hannah’s article, and I hated that I’d left her alone. Stupid prick, you should have walked her inside, I told myself angrily. But no, you just had to drive off. I shook my head. I wasn’t used to being a total gentleman, and that was definitely something I was going to have to work on for Kate’s sake. The police arrived at the same time I got back, and we climbed the stairs together. One of the younger lieutenants kept looking up at me and then wildly gazing around whenever I caught his stare. “Is it really you?” He stepped closer and looked at my face. “Jay Walsh?” I grinned. “The one and only,” I said. I reached out my hand for a shake and he eagerly accepted. “I take it you’re a fan?” “The way you kicked those Liverpool scumbags out of the park was amazing,” he said with a grin. “Way to go, mate.” I felt a trace of self-consciousness wash over me, and Lizzy opened the door at that exact second. When she saw me again, she gaped. “You came back fast,” she said admirably. “And thanks for coming,” she added for the cops. “My sister is inside. She’s pretty scared. I have no idea who would have done this!” Kate was sitting on the couch. She was wrapped up in a blanket but I could tell that she was trembling even from a few feet away, and as the cops started to question her in a brusque tone, her voice broke and she buried her face in the blanket. “Hey, leave her alone,” I said harshly. “It isn’t her fault. She doesn’t know who could have broken in.” “This is standard policy, Jay,” the younger cop replied, but I noticed he was nicer to Kate after that. “Ma’am, can you tell us what happened?” Kate looked at Lizzy and me for encouragement. I nodded, and she swallowed, then began to speak. “Well, I just got home a little while ago,” she said softly. “And I noticed the door was unlocked when I got back. I figured Lizzy had left it undone on purpose.” “When did you notice that someone had been inside?”

“Almost immediately,” she replied. She pointed towards the corner of the room. “That’s my stuff, over there.” I noted three black suitcases overflowing with loose clothing, and several items scattered over the floor. “And are you sure you just didn’t leave things in disarray?” One of the cops asked, frowning at Kate. “The other rooms in the apartment seem impeccable.” “That’s why she knew someone was here!” Lizzy interjected. “My sister is a Type A neat freak! She never would’ve left her belongings like this!” “I’m just trying to ascertain whether or not someone actually broke in,” the cop replied in an icy voice. “You know, your sister has had a very busy couple of days. And she’s not used to being in this country. It’s very possible that she left everything like that herself.” “I’m telling you, she didn’t, and besides, I didn’t leave the apartment unlocked,” Lizzy said, narrowing her eyes. “Kate wouldn’t do that. Look at that stuff,” I added. I pointed to the suitcases and the mess all over the floor. “It’s a bloody mess, can’t you tell? Does this look like the kind of girl who would’ve left her things like that?” Kate nodded defiantly. “I swear, I left everything in order,” she said. “And the door was definitely unlocked.” The police nodded. The younger one took out a notepad and made a couple of scribbles on it. “I suppose that type of lock is quite easy to pick….you might want to look into getting a new one,” he said, looking at Lizzy. Then he turned back to Kate. “Do you have any idea who could have done this? Anyone who would be looking for information on you, and might want to go through your stuff to get it?” Kate blinked. I could tell she wanted to say something, but she shook her head. “I don’t really know anyone here,” she replied. “Except for Jay and some of his teammates, I haven’t met any other British people.” The cops nodded. “All right,” the younger one said. He turned to Lizzy and fixed her with a stare. “What about you, ma’am? Anyone you know who would have broken in?” Lizzy shook her head. “Definitely not,” she said. “The only people I know at university were in the library studying with me when all of this was happening.” There was something bothering me in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, and as Lizzy and Kate spoke to the police, I wandered around the apartment, searching for any trace of a break-in. Kate’s things were truly in disarray; her suitcases were wide open and clothes were tossed everywhere. I grinned when I saw some lacy lingerie peeking out of the bottom of the bag. So she does have a wild side, I thought to myself. Then, looking around, I felt a tiny bit of guilt. Now isn’t the time, mate. Now is definitely not the right time. “Are you sure there’s no one else you can think of?” Kate shook her head firmly. “Could it just be random?” she asked. “Is it possible someone broke

in looking for money? Maybe they thought the most valuable stuff would be in the suitcases.” The cop shrugged. “Everything’s possible,” he said politely, but I could tell he didn’t believe a word Kate was saying. “But I urge you and your sister to seek additional measures of security while you’re staying here. Like I said earlier, you’ll want to change the locks, maybe think about getting a plate on the doorframe. See, these old buildings are easy to jam. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to break in, spend a few minutes inside, then come out.” Kate looked bewildered. “But who would do that?” she asked. “The thing is, they didn’t seem to actually take anything.” The cop sighed. “Ma’am, that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to ask you,” he said. “So, do you think you’ll be able to help us or not?” Kate finally shook her head. “I can’t think of anyone,” she said. “And I don’t just want to accuse random people.” “Is there anyone who could be upset with you? Are you hiding from someone?” Again, Kate had that same panicked expression. “I went through a breakup recently,” she said slowly. “But that was in New York, and I don’t think he’d follow me here.” My insides clenched, and I wondered if her ex was actually the kind of guy who’d stalk her here to England and terrify her. If so, I wanted to punch his lights out, and my body filled with adrenaline as the primal need to protect Kate rushed through me. “Could be our fellow,” the cop said, obviously pleased that Kate had finally come up with someone. “Can you tell me more about him?” Kate licked her lips, and she was just about to start talking when I sniffed and then cleared my throat. “What is it?” The young cop whipped his head towards me and stared. “That smell,” I said. “That perfume in the air.” Everyone took a moment and sniffed. “Smells like a woman,” one of the cops said. “And we’ve got two of them right here. Happy now?” I shook my head. “No, that’s not it,” I said. “It’s not from one of them. It’s from Hannah Joyce, my ex-girlfriend.” The younger cop laughed. “Mate, what would your ex-girlfriend be doing up here?” I grimaced. “Trying to ruin my life,” I replied. “She’s already put out an article about me and Kate, trying to hurt our reputations. She’s seriously got issues; I’ve honestly seen less baggage at an airport. I wouldn’t put it past her to track down where Kate is staying and break in to try and get some sort of dirt on her.” The older cop sighed. “Look, sir, that may be it,” he said. “But I can tell you right now—there’s no way we can book anyone just because of a familiar perfume. How do you even know for sure that your ex wears the same kind?”

Because I’m not an idiot, I thought angrily. I thought of all the times Hannah had paraded past me, leaving a cloud of sickly-sweet floral musk in her wake. That perfume was her signature scent. It was a blend of two different varieties and she took pride in being the only one in the world who wore the same blend. I’d never wanted to hurt her feelings, but in my opinion, it smelled like a nightmare of a funeral home. “Because I do,” I snapped. “Look, I was around Hannah for ages.” The cop sighed. “That may be true,” he replied. “But even if you’re right, it doesn’t matter. Arresting someone because of perfume would make us a laughing stock.” Kate stepped forward and put her hand on my arm. “It’s okay,” she said softly. “I don’t think anything was taken.” The cops nodded. “Anything else, ma’am?” Kate shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said. “Mostly embarrassed for freaking out the way I did. Thank you for coming, officers.” As Kate and Lizzy showed the cops to the door, I flopped down on their couch with a big sigh. When Kate returned, she sat next to me, and Lizzy plopped into a chair opposite from us. “I don’t care what those cops say…I know who was here,” I said, my hands involuntarily clenching into fists. “And let’s just say I’m not happy about it.” “Your ex-girlfriend,” Kate said. “How do you know? Was it really just her perfume?” I laughed drily. “Hannah was really proud of that scent,” I said. “She makes it from two different other perfumes. I’d recognize it anywhere. She practically bathes in it before she leaves the house.” Lizzy wrinkled her nose. “It smells….kinda like a retirement home,” she said. I laughed, and Kate looked visibly relaxed when she saw that I wasn’t hung up on Hannah. “She’s an odd one,” I said. Kate shifted uncomfortably. “What are you going to do?” she asked. When I saw that she was still scared, some of the anger came roaring back. I could barely believe that Hannah—that bitch—would do something so low. It was bad enough she had to drag Kate into her devious plans to ruin my life, but breaking into her sister’s apartment? That was a new low, even for someone as awful as her. “We’re going to pay her a little visit,” I snapped. “Come on.” Kate shrank back. “I’d rather not,” she said. “I mean, do you think she’s dangerous?” “No, just a nasty person,” I said. “But she’s going to get a very stern talking to. And I want her to see you. I want her to feel shame for what she did. She should feel shame. She should be too fucking embarrassed to speak.” Lizzy grinned. “I knew you’d know how to deal with this,” she said. She stood up and socked one fist into her other waiting hand. “Kate, you gotta go with him. I wouldn’t want to get on your bad side,

Jay.” Kate still looked reluctant. “I don’t know. What if she tries something else? What if she writes another article?” She pressed her lips firmly together for a second, and I could tell she was thinking about the conversation she’d had with her producer. “I mean, I can’t let her ruin my career, Jay.” I shook my head. “Rubbish. She’s been trying to ruin mine for years now, and has she succeeded yet?” Lizzy and Kate both stared at me. “Holy shit,” Lizzy said. “That’s one vindictive little woman.” “It’s a bloody mess,” I said, raking a hand through my close-cropped hair. “Come on, Kate. Better get on the road.” Kate stood up, and I saw that she was shaking. “Are we going to her apartment?” I shook my head. When Kate stepped closer, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. “No,” I said. “We’re going to where she works. Don’t be afraid, Kate. I promise nothing else bad will happen.” “Okay,” she finally replied. She and Lizzy hugged and then we were on our way. I realized that the last time I’d been alone with Kate, we’d been plastered to each other, kissing deeply. I still felt the same animalistic, lustful pull towards her body, but I could tell this whole situation was distracting her, and I didn’t want to make her even more uncomfortable than she already felt. Still, when she walked in front of me, her ass swinging from side to side, it was hard to restrain the powerful desire. “Are you okay?” I asked as we stood outside Lizzy’s apartment, waiting for a cab to pass so that we could cross the street to my car. “You’re being very quiet.” She let out a long sigh. “It’s silly,” she said. “It’s just…well, when I came over here, I was hoping to avoid drama, you know?” She looked up at me and tried to smile. “I was trying to get away from a weird situation. I should have known better than to run from my problems.” I gave her a gentle smile. “I doubt Hannah was stalking you before you came to Manchester,” I said lightly. “After all, she’s only bothering you because we’re spending time together. She’s jealous.” Kate didn’t say anything. She sat quietly and tried to digest the information as we got in the car, and as I drove towards the offices of the Manchester Evening News, I kept waiting for her to say something. But she stayed silent the whole time, deep in thought. I wondered what she’d meant when she said she was trying to get away from drama. Was it all about that ex-boyfriend she’d mentioned, or was there something else? With a girl as beautiful and well-known as Kate, I imagined she’d probably had to deal with some pretty shady shit over time. When we arrived, she looked at me. Her face was very pale, almost white. “What are you going to say?” I set my lips in a thin line. “She’s going to know she can’t fuck with us,” I growled. “And she’s going to apologize to you.”

I thought I saw a hint of a smile on Kate’s face as she climbed out of the car, but by the time she was standing by my side, she looked solemn once again. “Here we go,” I muttered under my breath. “Hannah, you nasty creature, just wait until I’m through with you...”

Chapter Ten Kate

I couldn’t help but feel intimidated as Jay led me into a giant complex of buildings. When I’d first seen the Manchester Evening News site, I’d assumed it was kind of a small, local affair, but these offices were gigantic and obviously open all night. There was a stunning redheaded receptionist sitting at the front desk in the lobby, and as she watched us approach, she scowled at me and let her eyes hang all over Jay. “Hi, Jay,” she said in a chirpy, flirty tone. “I haven’t seen you around here in a while.” “It’s been too long, love,” Jay said with a roguish grin and a wink. “How have you been doing?” As we stepped closer, I realized he was using his charms on her. Part of me bristled at that, and I immediately felt a weird mix of guilt and shame rush through my body. Why the hell was I feeling like I had any kind of a claim on Jay? I obviously didn’t—I barely knew him. Even though he’d spilled that information about his past, I didn’t think it meant we were in any sort of relationship. He was obviously used to talking with strange girls, because he was with a different one all the time, and soon that was all I’d be. Just a strange girl who got tangled up in a mess with his ex-girlfriend. “We’re here to see Hannah Joyce,” Jay said. He leaned over the counter and winked at the receptionist. She was practically drooling, and I had to look away or else I thought I’d be sick. “I don’t know…” she said slowly. “If you don’t have an appointment, I really shouldn’t let you back there.” “Come on,” Jay pleaded. “You know me.” The girl giggled. “Well I don’t really know you,” she said, flushing bright red. “I mean, I know who you are. I’d be daft if I didn’t!” Jay leaned a little closer to the girl. “We just need to talk to Hannah for a few minutes. It’s late, so I know she’s probably not working on anything important. I promise we’re not going to stay very long.” The girl pouted. “Fine,” she said. “But can you sign this?” She held up a Manchester United mug that had been sitting on her desk. As Jay signed his name in a flourish with a permanent marker, I suppressed a smile. Was there anyone his charms didn’t work on? “Thanks!” the girl said. “You’re welcome,” Jay replied with a wink. “And thanks again for letting us through.” I shifted from foot to foot as I waited for Jay to rejoin me, and as soon as he was by my side, he apologized.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said under his breath. “But she wasn’t going to let us back.” I bit my lip, already nervous about going into the main offices. Even though I normally didn’t feel self-conscious about the way I looked, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the thought of seeing Jay’s exgirlfriend. Jay was the hottest guy I’d ever seen in the flesh, so I assumed that Hannah, whoever she was, had to be gorgeous. Jay led me down a back hallway, and I couldn’t help thinking of all the times he’d walked the passages of the Manchester Evening News by himself, excited about seeing his girlfriend. I shivered. Stop thinking like that, I ordered myself. You know nothing good is going to come from pitting yourself up against some random woman. And besides, isn’t that against everything you preach? Talk about being a hypocrite! Every time we passed an attractive woman, I tensed and waited for Jay to greet her. But that didn’t happen, and soon we were in front of a door with ‘Hannah Joyce’ printed on the front in pink script. There was a photo of a cute blonde with the whole Manchester United team, grinning on the field after a win. “Hannah,” Jay said in a sharp voice as he rapped on the door. “I know you’re in there. Find anything interesting at Lizzy Romero’s apartment earlier?” The door slowly opened and I saw the same blonde from the photo. She was the same height as me, but that was where the similarities ended. Her long hair was pin-straight and flowed over shoulders, and she had sky blue eyes and pouty red lips. When she saw Jay, she broke into a charming smile. “Jay, so nice to see your cute bum,” she said in a sing-song tone. “What can I do for you today?” Jay ignored her and strode into her office, and he was so large that he crossed from one side to the other in a mere two paces. The walls were adorned with sports kitsch—lots of Manchester United scarves and banners—and photos of Hannah with various athletes. “Jay, I’m hurt,” Hannah said. She looked at me and pouted. “And who is this? The flavor of the week? Or should I say, flavor of the hour?” The comment stung, but I didn’t say anything. Jay narrowed his eyes and rounded on her. “Apologize,” he said in a low, throaty growl. The sound of his voice sent tremors of lust down my spine. “Apologize to Kate. Right now.” Hannah turned to me with a sour expression on her face. “Sorry,” she said in a sarcastic tone. Turning back to Jay, she leaned back against her desk and fixed him with a flirtatious grin. “So what can I do for you, Jay?” “You know why we’re here, Hannah,” Jay said sharply. “You broke into Kate’s sister’s apartment.” “What? No I didn’t,” Hannah said. “But if you’re trying to get me interested in something juicy, it’s working. You have anything you want to confess?” Taking a pad and pen from the desk she leaned back and crossed her spray-tanned legs at the

ankle. “I’m always ready for a new story.” “Stop it,” Jay growled. “Trust me, Hannah, you don’t want to deal with me when I get angry. I don’t give a shit if you try to ruin my life, but don’t go dragging other people into your rubbish. Don’t be such a jealous little twat!” Hannah paled but showed no other sign of surprise. “I don’t know why you’re attacking me like this,” she said in a casual voice. “You know I wouldn’t ever do anything illegal.” “I think breaking and entering is illegal,” I snapped. “And you put my sister in danger!” Hannah rolled her eyes. “Your latest one is dramatic, isn’t she?” She looked at Jay for confirmation. “What’s the deal with her, anyway?” “Her name is Kate,” Jay said through gritted teeth. “And you know who she is, because you wrote a nasty piece about her, and then you managed to track down where she was staying and broke in.” I couldn’t lie, watching him angry at Hannah was turning me on more than I ever would have expected, and as he crossed the room to stare her down, I felt a shiver of lust trickle down my spine. “I still have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, crossing her arms. “You do, because we all know you did it, and you’re never going to do it again,” Jay continued. “And you’ll treat Kate with the respect she deserves.” “Or at least stop breaking into my sister’s apartment,” I said. “I don’t care what you do the rest of the time. But leave me alone.” Hannah laughed. “For the last time, I didn’t do it,” she said. “God, I’m insulted you’d even pin such a petty, stupid crime on me!” “Cut the shit, Hannah,” Jay said. “I smelled that horrific perfume you love so much. It was still wafting around when the cops showed up.” “They can’t arrest me based on my perfume,” Hannah said in an airy tone. “I wish they could, it’s bloody awful,” Jay muttered, and I tried to hold back a snicker, knowing that right now really wasn’t an appropriate moment to laugh. Hannah narrowed her eyes, finally cutting off her nice act. “Get out. Both of you.” “Not until you admit what you did,” Jay said, his eyes flashing. “Should we get your boss and ask him or her to weigh in on this situation?” Hannah rolled her eyes and dropped her shoulders dramatically. “Okay! Fine, I did it, I broke in. I didn’t mean any harm by it.” She eyed me up and down. “I just wanted to see what kind of slut you’ve decided to bang nowadays. After all, you normally have a type—blonde and thin. But she doesn’t really live up to that, does she?” A hot flush of anger broke out across my cheeks. Just as I was about to get in Hannah’s face and do something I’d likely regret, Jay stepped in front of me and pulled his phone out of his pocket. “I just recorded this whole conversation, and I’m sure you don’t want anyone hearing it. So you

damn well better leave Kate alone,” he hissed. “You’ll leave me alone too. You’ll go about your shady bullshit business and leave the two of us out of it, got that?” Hannah visibly blanched, but she quickly regained her composure and sniffed. “What makes you think I’m even still interested now that I’ve seen all there is to see of her?” She eyed me again and I felt the same hot flash of anger through my body. “After all, she seems pretty ordinary.” Jay clenched his teeth. “Just stop it, Hannah. Stop it or I’ll go to the editor right now and give him this recording. Your name will be mud and you’ll never get another job in journalism ever again. Got it?” Hannah smiled, and she walked behind her desk and sat down with her knees primly pressed together. She was pretty, I couldn’t deny that, but there was such an air of dissatisfaction around her that I couldn’t imagine she got a lot of men to flock around her. She seemed so smug and superior. “Got that?” Jay’s voice rang out loudly in the small office as he repeated himself. Hannah nodded, obviously knowing she was defeated. The recording Jay had made could see her out of a job, not to mention in some pretty hot water with the police. “Ten-four, boss,” she said with a smirk on her face. “Anything else?” Jay turned to me. “Ready to go? Or do you have something to say to Hannah too?” I bit my lip. “I don’t want to stoop to her level,” I said, loudly enough for Hannah to hear me. Tossing my hair over my shoulder, I stalked out of the small office. As soon as we were in the hallway with the door shut behind us, I practically collapsed onto Jay, adrenaline pumping wildly through my body. “Are you okay?” he asked, looking at me. His eyes were filled with a mixture of anger and concern. “She was really nasty to you.” I shrugged. “Well, I didn’t expect her to be friendly,” I said with a wry smile. “And god, her perfume! You were right. It’s horrible! It makes me think of mothballs mixed with peach schnapps and bitterness.” Jay smirked. “Told you so,” he said. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” “Are you sure she’s going to stop?” I looked up at his handsome, rugged face. He was incredibly intimidating when he wanted to be, but Hannah seemed to have a hidden agenda of her own. “If she knows what’s good for her,” Jay replied. He looked at me with his forehead creased in concern. “I think she just wanted attention. And she got that, didn’t she?” “I don’t know,” I mused. “You really don’t think she’ll try anything else?” Jay shook his head. “Her bark is much, much worse than her bite,” he said. “She’s already afraid of losing her job. She used to be a sports columnist but they demoted her to celebrity gossip because she was chasing too many athletes.” He rolled his eyes. “She’s not a great journalist, and she makes shit up all the time. So she’s perfect for celebrity coverage.” I snorted. “Back home, all the celebrity gossip columnists I knew were pretty smart,” I said. “If

they pulled that shit, they’d have gotten fired in an instant.” Jay laughed. “Well, she’s smart, even though she doesn’t seem like it. But I really think she gets away with anything because men like her.” He raised his eyebrows. “Sorry if that was uncomfortable for you.” I shook my head. It had been, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. As we stepped outside into the cool night air, I shivered, and he wrapped an arm around me and pulled me close. “Where do you want to go? Home?” I looked up at him, and the lust and desire came rushing back tenfold as I pulled Jay to me and pressed my lips to his. He growled and wrapped his arms around me, tangling his hands in my hair and pressing his hard, taut body against mine, and I shuddered with pleasure. The kiss deepened and I moaned softly into his mouth as I felt one of his muscular thighs nudge my legs apart and grind against my crotch. His spicy, masculine scent invaded my senses, and I closed my eyes, feeling bliss in every cell of my body. “Get the car,” I whispered hotly into Jay’s ear. “And I’ll tell you where I want to go then...”

Chapter Eleven Jay

My cock sprang to life as Kate pressed her soft body against mine and kissed me deeply. All I could think about was getting her alone, tearing off her clothes and making her scream all night. As we broke apart, I searched the street frantically for my car. In the haze of lust that had swept over me the second Kate’s lips scorched mine, I’d totally forgotten where we parked. Finally, I spotted it across the road, and I groaned as I saw that the wheel had been clamped. I’d accidentally parked in a reserved spot, and even though it was technically after hours, it was still illegal to park there. “Oh, crap,” Kate said, following my gaze. I waved my hand. “Forget it. It can wait. We’ll get a cab.” One slowed at the raise of my arm, and Kate and I rushed into the backseat, still clinging to each other. “I want to go to your place,” Kate said softly. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied with a grin. I gave the cabbie the address of my flat, and as soon as he started to drive, I pulled Kate close to me. She gave me a warning look and I held my finger over my lips. Very quietly, I said: “Be quiet, okay?” She bit her plump lower lip and nodded, and I grinned as I reached over her shoulder and pulled her body close to mine in the backseat. The cabbie showed no sign of awareness, but if he was anything like most cabbies I’d ridden with, this was the kind of thing he’d seen a million times before anyway. Kate shuddered with pleasure as I slid my hand down her back and around the curve of her waist. Her thigh was pressing against mine and I could feel her breath coming in hot, damp bursts against my neck. “What are you doing?” she whispered in my ear. I turned to her with a finger over my lips again. “Nothing,” I said in a normal voice. “Just shifting. Relax, Kate. Enjoy the ride.” I grinned at her and watched a deep red blush color her beautiful face. In the dark of the cab, I slipped my hand between her legs and gently stroked my nails down the inside of her thigh, and she jumped into the air and squealed, then clapped a hand over her mouth, looking at me with big, apologetic eyes. I locked my gaze with her, and as I stared her down, I felt her slowly inch her legs apart. She licked her lips and winked at me, and primal, carnal lust flooded my body; I was half tempted to pick her up and throw her down in the seat of the cab, taking her as my own for everyone to see. But no, that’s now how we were going to play, not this time.

Kate sucked in her breath as I slipped my hand between her legs once more until my knuckles were grazing her crotch. She shuddered and let out a small gasp, spreading her legs and letting me rub her clit through the layers of fabric. The cab lurched to one side and she spilled into my lap, breathing hard as she struggled to stay upright. “We’re here,” the cabbie said in a rough voice. He looked at me with a roguish grin in the rearview mirror as I passed him a wad of bills. “Keep the change,” I said. Kate’s body was wrapped around mine before the cab had even pulled away, and she closed her eyes and leaned in for a passionate kiss, moaning softly as I slipped my tongue between her soft lips. She tasted like vanilla and strawberries and the sweet musk of a woman, and I groaned as my cock stiffened in my pants. “We better get you inside,” I whispered into her ear. “Or I’ll bring you off right here in the street.” “I almost wish you would,” she replied softly. I grinned. I couldn’t believe the change in her; she’d gone from a meek, well-behaved girl into a complete sex kitten. As she wrapped her arms around my neck, I grabbed her thighs and wrapped them around my waist. I carried her into the building and shoved her roughly against the wall, and as we were waiting for the lift, she pressed her mouth to mine once again and gently began to suck and nibble on my lower lip. Arousal exploded in my lower belly and I growled, tangling my hands in her soft hair and grinding against her. Kate moaned, and her legs tightened their grip around my waist. She dug her fingernails into the back of my neck and kissed me softly, nuzzling me with her face, and just as I was about to shove my face into her cleavage, the doors to the lift dinged open. “Jay!” The operator greeted me. He was somewhat a friend of mine, used to seeing me come and go at all hours with lots of different women. “Having a fun night, I see!” Kate jumped away from me as though she’d been scalded. She glanced down at the ground with a burning flush in her cheeks, and I could tell she was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed to her as we entered the lift. “He doesn’t care.” She still looked mortified, and she didn’t talk the rest of the way up. It felt like an excruciatingly long ride—the operator, Andrew, was jabbering in my ear the whole time. Finally, we reached the top floor. Andrew saluted us as we exited the lift. “Penthouse is the best,” he said, winking at me again. I rolled my eyes. Normally, I liked Andrew’s cheerful banter, but right now, it was getting on my nerves. Kate looked around the hallway with an obvious trace of admiration. “This is a beautiful floor,” she said. “Have you been here long?” I shook my head. “Less than a year,” I told her. “It’s nice, but it gets lonely sometimes. I’m about to go barmy, talking to myself all day.” Kate smiled, her eyes crinkling around the sides with amusement. I unlocked the door and pushed

it open, following her into my dark apartment, and she paused, letting her eyes adjust. The view from the main picture window was incredible, and I knew she’d love seeing Manchester twinkle below us. She turned to me with lust sparkling in her eyes. “I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe I’m doing this with you,” she said softly as she slipped into my arms. “This isn’t like me, this isn’t the kind of thing I normally do.” I flashed her a teasing grin. “Yes, you said that the other day…after you kissed me.” “I know, I just…oh, screw it…” Her voice trailed off as her eager, hungry lips met mine. As we kissed, she moaned softly, and she pressed her curves against me and wrapped her arms around my neck. Her soft hands stroked the sensitive skin on the back of my neck and I shuddered. Christ, she was sexy. “I want you naked,” I growled, slipping my hands up Kate’s top and lifting it over her head. She blushed as she held her arms up, but when she was standing in front of me clad only in a bra and her jeans, she gave me a seductive smile. It made me smile to see her coming out of her shell like this, and I watched with fascination as she reached around behind her and unclasped her bra. She pushed her arms together and my mouth went dry as she revealed inch after inch of smooth skin. Her nipples were perfectly pink and erect. Stepping closer, I pulled Kate closer and lowered my head to her chest. She moaned as I fastened my mouth over one of her nipples and sucked. She tasted tangy and creamy, and I closed my eyes in bliss as Kate moaned. I could feel her arching her back. With my other hand, I stroked her bare stomach and slipped my fingers into the waistband of her jeans. I could feel thin, lace panties and my cock bulged uncomfortably in my pants. Kate gently pushed me away. “I want to go to bed,” she said softly. There was a twinkle of lust in her eye. “Can we do that, Jay?” The way she said my name sent shivers down my spine. “Take a guess,” I said with a roguish wink. Without warning, I scooped her up in my arms and threw her weight over my shoulder, and she squealed as I ran into the bedroom, depositing her on the soft bed. She looked up at me and reached out for me, pulling me down on top of her, and at once, our bodies were pressed together, working in a frenzied rhythm. Kate’s lips found my own, which were beginning to feel chapped and raw, and she yanked my shirt over my head and tossed it on the ground, mumbling with admiration as she slipped her hands over the hard muscles of my bare chest. I groaned. I’d missed a real woman’s touch, especially one as amazing as Kate. The others I’d been with recently were really just girls—vapid and shallow, and they couldn’t care less about me as a person. They’d only wanted the thrill of hooking up with a famous footballer. But Kate wasn’t like that. I could tell she was still worried that she was nothing more to me than a casual fling, and I could tell that she’d been wondering if I told all the other girls the same stuff I’d told her, but she didn’t need to worry. She was the only one I’d ever told anything, because she was the only woman I’d met who I felt I could trust, even though we’d barely known each other for more

than a few days. I guess that old saying was right—when you know, you know. Kate slipped her hands into the waistband of my pants, and then she fumbled with the snap and tugged the material down over my hips. I looked down to see my erection straining the front of my briefs, and Kate gasped when she saw how big and hard I was. When I chuckled under my breath, she blushed. “Been a while?” I raised my eyebrows. Kate shook her head defiantly, obviously wanting to shake off her usually-uptight image. “Not exactly,” she said softly. “You’re just so handsome.” A strange feeling came over me. I’d been with a metric fuck-ton of women, but none of them had ever called me anything but ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’. Somehow, it meant something coming from Kate. “And you’re a goddess,” I whispered as I lowered my body on top of hers. Kate groaned and wrapped her legs around my waist, and I moved my hips against hers, teasing her until she was crying out. With little effort, I rolled onto my back, pulling Kate on top of me, and I unfastened her jeans and tugged them down her hips. She was wearing a lacy thong, and my mouth watered at the sight of the deep purple lace disappearing between the rounded, juicy curves of her ass. “You look good enough to eat,” I murmured, sliding my hands inside her thong and tugging it down. Kate moaned softly in response, and I spread her legs with my hands and traced the tips of my fingers over the insides of her thighs. She shuddered and buried her face in my neck, and I could feel her breath coming hot and fast as I slid my fingers over her smooth thighs, going dangerously close to the most sensitive area of her body. She threw her head back, and my mouth went to the soft hollow of her throat. I flicked my tongue out and traced the long length of her neck, making her quiver, and she raked her fingers through my hair as I pressed my nose to her skin. I drew in a sharp breath at her scent. “You smell so fucking good,” I said. I sank lower on the bed, and she gasped when my mouth found her nipple. “Oh, yes,” she murmured and arched into me. I licked lightly and splayed my hands over her abdomen, the warmth of her skin burning through me. I drew her nipple deeper into her mouth, and she gasped as my fingers found her clit. I brushed lightly, delicately, and her hips came off the bed, seeking more. “Oh, god,” she cried out and grabbed my shoulders. My mouth left her breasts and I slid even further downward, positioning myself between her legs. I lifted my chin to meet her eyes, and I caught the intense look on her face as I widened her thighs even more. The heat in her eyes licked over my body in ways that made me aware of how much she wanted me—just as much as I wanted her. I lowered my head, and Kate’s breaths grew shallow at that first sweet touch of my tongue. The

heat from her perfect pussy drove me wild as the wet tip of my tongue skated across the seam of her lower lips, and I trailed it all the way from the bottom to the top. Sparks shot through my body at her sweet taste, and she reached down and gripped my shoulders again. “Yes…Jay…” she murmured, her nails digging into my skin. I licked slowly, softly, and Kate lifted her hips to hurry me along. But I pressed my hand to her stomach, pushing her into the mattress to still her. As my mouth did delicious things, I inserted one finger, and I could feel her muscles rippling around me. “Christ,” I murmured, easing my finger in and out of her in long, sensuous strokes that had her panting and begging for me. I moved my buried finger, and I could feel the tension rising in Kate as she grew slicker. She moved her hands away from me and gripped the bed sheets instead, and my tongue found her clit as I inserted another finger, taking her higher and higher. “You taste so good,” I murmured from between her legs. I made another slow pass with my tongue, and she became seemingly feverish with need. She writhed beneath me, her body shaking as I worked her into a state of aroused euphoria. “Jay, please…” I smiled and thumbed her clit, using slow, torturous circles that damn near drove her mad until soft quakes began at her core. I could feel them; feel every inch of her inner muscles beginning to contract around me. My fingers plunged deeper, harder, and Kate tossed her head from side to side, reveling in the pleasure I was giving her. As if knowing she couldn’t take any more, my mouth closed over her clit, my teeth ever-so-gently scraping over the engorged nub. She let out a ragged gasp, her body reacting to the increased pressure, and her hips came off the bed again. Her muscles clenched around my fingers again, and then a shudder ripped through her as an orgasm hit hard. I stayed between her legs until she stopped quaking, and then I climbed back up her body. With a sigh of contentment, Kate stared up at me with those luminous green eyes of hers. In the low light, I could tell she had a sensual grin spread on her face. “Do you have a condom?” she asked. Springing onto my hands and knees, I tugged my briefs down before sticking my hand in the endtable drawer and reaching for a foil packet. I ripped it open with my teeth and sheathed my cock in latex before climbing on top of Kate and staring down at her, and for a moment, I was lost in the depths of her gaze. Our breath was coming in shallow bursts, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so connected with someone. Then Kate strained towards me, breaking the spell as she pushed her lips against mine passionately. She tossed her hair and wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling me down on top of her, and I felt her squirming on the bed underneath me, spreading her legs and pushing her hips towards my cock. The head of my erection pushed agonizingly slowly into the slick warmth of Kate’s pussy, and she let out a low moan, arching her back and wriggling around on the bed. “Oh…god…” she moaned loudly. “God, Jay, you feel so good!” Her voice was deep with lust, and I growled; she was turning me on more than a woman had in years, and I couldn’t believe I was finally making it with her. I thrust my hips towards her, sliding

deep inside of her until I was fully sheathed in her warm flesh. She was soaking wet, and her juices were running down the insides of her thighs. As I began to buck and move my hips on top of her body, a light sweat broke out over my skin. It was just like warming up for a match, only a hundred fucking times better. I grinned as the rhythm became more intense, and pleasure swirled through my body, building to a hot coil in my lower belly. As Kate and I moved together on the bed, I tangled my hands in her hair and yanked her head back. With her perfect white neck exposed, she let out a groan and bucked her body against mine, and I could feel her muscles straining with effort. She pushed me back and struggled to sit up, and I hauled her legs around me as I leaned back on my haunches. She rode me fiercely, pressing her perfect tits against my chest and groaning into my neck as she bounced up and down on my cock. I closed my eyes in ecstasy—the way she was moving was going to set me off, very quickly. “Fuck, you keep doing that and you’re gonna make me cum,” I groaned in her ear. “But not before you. I want you to come again, baby. Come for me.” Kate moaned in response, throwing her head back. I watched a red flush creep up her neck, and as we moved our bodies together, I felt her muscles tighten and clench my cock as she reached a loud, shaky climax. It felt fucking incredible, and I groaned as I felt shockwaves of pleasure shoot through my lower body. When it was over, we stayed locked together like that for a moment. Kate looked up at me, her green eyes glowing with contentment. “Tell me…did you ever think that would happen?” I asked, winking at her. “Or were you just waiting for me to give you a good shag? Is that the real reason why you took your sister to that game?” Kate laughed, and she snuggled into bed and reached for a pillow, grabbing it with her small fist and beating me over the head. “Dream on,” she said in a lazy voice as she closed her eyes and pulled the sheets over her naked body. “Dream on, Jay...”

Chapter Twelve Kate

“Jay? Are you in there?” I poked my head into the kitchen and grinned at what I saw. Jay was standing at the stove, shirtless, and stirring something that smelled delicious. He turned around with a saucy grin on his handsome, rugged face. “Hey, babe,” he said with a wink. “See something you fancy?” “The food, yes. The man, no,” I teased. He let out a mock gasp of offense, and then he grinned at my joke. “Are you cooking for me?” I asked. “I’m trying,” he said ruefully. “Damn omelet doesn’t want to come out right.” “Smells great anyway.” He gestured towards the table, which was set with two places, some bottles of beer, and a lone daisy stuck in a glass vase. “Sit down,” he said. “I’m almost done.” I could barely keep from grinning as I lowered myself into the wooden chair. I’d seen Jay almost every day of the past couple of weeks. His schedule was surprisingly light; save for a few training sessions, I saw him all the time. Lizzy had been very busy with university, at least so she’d told me. I felt guilty about neglecting my little sister—I’d only seen her four times in the last fortnight—but something told me she didn’t mind, because ever since Jay and I had started….doing whatever it was that we were doing, she got to go to all of the training sessions. As for me, my time here with Jay had been a real whirlwind. After the first night together, it was like we couldn’t get enough of each other. Whatever tension, whatever ice had been in place between us had long since melted, and now, being with Jay was almost comfortable. Every time he looked at me, every time he walked into the room, I felt a little surge of excitement rush through my body. Sometimes it was easy for me to forget that he was Jay Walsh, star of Manchester United. To me, he was just Jay. When I actually thought about who he was in the grand scheme of things, I could scarcely believe I was here with him, actually sort of dating him, and I knew I was living in a big fantasy bubble— sooner or later, I’d have to go back to the States, and he’d probably be ready to move on to his next fling by then anyway. But for now, I was happy residing in the big, warm bubble of fun and affection…along with the most fabulous sex I’d ever had. “What do you feel like doing tonight?” I leaned back in the chair and crossed my legs at the ankle. “You want to go to the movies?”

Jay shook his head and wrinkled his nose. “You mean like the cinema?” I laughed. I was still getting used to his slang. “Yeah,” I said. “I mean, if you want. There’s a new Batman movie out…” “Last time I went to see a film, there were gobs of girls around,” Jay said with a smirk. “I can’t imagine that would be much fun for you.” I pretended to pout, but really, I understood perfectly, given some of my own experiences with being a TV personality. Jay sauntered over, still shirtless, bearing a plate with a near-perfect omelet. “This looks incredible,” I said softly as he placed the steaming food in front of me. “Thank you.” He gave me a lopsided grin. He cracked a beer and sat down in the opposite chair. “You’re welcome. I know I’m not much of a cook,” he said. “But you can’t go wrong with breakfast for dinner.” “I love breakfast for dinner,” I said with a grin. “Toast and bacon and sausage, yes please.” He pretended to groan. “I should have made you a fry up,” he replied with a wink. “Beans and toast and sausages, but you’d be out for a week.” I stuck out my tongue. “I’ll have you know I’m allowed to eat carbs,” I said. “Just not very many, at least not while we’re filming.” Jay gestured towards the plate in front of me. “Eat,” he said. “It’ll get cold soon.” I dug in, surprised at how excellent the omelet tasted. Jay had added bits of cheese, green onion, and ham and it was surprisingly filling. I didn’t mind that Jay didn’t want to go out; if I was going to be honest, I didn’t love the idea of fighting off a bunch of his female fans who would no doubt do absolutely anything to be noticed whilst vying for his attention. I was more than happy to stay at home, even though that’s what we’d been doing almost every other night. “This was incredible,” I said after I’d taken the last forkful of omelet into my mouth. “Where did you learn to make these?” Jay grinned. “You wouldn’t believe me,” he said with a sheepish grin. “But it doesn’t matter, does it, love?” I blushed and looked away. It was surreal. Me, Kate, barefoot in the kitchen of one of the world’s most famous men. And he was calling me ‘love’! Of course, that didn’t mean he loved me at all. It was just an expression. “What is it?” Jay looked at me with curiosity written on the fine features of his face. “Nothing,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s just…I can’t believe this sometimes.” He stood up and walked towards me with a soft expression on his face. When he was standing in front of me, he leaned down and planted a soft kiss on my lips. “Believe it,” he said in a solemn tone. He pressed his mouth against mine and I felt a shiver of desire run through my body. “You want to go to bed?”

I yawned. “It’s late,” I said. “And we had a long day of doing nothing.” Jay smirked and slipped his hand into my shirt, stroking my breasts until I shuddered. “Not exactly nothing,” he whispered into my ear. “We did have that marathon sex session this morning…” “You call that a marathon?” I joked. “Here I was thinking you were a star athlete…” “Wow, kitty’s got some claws,” he said, chuckling and mimicking a cat in attack mode. I laughed. “Come on, you,” I said, getting up from the table. “Time for bed. But don’t worry, I don’t really want to sleep yet…”


In the morning, Jay got up at the crack of dawn—six on the dot. He claimed that it was a habit he wasn’t able to break, but as someone who has never been a morning person, I could have sworn he did it just to torture me. “Jay, please,” I grumbled, rolling over and reaching for him. He was already gone and my fingers only made contact with the cooling sheets. He grinned at me from across the room. Then there was a sound like something buzzing, and he darted off into the other room. Sleepily, I closed my eyes. Jay’s bed was so comfortable that I easily could have drifted off for another hour or two. On mornings when he had training, I often did stay in bed until his return, upon which I’d leap in the shower and try to act like I’d been up for hours. But Jay always saw through the ruse, and I had a feeling he’d figured out truly lazy I could be when I was in vacation mode. But that’s what I was here for—a break from real life. “I’ll be right there, Mary,” I heard Jay say into the phone. I sat up in bed, struggling to hear what else he was saying to this ‘Mary’ person, whoever she was. I could hear his footsteps pacing in the other room but had no sense of the dialogue, and after a moment I gave up, flopped back and covered my face with a pillow. “Kate?” Jay’s voice was louder this time, and I shoved the pillow aside and yawned. He was standing at the foot of the bed, pulling a sweater over his head. “Are you awake?” I blinked. “Barely,” I said in a bleary voice. “What was that?” “I have to go,” he replied, an apologetic tone in his deep voice. “I’m so sorry, Kate, I’ll explain everything later.” He gestured around. “Until then, my flat is your flat, make yourself at home.” I shook my head, rubbing my eyes with a fist. “I really should get going,” I said. A flash of guilt hit me like a brand. “I’ve been a horrible sister. I’ve ignored Lizzy so much the last couple of days.” Jay nodded. “You can show yourself out, then,” he said. Stepping forward, he leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll explain everything later,” he said again.

I thought I saw a guilty look on his face but he grinned suddenly, crinkling up his eyes. “Just as soon as I’m home, okay? Want me to call you?” he added. I nodded. “Thanks,” I said softly. Jay darted into the bathroom and seconds later, I heard water running from the tap. I wondered what was making him run away from me so early. Even on mornings when he had practice, he didn’t leave until after seven. Once he was gone, his apartment was almost too quiet to bear. I took my time getting ready in his bathroom—Jay had a magnificent soaking tub—and then dressed, putting my hair up in a messy chignon. My stomach rumbled as I let myself out of Jay’s post building. I hadn’t eaten since the omelet, so I decided to grab some fresh breakfast foods for Lizzy and myself. Maybe we could go to the park and snack and gossip, catch up on things. I felt ashamed for not having been a better sister over the past few weeks, and I vowed to myself that I’d start working on fixing that today. No more getting wrapped up over Jay. On the street, I caught a cab. “Can you please drop me off at a grocery store?” I asked, smiling at the cabbie. He looked at me with a vaguely confused stare. “At this hour?” My smile faded slightly, and I nodded, feeling almost defensive. “Yes. I want to get some breakfast,” I said, sticking my chin out. The cabbie laughed. “Blimey…he didn’t feed you, did he?” He laughed uproariously at his own joke. “You modern lasses, all about the fun and games until it’s time for a good bowl of oatmeal, right?” I blushed bright red. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied. The words came out more stiff than I meant for them to. “I’m just going on an errand.” The cabbie stared at me the whole way home, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something weird was going on. After all, Jay was famous for being a playboy. Did the cabbie know that I’d been in his apartment? Was I being watched? Don’t be ridiculous, Kate, I thought. You’re getting paranoid. The cabbie finally dropped me off at a grocer, and I picked up some fruit, then went next door to a bakery and grabbed some fresh croissants. When we were kids, Lizzy always used to tease me by eating all of the bread in sight. She knew I watched my weight, because I had the kind of metabolism that made me prone to gaining it easily, but since she played sports and had the metabolism of a jet engine, she could basically eat whatever she wanted. I grinned as I picked out an array of pastries. Today, diet be damned, I was going to eat exactly what I wanted. I hated having to appease my showrunners by restricting all the things I enjoyed, and spending the last couple of weeks with a man who absolutely loved my body exactly how it was had been exactly what I needed to make me see the hypocrisy in my lifestyle. My show was all about issues facing women in today’s society and the unfairness of some of them, and one of those issues was the ridiculous beauty standards upheld by the media. I’d done an episode on body positivity and

acceptance, and yet, there I was allowing the producers to tell me how much I was ‘allowed’ to weigh. Well, no more. I felt a little silly creeping up the stairs to Lizzy’s apartment half an hour later. The building was quiet, almost silent, and I felt almost like an intruder. I realized that it had been so long that I had trouble recognizing Lizzy’s door, but then I remembered that she’d had the lock changed to a differentlooking one after the break-in. “Hi, it’s me,” I called loudly as I let myself in. “I brought breakfast!” There was no reply. Frowning, I kicked off my shoes and dropped the groceries on the kitchen counter. I heard soft voices coming from the other room and a guilty grin snuck on my face. So that’s why Lizzy doesn’t mind that I haven’t been home much, I thought. She has a boyfriend! And I caught them together! But when I rounded the corner and walked into the living room, I stopped dead in my tracks. Lizzy wasn’t sitting with a boyfriend at all. She was sitting with Josh.

Chapter Thirteen Jay

By the time I’d climbed behind the wheel of my Mercedes and pointed it towards the police station, I was a wreck. All I could hear was Connor’s sister’s voice—Mary’s voice—in my head. Closing my eyes, I remembered the phone call I’d had that morning. “Connor’s had a bit of a scrape,” she’d said at first, obviously trying to stay cheerful. In the background, I heard a child wailing. “Now, you be quiet!” she said in a soothing tone, but the child kept wailing. “Aw, Christ, Jay, hold on a second.” I’d waited a few heart-stopping seconds while Mary had set the phone down and fussed with her baby until he stopped crying, and when she picked up the receiver, I could hear the weariness in her voice. “What happened?” I asked. “Seems like Connor was picked up for narcotic possession,” Mary said drily. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Jay?” What? I blinked, totally and utterly shocked. “No,” I said honestly. “I had no idea. I mean, he used to take the odd thing at parties and the like when we were kids, but I didn’t know he was still using anything.” “Apparently he’s been using a lot,” Mary said. She huffed and yelled at another child in the background. “I’d be coming down myself but as you know, I’ve got the three little ones and I can’t leave them at home. And I definitely can’t afford to be taking them all on a trip right now.” She sighed. “It’s been ages since I got myself out of Belfast, and I wish I could come help you. But you’re gonna have to see to him alone.” I blinked again. “Is he okay? I mean, is he injured?” Mary laughed thinly. “I don’t know, this time,” she said. “There’s been other times, you know.” When I didn’t answer, her voice took on a suspicious tone. “You do know, don’t you?” I shook my head, even though Mary wasn’t in the room to see me. From the other side of the wall, I heard Kate rolling around in bed. My loins twitched; part of me wanted to return to her, hang up with Mary, and forget that my best friend since childhood was in trouble. But I couldn’t do that. No way. I knew what I had to do. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I said in a plain voice. “I had no idea he was even having these bloody

problems with drugs. How long has it been?” “God knows,” Mary said. She let out a heavy sigh. “We barely talk anymore, my brother and me. I wish things weren’t like that, I wish he’d bloody listen to his family. But not anymore, he hasn’t listened to us in a long time.” I could feel her resentment coming through the phone. “He moved to Manchester to be near you, didn’t you think about looking him up every now and then? Or too busy balls-deep in women?” “It’s not like that,” I said, even though there was a grain of truth to Mary’s words. It was true that I hardly ever saw Connor anymore—and it was partially my fault. We hadn’t gotten together in donkey’s years. When he first moved here from Belfast, I thought we’d see each other all the time. But practice with my mates had taken up a lot of my time, Connor always seemed to be ‘busy’ whenever I called him to catch up, and then there were the women…. “Well, you’d better get up and go see him,” Mary said. She didn’t sound nearly as friendly as she first had when she’d called. “And give him my love, will you?” “Of course, I’ll be right there, Mary,” I said. She’d given me the details of Connor’s arrest, and then we’d hung up. Now, I couldn’t believe I’d missed so many signs. Connor had always liked partying hard, and I should have paid more attention to his activities over the years. It was true that our lives went along separate tracks, but I should have taken it as a sign when he stopped calling me every week, asking to get together for a pint. I frowned as I shifted the car into gear and drove it away from my flat. I wondered what I was going to tell Kate. Sure, she was sympathetic and smart, but having a best mate with a drug problem wasn’t going to be something she could overlook easily, I could already tell. She was the type of woman who didn’t condone drug use, and I didn’t know how she’d react to my story. Besides, we’d only been seeing each other for a couple of weeks. It felt right to me, but I didn’t know exactly how she felt yet—for all I knew, she’d think it was way too early to be having deep, serious discussions about friends’ problems. You’re getting ahead of yourself, mate, I thought. No time to worry about the future yet. We’ve got to take care of Connor right now. I had no idea what I was going to say to Connor, and the more time I spent in the car, the more guilt I felt consume me. I should have known, I should have paid more attention to my friends…this was all my fault. I cursed the day I’d ever become famous and stopped listening to everyone I’d known from Belfast. I didn’t like to admit it, and I would never have told Connor, but ever since I’d been picked up by Manchester United, I felt distant from my roots. It was easy to forget that my parents had died in a car bombing, that I was from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Belfast. It was easy to forget who I was, especially when I was drunk on the notion of becoming someone else. I remembered a party that Connor and I had attended, right after we’d both moved. I hadn’t yet started playing with the team—I knew they were interested, but nothing formal had happened at that point. I’d attended a practice session or two and I’d been amazed at the swarms of girls that took over the team afterwards. These hot, amazing young women would wait out in the parking lot of the field

for hours, pouncing on the sweaty players as soon as they were done kicking a ball around. Connor met me after one of these practices. We were going to a party together, in downtown Manchester. The girls seemed to know I wasn’t one of the team yet so they mostly left me alone, but I caught lingering, appreciative glances from a few of them. I winked. “Hello, ladies,” I said with a grin. “Fancy a good time tonight?” Connor whistled through his teeth. “Come with me and my mate,” he called loudly. “You’ll never want to be a WAG ever again!” Most of the girls had rolled their eyes, and a few had blown kisses, but they’d all stayed away. As soon as Connor and I had climbed into my beat-up Fiat, Connor peppered me with questions. “Mate, holy god! I’ve never seen birds like that,” he said appreciatively as we pulled out of the stadium’s lot. “They’re the most gorgeous creatures I’ve ever seen!” “They are a sexy bunch,” I agreed. “But don’t you think it’s a bit shallow, eh? They only want the status, mate, they don’t care about who we are.” Connor shook his head. He grinned at me with a devilish look on his face. “I’d still take it, mate,” he said. “One of those girls had an arse that knocked the others out of the park! God, I’d like to see the face on her when I take her out for a date.” “Dream on,” I said as I navigated my old car through the crowded streets of the town. “Tonight we’re going to meet some real women.” “I prefer those angels,” Connor said. He had a dreamy expression on his face. “Mate, you think you’re gonna get famous and marry some model? What about an actress?” I shook my head and frowned. “I’m not tying myself down,” I said with a smirk. “No matter how sexy some bird’s arse is.” Connor stretched. He stuck his hand out the window and played with the breeze. “You’re a damn fool, Walsh,” he said, cuffing me on the head with his free hand. “A damn fool.” By the time we got to the party, it was in full swing, and Connor grabbed two beers and tossed me one. He was already moving and shaking in time to the music, and by the time I worked my way onto the dance floor, he was surrounded by girls. Connor’s grey eyes and brown hair gave him easy charm, but he’d always had to work at talking to girls. He’d always been the shyest friend I had, and I was really surprised to see him throwing beer back and flirting with three girls at once. The hostess of the party, Amy, was someone I’d gone on a couple of dates with in the past. She’d been ignoring me, and I went to go find her. We wound up bickering in the kitchen and I knocked back a couple of shots of tequila to feel better, and by the time I worked my way back to the living room, Connor was dancing in between two girls, clad only in bikinis. When he saw me, he raised his bottle and knocked it drunkenly against mine. “Mate!” Connor yelled in a loud voice. “This is a kickin’ party! Do you know these girls?” He gave the girls he was dancing with a big smile and turned to me. Obediently, they each put an arm around Connor and smiled up at me. “My mate, Jay, is gonna play football for Manchester United,”

Connor continued, his voice slurring. “You wanna shake his hand before he gets famous?” One of the girls, a blonde, peeled herself away from Connor’s side and came up to me. She was cute and innocent-looking, in the way that I liked, but I could tell by the way her eyes had glowed at the words ‘Manchester United’ that she wasn’t someone I really wanted to get involved with. “Hi,” she said. “Wanna dance?” “Go on, mate!” Connor said. “Come on, dance!” The girl led me back on the floor and wrapped her light body around mine. I was pulsing with alcohol and arousal by the time the song was over, and I didn’t even notice that Connor had disappeared with the other girl until the blonde was tugging at my sleeve. She looked up at me and frowned. “Hey, where’s Mia? Your mate was really drunk! If he’s trying to force her to do anything...” She trailed off and stamped her foot. “I don’t want her to get taken advantage of!” “We’ll find your friend,” I promised the blonde. She glared at me and I resisted the urge to pat her on the head. “Come with me.” The party was thumping, loud, and full of people, but I made my way to the back of the house. There was a long line behind a closed door. “Hey.” I looked at one of the girls in line. “Are you waiting to piss?” “Yeah,” she said with a sigh. “It’s a bit shit, we’ve been waiting forever!” “I’ll check and see what the hold-up is,” I promised, a sinking feeling already working its way into my belly. As I pounded on the door, Connor’s familiar voice came back at me. “I’ll be out in a second!” Connor snapped. “Hold your horses, mate!” “I’m coming in,” I said through gritted teeth. “You’re taking forever, mate, and pissing everyone off.” When I pushed open the door, I rolled my eyes. The girl Connor had been dancing with was nude from the waist down, lying in the tub, and Connor was bent over her body, snorting white powder that had been laid out in lines over her flesh. “Connor, let’s go,” I said, dragging him to his feet. “I’m not pulling your arse out of jail in the morning.” Now, thinking back to that party, I felt grim. I hoped Connor was going to okay, that it wasn’t too late to save him from whatever shit he’d gotten himself involved with. I guess only time would tell.

Chapter Fourteen Kate

“Oh my god,” I gasped, putting a hand to my mouth as I stared at Josh. “What are you doing here?” Before he could reply, Lizzy jumped to her feet. She gave me a shifty look but didn’t say anything. “I guess I’ll leave you two alone to talk,” she said as she slipped past me and closed the door. My mouth was still hanging open. It was really Josh, in the flesh. Josh Manning. The same man whose dark grey eyes and dark brown hair used to make my heart race. But now he just looked like a delinquent. He was too pale and always dressed in dark clothes. Today, he was wearing a leather jacket over a ripped up black t-shirt and dark jeans, and I knew the shirt must be for show; I recognized his shoes as a brand that sold for over four figures. It was a carefully constructed look that was supposed to say ‘I don’t care’ but really, all it said to me was ‘I have more money than sense’. “Hey. You look amazing,” Josh said. He stood up and reached out for me. I offered my hand instead and we shook awkwardly. Ever since I’d decided to break it off with him, my mind had been filled with excuses as to why we couldn’t get back together, but now, he looked cocky and self-aware. “Thanks,” I said shortly, lowering myself down into a chair. “Why are you here?” Josh laughed. “Kate, your social graces aren’t much improved by vacationing,” he said with a wry smirk. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” I didn’t reply. “Come on, it was a joke,” Josh said, holding his palms up. “I came a long way to see you, and I have news from your producer. Don’t you care about that?” “Fine,” I said, letting out a long breath. “But I really don’t have that long. I was hoping to spend the day shopping with Lizzy.” Josh chuckled again. “It’s not even eight in the morning yet,” he said casually, smirking at me until a blush rose in my cheeks. “Lizzy’s only just woken up, and I can’t think of where you have to be this early. And I thought you hated mornings?” I rolled my eyes. “Well, this one isn’t looking so good,” I mumbled. “But shows how much you know. I’ve changed since you last saw me.” “I can tell,” Josh said in a joking tone. When I didn’t laugh along with him, the laughter in his eyes faded. “So, what’s up?” I leaned back with my legs crossed at the ankle and put my hands in my lap. It was the exact same pose that I used on the set of Keeping Current With Kate. I hoped Josh would notice, or at least take my professionalism as a cue to return the behavior.

“I really care about you, Kate,” Josh said. “And maybe it took you leaving for that to sink in, but it really hit me. I want to be with you.” He looked at me, his dark eyes pleading. I felt a wave of guilt go through my body, quickly replaced with irritation. “I mean it, Kate.” I shook my head. “So what’s the news from my producer?” Josh ignored my question. “And I can’t stop thinking about you, and why we belong together. I know I was pushing you into something you weren’t ready for, and I want to apologize for that.” I relaxed. “So you’re here to tell me that you know you were wrong?” He shook his head and gave me a proud smile. “No,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that I’m willing to be patient. That I’m willing to wait for you, to do things on your terms.” I frowned. “But Josh, we broke up, and your behavior made me lose any interest I ever had in you,” I said plainly. “I don’t know what else to say to you. I’m sorry, I know it sounds harsh, but I’m just being honest with you.” “I can’t hold back with you!” Josh’s voice grew in pitch and he stood up from the couch. When I didn’t reply, he started pacing back and forth in Lizzy’s narrow living room. “I can’t live without you, Kate. I need you!” I swallowed. “Josh, this is going to be uncomfortable, but I need you to understand how I feel.” At the mention of my feelings, Josh perked up. “Despite what you think of me, the problem was that I didn’t feel the same way about you.” Josh perked up again and I blushed. “I mean, I don’t feel the same way about you. That hasn’t changed,” I continued. “Kate, you’re not sounding like yourself,” he replied. “Maybe it’s time to give this vacation a rest and come home. You’ve been gone for over two weeks, you know that, right?” I shook my head. “Yes,” I said, feeling more frustrated by the second. “But I’ve met someone here, who I really do like.” Josh laughed. “Oh, him? The soccer player?” I narrowed my eyes. “What’s so funny?” He nodded, a smile easing its way onto his face. “I saw the article,” he said. He stretched and put his hands behind his head. “I know all about him.” I frowned. “So what are you doing here if you knew I was with someone else? Aside from giving me news from the producers, that is.” He laughed again. “Come on, Kate. Do you really think the biggest playboy in Manchester would wanna settle down with someone he’s only known for a couple of weeks?” He raised his eyebrows at me, like it was the most ludicrous possibility in the world. “I mean, you’re smarter than that.” I looked away. I wasn’t sure what I thought was going on between me and Jay, but Josh was making me uncomfortable. “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about,” I said in a stiff voice. “I know Jay better than that.”

Josh pulled an envelope out of a backpack on the floor that I recognized as his. “Look at these,” he said, smirking. “Then tell me what you think.” I didn’t want to believe anything bad about Jay, but my heart started to sink before Josh could even show me what was in the envelope. I pushed his hand away. “I don’t want to see,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s probably some tabloid bullshit. You know his ex-girlfriend is a celebrity gossip columnist, right? And she has a real vendetta against him.” Josh chuckled. “Well, no, I didn’t, but take a look at these, Kate. Your man is with another woman right now. Like literally as we speak.” I winced as he emphasized the words ‘right now’, and hauling myself off the couch, I strolled into the kitchen and grabbed a pastry from the bag. I didn’t want to think about Jay doing anything that would upset me, and I knew Josh was just trying to rile me up. “Come on, Kate,” Josh pleaded. He followed behind me, clutching the envelope and trying to hand it to me. Every time I shook my head, he wheedled further. “Josh, leave me alone,” I said through a mouthful of croissant. “Please.” “I’m not leaving until you look at these,” Josh replied in a firm voice. “It’s for your own good, Kate.” Something about his voice made me stop eating and lower the rest of the croissant to the counter. “Fine,” I snapped. “Show me.” Josh eased some photographs out of the envelope. My heart started to thud in my chest and the last bite of pastry in my mouth turned to ash as Josh flipped them over. There, in bright color, was Jay. He was sitting at a café with an unknown woman. She actually resembled me a little bit; she was a curvy brunette with delicate features. But that was where the similarities ended. In the photo, Jay was leaning over the table and kissing her. Her hands were tangled in his hair, and I could see the small Manchester United logo on the back of his jacket—the same jacket he’d been wearing when he left this morning. Untouched cups of coffee sat between them and the girl’s skirt was so short I could see the pink crotch of her panties, just waiting for Jay to tear them off. I felt sick. “I don’t want to look at any more of these,” I said, abruptly pushing the photos back towards Josh. He caught my hand by the wrist and slipped another photo into my unwilling fingers. “Kate, the timestamp of these is pretty recent,” he said slowly. “I mean, they were practically only just taken.” He pointed to the right-hand corner of the photo where I unmistakably read today’s date and a time that showed the pictures were taken about an hour and a half ago. My stomach churned and knotted, and Josh looked at me again. “Are you sure you really know this guy, Kate? He ran out on you for some cheap tart.” I ignored the question for the time being. “Where did you get these pictures?” “A friend of mine lives here. He works in the media industry too. Anyway, I called him before I came here to Lizzy’s place to find you, and we caught up for an early breakfast and coffee. He asked

why I was here, and I mentioned your name, and he recognized it and connected it with Jay Walsh, because of that article the other day.” “And?” “And he’d just received a bunch of pictures from a paparazzi friend of his. He wasn’t going to run them—pictures of Walsh having coffee with some woman aren’t exactly stellar news—so he gave them to me to show to you.” “And why would he do that?” I asked, my teeth set on edge. Josh sighed. “Because when I mentioned you, I told him the main reason why I was here—to come and see if there was still a chance for us. And like I said, my friend knew you’d been seeing Jay…so I guess he thought the photos might change your mind about him. I know it was selfish, using the pictures to help get you on my good side, but I do care about you, Kate. And this Walsh guy is just an ass.” A torrent of thoughts rushed through my mind as I mulled everything over. Jay didn’t tell you where he was going this morning, remember? What if he had another date? What if he has another fling who lives in another country and she’s just over here visiting? What if he’s really not set on giving up his old ways after all? You’re stupid for believing him, Kate. You never should have fallen for that garbage. I blinked, not wanting to cry in front of Josh. I didn’t know why I was so upset. After all, despite spending most of the past two weeks together, Jay and I had yet to talk about our future, or if there even was a future for us in the cards. I shuddered. “Not so eager to kick me out now, are you?” Josh said softly, raising an eyebrow at me. “This doesn’t change anything,” I said slowly. “I mean, they could be faked, right?” Lowering the photographs to the table, I scrutinized them. They were grainy, but unmistakable. It was definitely Jay, and whether or not he knew he was being watched, he was definitely putting on a show. Josh shook his head. “My friend’s paparazzi sources are legit. And if you’re thinking that I faked them, well come on…would I lie to you?” Yes, I thought to myself. But as much as I couldn’t stand being around Josh, I knew that he’d come a long way to try and be with me. After all, hopping on a plane wasn’t exactly easy these days. Tickets were absurdly expensive, and even the most luxurious of seats started to feel cramped over flying across the Atlantic. And he had tried to warn me about Jay…. I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat. “This doesn’t mean anything,” I said slowly. “And we are not getting back together. But I want to thank you for coming here and trying to warn me.” I threw the rest of my croissant away, washed my hands, and walked back into the living room. My head was starting to ache and I felt tired, and like I needed a long bath and then a nap even though I’d only just woken up a couple of hours ago. Josh smiled. “I knew you’d feel that way,” he said, seemingly oblivious of my first two

statements. “Well, anyway, I know you said you want to spend the day with Lizzy, so I’ll take off, but how about dinner later? After all, I’m the new kid in town. Wanna give your sister a break and take me out?” He winked at me with his deep grey eyes and I looked away. Josh had an insane amount of charm —it was what had first attracted me his way—but it wasn’t going to work. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let Josh Manning get under my skin for another second. On the other hand, I did need a distraction from the awful photos I’d just seen, so I finally nodded. “Only if you swear that you know this won’t lead to anything,” I said in a warning tone, trying to think of the least romantic restaurant possible. “And you know this isn’t a date. I’ll simply be showing you a good place to eat because you’ve flown all this way, and I’m grateful for your warning about Jay Walsh. And we also need to discuss whatever it is the showrunners asked you to tell me.” “Fine,” Josh replied. He grinned at me and I felt a touch of….something. Not desire, but almost admiration. I couldn’t read his mind; I had no idea why he’d chased me across the ocean, other than over his infatuation, but I couldn’t help admiring his spirit, either. “Promise me you know it won’t be a date,” I said, holding out my hand to shake. Josh gripped my waiting fingers with surprising strength, and he squeezed. “I promise,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “This is definitely, certainly, not a date. Just colleagues discussing work.” I smiled and relaxed my tense shoulders. Maybe Josh wasn’t as much of a disrespectful asshole as I’d assumed over the last few months, and maybe he was finally beginning to understand that a relationship between us was never going to happen again. Maybe we could even be friends.

Chapter Fifteen Jay

By the time I got down to the police station that Connor was apparently being held at, I was a wreck. I kept imagining him in the worst sorts of ways—strung out on heroin, choking on his own vomit. Drinking all day then blacking out and hitting his head on something hard. Snorting so much cocaine that he got a wicked nosebleed and passed out from blood loss. I’d been around a lot of men who liked to party, but right now I was picturing Connor taking the game to a whole new level. I pulled my Mercedes into the parking lot and jogged to the station. A plump brunette woman with a stringy fringe pushed away from her forehead with a clip was sitting behind the reception desk, and she raised her eyebrows at me but didn’t say anything when I came barreling inside. “Hi, ma’am, I’m here for Connor Callaghan,” I said. The woman stared at me. She blinked, looking on the verge of reptilian. Finally, she opened her great maw. “Who?” “Connor Callaghan,” I repeated. “He was brought in for possession of narcotics.” The woman laughed. “Ha, boy, you think you’re gonna chase him down and buy something? We’ve taken his bloody drugs away from him at this point! I don’t care how famous you are, he isn’t gonna be selling anything to your tight little arse for a very long time!” In irritation, my hands balled into fists by my side, but I didn’t let the woman see that. “No,” I said in an even tone, trying to contain my temper. “I’m his friend. I’m here to bail him out, and hopefully take him to rehab.” The woman raised an eyebrow at me and leaned back. “You’re kidding me,” she said. “Someone like you….some famous football bloke! Bailing out this rotter!” I glared at her. “He’s not a rotter,” I said. “He’s my best friend, and I don’t like you talking about him like that. He’s a good man.” “Good? Like when he tried to sell blow to a bunch of young uni girls?” The woman laughed again. “His bail is too high even for the likes of you.” I set my lips in a thin line and leaned over the counter, gritting my teeth. “Please let me speak to someone about his case. Someone higher up than you.” The woman sighed in exasperation. I could tell she was really winding up to say something nasty when a back door opened and a uniformed officer came out. He eyed me with curious interest. I’d seen that look before; he recognized me, but he wasn’t sure from where, and he was trying to

remember before I could say anything. “What’s all this?” The officer strutted to the front of the room and looked down at the surly receptionist. “What are you doing?” “This asshole thinks he can come in here and bully me into seeing his friend,” she replied, glaring at me. “Toss him out!” “Wait, what? I haven’t been bullying you at all,” I said through gritted teeth. “Please just listen to me. My best friend was booked and I haven’t been allowed to see him. I want to pay his bail, get him out, and take him to a rehab facility.” The officer walked towards me, nodding his head. “I think I know who you are,” he said. “You’’re Jay Walsh!” he added with a triumphant cry. “My kids love you!” “Thanks,” I said, trying to manage a polite smile. The hag behind the front desk was still glaring at me. “Can I see my mate?” The officer frowned. He reached down onto the woman’s desk and grabbed a sheaf of paperwork. “Who’s your pal?” “Connor Callaghan,” I said, feeling tired of repeating his name. “He was booked for possession of narcotics. His sister, Mary, called me from Belfast. She couldn’t come—she’s got three young kids at home, so she asked me to take care of it.” “I see,” the officer said. He frowned again, more deeply this time. “You know this isn’t the first time Mr. Callaghan has enjoyed a visit with us?” I raised my eyebrows. “This is the first I’ve heard of it,” I said stiffly. “I didn’t know what kind of things he’s been up to. His sister told me he’s had a problem for some time.” “And this is your best mate?” The officer was looking at me, not seeming quite so pleased this time. I nodded, feeling defensive. “Yeah,” I said. “We grew up together in Belfast.” “Not really paying a lot of attention to him, are you?” The officer looked at me with a gleam in his eye. “Not really watching what kind of stuff he gets up to, aye?” “He keeps things from me,” I said. I was starting to get angry. Between justifying myself to a police offer and the bitchy receptionist, I was feeling a bit stretched thin. “Perhaps you’re spending a bit too much time on the football and on the ladies?” The officer winked at me and had the nerve to laugh. I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t say anything too horrible. “That’s a bit rum,” I said. “Saying I’m not a good mate because I can’t babysit Connor all the time. We’re grown men, you know.” “We know,” the receptionist chimed in. “We know. He’s in the back, Officer.” “I’d really like to see him,” I said. “Please. I can get him out of here, I’ll pay his bail in full. I promise.”

The officer’s greedy eyes practically glowed at the mention of a bail payment in full. “Well, why didn’t you say so? Of course, my lad!” He wrapped an arm around me—an awkward maneuver, since he was about a head shorter than I was—and led me back through a heavy door of iron. The inside of the temporary lock-up was damp and cheerless. The stone floor had been scrubbed to nearly an inch of its life and the walls were painted a dank, dull green. I could smell sweat and sewage and desperation, and I winced as the officer led me down a dark hallway. “Your mate’s back here,” the officer said. “Call when you need me.” He took a massive ring of keys from his belt and unlocked a door that looked like an iron grate, sliding to the side. It was so dark in the cell that my eyes had trouble adjusting. Finally, I saw a small form curled up on a metal bench. “Connor?” I blinked. “Is that you?” “Hey, Jay,” Connor said in a dull voice. He stretched, sat up, then stood and walked closer. Even in the dull light I could tell that he looked awful. His brown hair was lank and his grey eyes looked glassy and dilated. “What happened to you, mate?” I ruffled his hair and tried to pull him close, but Connor resisted. “What the fuck did you do?” He laughed dryly, then sat down with a clang on the metal bench, and I lowered myself to his height. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I got caught with blow, again. Do you even care, Jay?” “Of course I care, don’t be a prick,” I said. “You’re my best mate, and we’re getting you out of here. Into a good rehab program. And I’m taking care of it, no question.” Connor let out a heavy sigh. I knew he wanted to fight me on this—he always wanted to fight me on matters of money. He was wearing his own clothes, but they were stained and torn. I wondered if he’d been pissing all of his money away on coke, but didn’t want to ask. “This isn’t right, mate,” Connor said. “You can’t just storm in here and tell me you’re going to fix me up all proper! That doesn’t make a lick of sense.” He leaned with his head against the wall and closed his eyes. “Not for me, at least. Save your money for those pretty lasses around you, or for your bleeding rich football friends. You don’t care about me, Jay. Just admit it.” He looked at me with clear bitterness in his eyes, and I rolled my eyes. “What I don’t care for is this stupid pity party,” I said. “You can’t sit here in the dark and feel sorry for yourself. You have to get up and fix this. I’m going to help you, okay?” “It’s too late,” Connor said. He sniffed. There was dried blood crusted underneath his nostrils, and without asking, I knew my last prediction had come true. “The only thing I want is some more of that bloody white powder. I’m not gonna have a good life like you do, mate. It’s the gutter for me.” I looked at Connor with my eyebrows raised. “Stop it,” I said. “You’re being a real dickhead right now. If you think I’m giving up on you, you have no idea who I really am. I’m your best mate, and I’m here to make sure you get the help you need. I know this sounds corny, but it’s the truth. I care about you, man. I’m not gonna let you rot off and die somewhere.”

Connor looked away. Talking about emotions wasn’t a strong point for either one of us, but I knew that my words had hit home. He buried his face in his hands. “It’s too late, mate,” Connor said in a muffled voice. “It’s too late for me.” I stood up and sighed before banging on the iron bars for the policeman. “Officer!” I called loudly. “Officer!” Connor looked up at me, his face twisted with disgust. “Yeah, run away,” he said with a sneer. “Run away back to your regular life, filled with fun and football and pussy. You don’t need me. You don’t need me at all.” The cop strolled back in front of Connor’s cell. He gazed at me. “Ready to come out?” “Only when my mate comes out, too,” I said firmly. “I’m staying here until he agrees to leave with me.” Connor looked at me with disbelief and shock on his face. “I’m paying his full bail,” I continued. “And while we wait for the court date, I’m taking him directly to the best private rehab facility in Manchester.” The officer blinked. “Blimey,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d see the day. A famous football star coming in to bail out his childhood friend. People are gonna love that story!” I rolled my eyes. Ten minutes ago, I’d been the horrible friend who never paid attention, and now he was back to praising me. People could be so goddamned fickle. “Come on,” I said to Connor, dragging him to his feet. “We’re getting you out of here.” There was a lot of paperwork to sign and other red tape to deal with, and over eight hours later, we were finally out of the lock-up and standing in front of Promising Light Rehab Facility, outside of Manchester. It was a sleek, new building with white stucco on the front and big wooden doors. Connor looked at me nervously. He nudged the ground with his toe. “I dunno about this, mate.” I was only half paying attention to him by this point. I knew it sounded paranoid, but I felt like someone was looking at us, and all the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I glanced around, then turned to Connor. “Do you feel like someone’s watching us?” I asked. “If they are, they’d be in for an eyeful.” He wiggled his butt. “Hello, ladies!” “Stop,” I said, grabbing his arm. “I’m serious.” “Relax, famous boy,” Connor said. “They’re probably just security cameras. This is a rehab center, after all.” His face grew solemn. “I mean, they’re gonna be keeping an eye on me once I get in.” “You’ll be fine,” I promised Connor. “I’ll come visit every weekend. How does that sound?” Connor shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Whatever you say, man,” he said. He actually smiled at me—it was the first real smile I’d seen all day—and hefted his bag over his

shoulder before walking through the doors. I followed him into the lobby, and a kindly-faced nurse came through to show him to the patient sign-in room. I waited in the general lobby for a few minutes, in case Connor came out and said he couldn’t go through with it, but as I watched through the glass, I saw him fill out the intake forms and set his bag down. Another nurse came up and started taking his vitals, and finally, he turned back towards the big glass sliding door with a reluctant thumbs-up. I smiled, waved, and then left, and just as I was walking back to my Mercedes, my phone buzzed in my hand. It was a text message from an unfamiliar number. I frowned. ‘Jay, it’s Lizzy. Sneaked your number out of Kate’s phone. I think she’s going on a date with her stupid ex! Are you guys not seeing each other anymore? Please tell me that’s not true…’ I frowned. What? By ‘ex’, did Lizzy mean that annoying guy from the States who Kate had mentioned a while back? He was the only ex I’d heard of, anyway. Kate had told me that he was a disrespectful prick who’d refused to take her needs seriously…so why the hell would she be going on a date with him? And more to the point, what on earth was the guy even doing all the way over here in England? I set off towards my car at a fast pace. I needed to find out what was going on, and I needed to get my ass down to wherever Kate was, pronto. I wasn’t going to let some ex of hers come in and steamroll me, and I definitely wasn’t going to risk losing her to him. Maybe she didn’t know it yet, but I was falling for her. Hard.

Chapter Sixteen Kate

I took Josh to Bengali Paradise, a gaudy Indian restaurant around the corner from Lizzy’s apartment. I’d remembered that he liked Indian food, and even though he’d asked about the local cuisine, I didn’t think he would be impressed. He’d never liked ‘plain’ food, and I knew that was what he’d consider most of the places I’d been so far. Besides, I didn’t want to taint the memory of the places I’d visited with Jay by taking Josh there. “This is nice,” Josh said as we headed inside. A waiter led us over to a corner booth draped with multi-colored scarves. A heavy perfume of incense hung in the air and I almost felt like choking on it as I slid down into my side of the booth. The lighting inside the restaurant was dim, and I had to admit, as much as he annoyed me, Josh looked fairly handsome. Well, he always had looked nice, in that bad-boy way. But tonight he’d really cleaned up: fresh button-down shirt and dark slacks. He’d even brushed his hair. He winked at me. “Don’t even start,” I said, holding up my hand. “I don’t want to hear it, whatever rubbish you’re going to say.” Josh laughed. “Kate, really. Rubbish? You’ve been here for two weeks and you’re already picking up on local slang?” He snorted. “You know what people say about Madonna, right? She’s from Detroit. She’s not really British. It won’t make people like you, Kate. That’s something you’re going to have to work on before you come back.” I frowned. My producers had always told me that I had a very natural, relatable personality, and the ratings for my show had always been good—apparently, women in various demographics across the country liked me. I didn’t exactly see why, but I didn’t think that an extended vacation across the pond would do much to change that. As far as I was concerned, the most important step to getting people to like you was easy—don’t be an asshole. That wasn’t hard, was it? “Sure, Josh,” I said, trying to keep the conversation light. “So tell me, what have you been up to?” Josh sighed. He stretched his arms over his head and folded them behind his neck. It was a very ‘alpha male’ gesture, and I had to look away so I wouldn’t roll my eyes right at him. He had that devil-may-care attitude that drew women to him like moths to a flame, and while it had once worked on me, it wouldn’t ever again. “Missing you,” he said with a grin. “Mourning you, desperately hoping you’ll return.” Before I could protest, Josh winked at me. “I’m kidding,” he said. “I’ve been doing well. Focusing on me, going to the gym, writing a lot. I’m thinking about taking some creative writing

classes in the fall, what do you think?” I blinked at him. “That sounds nice,” I said politely, taking a sip of my water. A server appeared, clad in a turban and bright-colored vest. “Hello,” he said, leaning down over the table and setting a dish full of garlic naan in front of Josh. “Have you dined with us before?” I smiled, closed my menu and handed it over. “Yes, I have. It’s great. Anyway, can I please get the butter chicken?” I said. “And a side of palak chaat. Thank you.” The server smiled back and bowed to me before turning to Josh. Josh was staring at me with an incredulous look on his face. “Don’t be rude, Kate,” he said, although I failed to see how I’d been rude. Turning to the server, Josh plastered a big smile on his face. “I haven’t been here before,” he said with a grin. “Don’t you think that’s important?” The server rolled his eyes. “Certainly, sir,” he said. “We at Bengali Paradise hope to offer you a delicious experience that isn’t just about food. We specialize in Bengali dishes, but we also offer cuisine with a South Asian flair. Have you had a change to look through the menu?” I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. One of the worst things about Josh was his ability to make everyone work for his tips. He wasn’t content until a waiter was bending over backwards in order to serve him. I hated this; Josh even made a habit of asking cabbies to pull his briefcase out of the trunk, even though it could easily fit on his lap for a short trip. When I’d criticized this habit of his before, he’d faced me and said solemnly: “Kate, I’m paying them, aren’t I? I want them to earn their money.” It was atrocious. Josh and the server bantered for a few more minutes. Josh asked for recommendations, the server delivered, Josh pretended to have a hard time deciding. Finally, he looked at the waiter. “Say, do you think you could make me half a plate of each of those? Just charge me for the most expensive,” he said with a grin. “I want to try both.” The server, clearly exasperated, took Josh’s menu and dashed off towards the kitchen. “You are such a prick sometimes,” I hissed. “I can’t believe you.” Josh pouted at me. “Come on, he’s just a waiter,” he said derisively. “He loves helping people, didn’t you see?” I rolled my eyes. “You know, I honestly thought we could be friends after that whole speech you made earlier, but you really are just an insufferable ass.” He held his hands up in defeat. ”Sorry, sorry. I guess I’m just nervous. You’re right; I’m being an ass.” Despite how uncomfortable he made me at the start of dinner, I was surprised to wind up enjoying myself. We ordered a bottle of wine, and by the end of my first glass, we were swapping stories about the TV network we worked at. I found myself almost homesick, almost missing my show. Without a doubt, I missed being at home in the States, but I didn’t think I was quite ready to go home. Even with

things with Jay being up in the air, I just didn’t know. “What are you thinking about?” Josh asked, eyeing me as he finished his glass of wine. “Something important, no doubt.” I laughed politely. The waiter returned with our food and I glared at Josh, half expecting him to act out of turn, but he was perfectly polite. “I’m glad we can at least try to be friends,” I said with a smile as I reached for my fork. “That means a lot. I was feeling stressed about not getting along with you, seeing as we have to work together.” Josh gave me a wolfish smile. “I’m glad we can be friends, too,” he said. I expected him to throw in some casual remark about ‘more than friends,’ but oddly enough, he stayed quiet and started eating some of his dinner. Even though I was enjoying myself more than I thought I would, my mind wasn’t at rest. I couldn’t stop thinking about Jay. How was I going to tell him about the photographs? Should I wait for him to say something first? No, I should definitely confront him. My stomach twisted and I began to lose my appetite as the images from earlier popped back into my head. Jay with another woman’s tongue down his throat. Jay making out with a woman in public, not even caring about who took his picture, and not even caring who might see. Jay, who had left one woman in his bed and gone out to meet another. My heart hardened slightly under my blouse. “You’re being quiet,” Josh said with a smirk. “Normally when I take you out, it’s Kate the Chatterbox.” I tried to smile. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just have a lot on my mind.” “No worries,” Josh replied. He winked at me. “I have to go use the little boy’s room.” I watched as he stood up from the table and smoothly navigated his way towards the back of the restaurant. My phone buzzed on the table, and reaching for it, I noticed there was something slightly different. Oh, yeah, duh, I thought to myself. It’s Josh’s phone. Before I could put it down, a text flashed across the screen: ‘Did she fall for my Photoshop job? Better hope she doesn’t go through TMZ and catch you lying!’ Frowning, I set the phone down on the table. Josh was devious, but I didn’t want to think that he was that devious. “Hey,” Josh said, catching me off guard with his return a moment later. He slid down into his chair and looked at me. “Wow, Kate, you really need to cheer up. I don’t like seeing you without a smile.”

I bit my lip. “What is this?” I pressed the main button on his phone and showed him the text. “This came up while you were gone.” He laughed, and underneath the table, my hands clenched into small fists. “Kate, don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “What are you talking about?” “The pictures you showed me earlier,” I said through gritted teeth. “Did you get them from TMZ and get a Photoshop-savvy friend of yours to change the time stamps to make them look more recent?” Josh shook his head and ran a hand through his brown hair. “Kate, you’re being really crazy,” he said. “I was gone for five seconds and I come back and you attack me like this? That message is about a work thing.” He shook his head again and gave me a wounded expression. “I can’t believe you think I would do this to you. After all this time.” I folded my arms across my chest. “Stop making me think I’m crazy,” I said. “I don’t think Jay was seeing someone else at all, and I don’t think you have a ‘friend who works in media’ here in Manchester. I think you got someone to doctor those photos.” Josh smiled at me and shook his head. “Kate, if you even heard yourself right now, you’d be embarrassed,” he said. He leaned over and hunched his shoulders. In a conspiratorial whisper, he said: “Men don’t really like it when you act crazy, honey. It makes you much less attractive. You know that, right?” I snorted. As if I gave a crap whether or not he found me attractive. “I’m not acting crazy,” I said. “You’re lying to me.” “Why would I do that?” Josh gave me the same wounded look. “Kate, I care about you. We’re friends. We’ve been friends for years, right? I mean, before we dated, that is.” I frowned. I didn’t want to believe that Josh would do something so odious, but come on…I wasn’t an idiot. Then again, I didn’t want to believe that Jay would be playing me, either. But one of them had done something wrong. As much as I wanted to be friends with Josh for professional reasons, something in my gut was telling me that he was lying. I knew he’d never admit it, though. “I’m choosing to trust Jay,” I said coolly. “He told me that he had something important to take care of today, and that he’d explain everything later.” Josh laughed again. “Kate, don’t be so naïve. For a man like Jay, an illicit date very well could have been the important thing. He’ll just lie to you, you’ll see.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “But me, I’m over here, trying to help you. I flew over here just to see you! Isn’t that pathetic, I’m chasing you,” he added, laughing to himself. “Wow, you really know how to make a woman feel special,” I said in the most sarcastic tone I could conjure up. Before I could really tear into him, something caught my eye, and I gasped. “What is it? What’s wrong?” Josh looked around, obviously confused. A smile crept onto my face. I couldn’t help it. “Jay’s here,” I said smugly. I pointed towards the front of the restaurant. “He just walked in.”

Chapter Seventeen Jay

Lizzy told me exactly where Kate had gone, and she’d confirmed that it was Josh she was having dinner with. Apparently, he’d shown up at her apartment earlier this morning, looking for Kate, and Lizzy had left them to chat when Kate returned. When Lizzy had gone shopping with Kate later in the day, Kate had informed her of her plans to have dinner with Josh, and Lizzy had then made the decision to tell me. I headed to the restaurant, and my hands balled into fists when I saw Kate talking to the smarmylooking man across from her. He was wearing an arrogant smirk, and I could tell what he thought of her, even from a distance. Men like that weren’t to be trusted. Not now, not ever. “Hello,” I said, in the friendliest voice I could manage. “Kate, may I please speak with you?” “Sure,” Kate said. She seemed relieved to see me, and as she slipped out of her chair, her companion glared at me. “Just wait one minute, Kate,” he said in a reedy, nasal voice. “Wait just one minute before you go off with this jock.” I felt a hot rush of anger in my chest as the prick continued. “Kate, you realize what a hypocrite you are, right?” He leaned back in his chair and glared at her. She was staring at him with her mouth open and her lovely dark hair hanging to one side. “Really nice of you to preach values about being strong to young women and then choose some dumb football player over me!” Kate shook her head. “Josh, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. She sounded tired, and I was overcome with the urge to pull her into my arms and shield her ears from whatever nonsense this asshole was spewing. “I’m not a hypocrite, and I haven’t chosen him over you. I didn’t choose you to begin with, Josh. I didn’t want you, and I still don’t want you. I thought you had accepted that. I thought that somehow, magically, we were going to be able to be friends, seeing as we have to work together, but obviously that’s not going to work out.” Josh laughed. “That’s all pretty rich, coming from you. You should know, Kate. You’re the one who lectures young women about how to act. You should have known you were leading me on.” “What the hell are you talking about?” Kate raised her voice, but only slightly. She leaned down in Josh’s face. “I’ve talked about nothing but how much I don’t want you back! And how I was hoping we could be friends!”

“If you really wanted to be friends, you wouldn’t be on a date with me right now,” Josh sneered. At this point, it was becoming abundantly clear that Lizzy had misinterpreted Kate earlier. This wasn’t a date at all, and Kate confirmed that a second later. “This is not a date!” she said. “I told you a hundred times, I was just taking you to dinner to be nice, seeing as you flew all the way here, and we needed to talk about work. But screw being nice to you now, asshole!” Josh stood up and tried to grab Kate. She squealed and jumped out of the way, and his hands came crashing down on the table. Anger flooded my body and before I knew what I was doing, I stepped forward and swung one of my fists back behind my head. Josh gave me a dazed look, like a deer in the headlights, but he didn’t move; he was too slow. My fist collided with his face, and I felt cartilage snap beneath my fingers. When I pulled my hand away, it was dripping with Josh’s warm blood, and he winced and ducked down. At first I thought he was going to fight me, but he must have come to his senses because he was putting his hands up and backing away after only a few seconds. “You know what, Kate?” Josh said, blood dripping down his face and over his chin. “Your secretary, Pammy? I slept with her. While we were dating. And the news from the head showrunner? He’s actually thinking of canceling your show.” Kate immediately turned pale, and Josh grinned. The blood smeared over his teeth made him look like a madman. “That’s what I’ve really been wanting to tell you in person. Figured I’d at least see if I could get a decent fuck out of you first, though,” he added, sneering at both of us. “I hope the news finds you well, you stupid cunt.” I stepped forward, ready to beat him to a pulp for the shit he was saying to upset my Kate, but she grabbed my arm before I could hit him again. “Please don’t,” she said in a small voice. I could tell she was hurting tremendously, and for that I wanted to rip Josh limb from limb. When he realized I wasn’t going to punch him again, Josh looked triumphantly from me to Kate. “So, what do you think about that, huh?” Kate set her lips in a thin line. “Why didn’t Rod call and tell me?” Josh shrugged. “I guess he wanted to wait and see what your final ratings were,” he said. “Wait until the last possible minute before pulling the plug, right?” He shrugged in mock-apology, the shit-eating grin on his face growing by the second. “That’s what we do, Katie.” Kate covered her mouth with her hands, and I could see tears filling her eyes. Before I could say anything else to Josh, he bounded away and ducked out of the restaurant. I turned to Kate. “I’m sorry about all of that,” I said. “I wish that hadn’t happened. Are you okay?” Kate nodded, just once. I reached out my arms and she curled up against my chest, fitting the top

of her head right below my chin. “I’ll be okay,” she said softly. “But I need to go home; I need to figure out what’s going on with my show.” I sighed heavily. “I’ll take you back to my place and you can get a return ticket, okay? Sound good?” Kate sniffled. I could tell she wanted to cry, but she was doing a great job holding it in and being brave. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to; that she could be vulnerable around me if she needed to, but we’d already made enough of a scene in the restaurant, and I was sure she didn’t want any more attention. A small man in a turban bounced up to us. “Ah, ma’am, can I get you anything else?” Kate looked at the table, her expression weary. “No, thank you,” she said softly. “Just the check please.” The man frowned. “You don’t want your food? You barely touched it.” I stepped forward. “Just the check, mate,” I said. “But thanks anyway.” The man nodded and scurried away, and Kate lowered herself into a chair and stared at me. “I had no idea it was going to be like that,” she said softly. “I really thought he understood that things were over between us. I even made him promise that he understood our dinner wasn’t a date!” “Yeah, I gathered that.” She made a fist and slammed it down on her left thigh. “I mean, god, are all men that stupid?” She looked at me apologetically. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you. I wasn’t talking about you. God, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. You probably think I’m a real nutter, don’t you?” I laughed politely. “I’d never call you a nutter,” I told her, reaching out and ruffling her soft hair. “You know I think you’re very smart.” Kate slumped down with her face in her hands. “I wish I knew what was going on,” she said softly. “It’s all up in the air now.” When the waiter came back, I handed him my card and told him that I’d cover it. Kate barely noticed; she was slumped over the remains of her butter chicken, staring moodily at the table, but when the receipt came, she realized what had happened and thanked me. “Come on,” I told her. “Time to go back to my place.” She was silent in the car on the way home. My mind was occupied, too; after I’d left, the rehab center had called me and thanked me for my generous donation. I was sure that Connor would be well taken care of, but I still felt like a shitty friend. It was just like what Mary and that cop had said—if I hadn’t been so busy paying attention to my own life, I would have known that my best friend was getting into dangerous shit and needed help. “What’s wrong?” Kate turned in the seat and looked at me. “I can tell you have something on your mind. Would it help you to talk about it?” “It would,” I said, and I meant it. “But not right now. You’re my first priority, Kate, and we need

to make sure that you’re taken care of.” She sighed. “Normally I’d fight you on that, but it’s been a hell of a day,” she said, yawning gracefully and covering her mouth with one hand. “Yeah, I heard about the photos. Lizzy told me.” “Oh. I’m sorry I believed Josh for even a second,” she said, looking embarrassed. “They were convincing with the time stamps, but still…” Her voice trailed off, and I grinned. “It’s fine. Considering my reputation, I don’t blame you for not being sure.” “But I should’ve been sure,” she said softly. “You’ve done nothing but treat me with respect over the last few weeks, and you’ve never given me any reason not to trust you.” “Well, I should’ve made it clearer that there’s been no one else since I met you,” I replied. “Seriously, don’t sweat it. And for the record—I definitely wasn’t on any sort of coffee date this morning. Those pictures you saw were from six months ago.” She smiled, and I reached over and squeezed her hand. “So…about Josh,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “How did you get involved with someone as smarmy as him?” Kate let out a dry laugh. “It’s not as romantic as it sounds,” she said, looking away. “He’s one of the assistant producers on my show. He kept hanging around, sending flowers to me and my secretary, Pammy.” Kate paused and threw me a grimace. “I know, he screwed her.” She winced again. “I should have known when Pammy was always a little too happy in the mornings. I think she wanted us to break up.” “Sounds like a real piece of work,” I said as I navigated the car into my driveway. “So how did you get together?” Kate shrugged. “You’ll hate me for saying this, but I was lonely. Lizzy was off at college, and I’m not that close to our parents. Geographically, I mean. All of my friends were either engaged or getting married and I just felt so alone. And here was this guy who never left me alone, who always brought me lunch and flowers...” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “I mean, he was intense. I kind of liked that, I thought it meant he wasn’t going to flake out on me. But obviously I was wrong about that. Once we started dating, he really took off. We’d only been together very casually a few times, and then he kept pressuring me to do things. I just didn’t know what to do; he wasn’t respecting my boundaries. I’ve been hurt before, and I need to take things slow. Well, usually, anyway. I guess you’re different,” she added with a wry smile. “I’m guessing he didn’t take that well?” Kate laughed humorlessly. “No, he didn’t. The morning after I broke up with him, he showed up with flowers and chocolates. He apologized for fighting with me and promised that everything would be better, and that I didn’t have to worry because he wasn’t angry with me anymore. Isn’t that rich?” I whistled. “Damn, he’s a manipulative little bastard,” I said. “I’m guessing that wasn’t the last you heard of him?”

Kate shook her head again. “He started emailing me all the time, calling me in the middle of the night, threatening Pammy to hold me up in the office, and then he’d mysteriously stop by when I couldn’t get out of going to dinner or drinks. Finally, I thought I’d managed to shake him. But then he showed up on my doorstep, drunk at three in the morning, and I knew that I wasn’t getting rid of him without a fight.” “Christ,” I said, gripping the wheel and steering the car into my driveway. “Back in the day, I thought a bloke knew when a girl didn’t want him around. But I guess Josh went to a different school of thought.” Kate didn’t reply. She didn’t laugh; she only nestled further down in the seat. “This is a mess,” she said softly. “I had no idea things would wind up like this.” As I turned the car off, she slipped out of the passenger side before I could comfort her. It was chilly outside and I saw she was shivering as I let her into my flat. “Feels like ages since I’ve been back here, even though it was just this morning,” she said. “Thanks, Jay. I appreciate this so much.” “Not a problem. Come into the kitchen,” I told her. Grabbing my computer, I put some water on to boil for tea and booted up the laptop, sliding it across the counter to Kate. I caught her staring at me with big, guilty eyes. “You do so much for me,” she murmured, sliding onto a stool at my bar. “Thank you.” I was silent as she booked her return ticket. It took her longer than I thought, and she frowned at the screen the whole time. “Get everything squared away?” I asked. She nodded. “Yeah. I couldn’t get a flight until the day after tomorrow, though,” she said. “Some kind of weather issues keeping planes grounded for the moment. I guess all that fog that’s been hanging around in the mornings is the culprit.” I frowned. “I’m sorry. I hope that gives you enough time to get back and speak with your producers.” Kate nodded again; her expression was grim. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.” “You know I’d go with you if I could, right?” I walked over to Kate and wrapped my arm around her waist, and she nuzzled into my neck. A pulse of lust went through me but I pushed it aside. Comfort was more important than sex right now. I wanted her to think I was a gentleman, after all. “I know,” Kate said, and I knew she actually believed it now. “But it’s the middle of the season. You can’t, right?” I shook my head. “Unfortunately not,” I told her. “But we’ll make the most of the time we have together.” Kate nodded. “Thank you,” she said. She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close, and my heart leapt as she pressed her lips to mine.

“Thank you, Jay,” she repeated, inches away from my mouth. “That means so much.” “Well, you mean so much. To me,” I replied. “Seriously, Kate, I know I’m not good at talking about this kinda stuff, but…I really like you, and I can’t stop thinking about you, no matter what I do. You’re a wonderful woman.” She beamed at me. “And you claim you aren’t good at talking about that kinda stuff.” I grinned back at her and pulled her tightly against me again, wishing I could tell her that I didn’t just like her; that I’d already fallen in love with her—in love with her smile, in love with her eyes, in love with her body. And most of all, in love with her mind. She was sweet, kind, and smart…but with that amazing mind came ambition and dedication, and her career was part of that. I couldn’t ask her to give it all up and stay here. Not for me. But god, I wished I could…

Chapter Eighteen Kate

I spent a long and sleepless night at Jay’s. He’d offered to take me home the night before, but right now I wanted comfort, and that comfort meant Jay’s strong arms wrapped around me all night. He collapsed in bed a little bit after midnight, and I thought I could sleep, so I lay down with him. But as soon as the lights were out, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was going to do. What I had to do. Grimly, I decided that as soon as I returned to New York, I’d have to work my ass off to maintain my job. That meant getting a haircut, getting my nails done, and going shopping for new clothes. But I’d at least keep my new diet of eating whatever I enjoyed—that was one new pleasure I wasn’t willing to give up. Basically, I had to trick the station into thinking that I’d really gone on vacation in order to make my professional life even better. I frowned as I twisted and turned, trying to find a comfortable position in bed. Jay was snoring next to me, but no matter how I shifted, I couldn’t relax; not enough to sleep. I had to do something. Getting up, I padded into the kitchen and flicked on the lights. Jay had left the tea kettle on the stove and I filled it up, finding a mug and a box full of chamomile tea. I put a bag in a cup and waited for the water to boil; I didn’t know what was going to make me feel better, but tea was a good start. As much as I’d wanted to spend the evening with Jay, I missed Lizzy. I didn’t think she’d be able to provide any insight, but part of me wished that I was with her, watching silly chick flicks, laughing and not even thinking about the real world. I grinned wryly at the thought. That wasn’t Lizzy at all. In reality, Lizzy would sit me down firmly until she got the whole problem out, and then she’d make a list of steps to take until the problem was solved. Growing up, it was always me who did the escaping. When our parents were angry with us, I’d run outside and sit in the yard, feeling ignored, but when they were mad at Lizzy, she’d try to talk them out of it. I chuckled out loud, remembering one specific birthday where Lizzy had made a flow chart about why our parents should get her a certain present. She’d always been a character. Now, I envied her strength. It was true that I was older (and maybe a little wiser in some regards, like when it came to drinking), but Lizzy was the more dynamic sister. She wouldn’t let herself get in a situation with this much confusion, and she definitely wouldn’t let someone like Josh jerk her around. I smiled to myself, thinking of her. If she’d been in the restaurant with Josh, she would have slapped him right in the face. Or she would have dumped her drink in his lap. Wait, no…she would have finished the drink, then slapped him, then walked out in a huff, making him look like a fool. I regretted standing there and letting him escape without getting another word in, but I was grateful beyond words that Jay had been there to support me.

“Hey there, what’s all this?” Jay padded into the kitchen. He stopped behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist, pulling me close. “Can’t sleep?” I nodded. “Yeah. You want some tea?” He shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “It’ll just make me have to piss. Besides, you could use some relaxing.” I sighed. “I’m sorry about all of this,” I said with a grimace. “I know you were trying to get away from drama. And now it’s like your life is more dramatic than ever. And I know it’s probably not fun for you. You probably got more than you bargained for with me.” He laughed. “Trust me, this is the kind of drama I can handle,” he said. “I’m used to crazy girls. You’re not crazy, but your life kind of is. I know things will settle down, though. I’m confident you have everything on track.” I looked away. The tea kettle boiled and Jay walked over to the counter, pouring me a mug of tea and passing me the dish of sugar. “I hope so,” I replied. “I’m just afraid that things won’t work out.” He shook his head. “Come back to bed,” he said with a rueful smile. “I promise I can give you some other things to think about, at least for a little while.” I smiled back. I wanted to banter and flirt with him, but my heart wasn’t in it right now. I was too morose about leaving. What if this is the last night I spend with Jay? What if this is the last time we see each other? Then again, if it was the last time I saw him, I wanted to make it special… “You’re on. Take me back to bed,” I said, standing up. Jay grinned, and he rushed towards me and scooped me up in his arms. Before I could even think about what was happening, he was darting off to the bedroom with me in tow, my tea sitting cold and forgotten on the kitchen counter. There was no tenderness in what we did when we reached the bedroom—only furious, lusty need; the burning embers in our hearts were ready to set us ablaze. Jay’s rough hands practically shredded my nightie, tearing the satin before throwing it aside. My needful hands stripped him of the T-shirt he’d worn to sleep, and he pushed me down to the bed and followed with the full intensity of his lust. His lips found my neck, tasting me, pressed against my throat with the kind of desperation only our lust could muster. Jay’s presence was equal parts hunger and compassion. His hands clasped over my shoulders, pushing me further down the bed, and I moved and got comfortable sitting up on my knees, tugging down his boxers. His perfect, familiar cock sprang to life in an instance, bouncing into view. Already, I could see a droplet of pre-cum, beaded at the tip of it, and my mouth watered as I descended, licking it gently from the slit before engulfing his length with my warm mouth. “Oh, god…Kate…” Jay groaned with heady passion, his fingers tangling deeper into my hair. I loved teasing him, dragging my tongue slowly up his cock, flicking the sensitive part around the head to spur him towards the edge, but never far enough to make him cum. He took over after a moment, thrusting into my mouth with his palms guiding me down his cock harder and faster, and his fingers caught in my hair and pulled me back up with each stroke. His hips began thrusting harder to

meet my lips, driving the force of his passion deeper into my mouth, closer towards my throat. I moaned with him in my mouth, knowing the vibrations would drive him wild. I felt his legs shudder slightly, and then he pulled out of my mouth. “I don’t want to cum yet,” he said, panting as his eyes gleamed with desire. “I want you.” He pulled me towards him and pressed his mouth to mine in a heavy, fulfilling kiss. Then his head moved down, and his lips descended upon a stiff nipple, flicking the delicate nub with his tongue. I felt little bursts of pleasure with his touch as he sucked on the breast, taking it between his teeth and tugging—somewhere between a playful pull and a nibble. My whole body shook with tingling desire, and his teeth grew bolder as he gave into his lust, leaving love-bites along my chest and up to my throat, marking my skin with evidence of his voracious desire for me. “Oh god…” I murmured, my hands moving to push him away, only to cradle his head against my throat instead. “God, Jay…” He shifted his lips downward, sucking against my collarbone, and I let him continue, peppering a trail of hot kisses across my skin. As his trail pressed further down my body, I reached down to his shoulders to guide him. My hungry, quivering tightness was slick with need—I wanted him inside me, and I wanted it now. But instead of following my lead, he simply pushed me back further onto the bed again before sliding a finger between my thighs and teasing my pussy, stroking up and down my slit. “Please, Jay,” I moaned. “I want you to fuck me.” “I know,” he replied softly, a smirk lighting his handsome features. “But not yet…I’m gonna tease you the same way you teased me.” My hips bucked lightly against his wrist as his thick finger slid up and down my lower lips, and he met my barely restrained lust by pushing it inside, coiling it around in a ‘come hither’ motion to press against the sweet spot deep inside me. I could already feel myself drenching his hand with my desire. He was trying to be tantalizingly slow, but I sensed how feverishly aroused he was. Then he pulled back, burying his head between my legs, and I gasped with surprise, bucking my hips upward to ride his tongue. He stroked my clit with the tip, toying with it and coaxing it further out, and then he grabbed my legs and threw them over his shoulders, his arms holding them in place. His nails dug into my soft skin, eliciting further moans from me as he kept playing with my clit. My core was swelling, and I could feel him dragging me to the edge of pleasure, pulling me ever-closer to climax… He kept going, sliding and rolling his tongue along my lips and over my clit, again and again, repeating the flicking movements until I clenched my fingers in his hair, my back stretching and arching as the climax hit me hard. I felt wave upon wave of blinding bliss wrack my body, drowning my mind in pleasure and lighting up every nerve ending, and I tugged him as hard against myself as his face could go. When the pleasure had begun to fade, he pulled away, and I vaguely heard the sounds of rustling in the nearby drawer. I opened my eyes to watch him tear a condom free from its wrapper with his teeth, and with a quick motion, he rolled the protective layer over his thick cock. Then he was back on the bed, pressing the tip against my slit.

“Are you ready for me, babe?” he murmured. I leaned forward, resting on my elbows. One of Jay’s hands was wrapped around his cock, and the other was supporting one of my legs, the other one dangling off the side of the bed. “I’m ready. Fuck me, Jay,” I said, biting my bottom lip as I stared deep into his lust-filled eyes. “Now.” That was apparently all the motivation he needed, because he quickly thrust inside, his cock stretching my walls, and even as wet as I was, I gasped at the thrilling invasion, waiting for my body to relax and adjust. Jay groaned with pleasure as he continued to push further inside. “Christ, you feel so fucking good, Kate…you’re so wet, so hot…” I could only moan as I watched the surge of passion cross his face. His fingers gripped my legs as he held them up, pushing my ankles onto his shoulders, and satisfied with that position, he began to pump himself into me even harder, thrusting again and again, faster and faster. The room filled with the sound of my cries of bliss—sounds too intense, and too frequent, to possibly contain. Jay continued to thrust fully, and my body pulsed in joyous celebration as I experienced every inch of him, his hard shaft causing my eyes to shut and head to fall back against the bed. I grabbed his shoulders, gripping him, wanting to be close to him as he withdrew, then thrust into me again; long slow strokes in which my inner muscles memorized his shape, contracted around his girth, and worshipped his every move. I wrapped my legs around him, my heels digging into his muscular ass as he increased his pace, the slick sounds of our bodies mixing with hot breaths and rough kisses. He kissed like he could never get enough, feasting on my mouth while maintaining a fluid rhythm with his body, propping himself on me with one hand while the other hand cradled my neck, holding my face up to him. The furious pace of our sex was quickly building a primal need inside of me, a need that could only be fulfilled by another orgasm. I could tell that it was close, my core pulsing around him, and I whimpered as my entire body tensed under his. My body clenched around his heavy thickness as he thrust even harder, my hands curling into fists as I tried to contain the pleasure that was already coursing through my system. Jay growled out his own building pleasure, and I watched his eyes, burning and piercing straight into my heart, which I knew belonged completely and utterly to him. My skin was on fire, and my second climax continued to build, tiny tremors in rhythm with Jay’s hard movements, each one stronger than the next until my orgasm and his perfect face seemed like the only things left in the world. I heard myself moaning again, but the sound was carried away in the deafening rush of the blood in my ears as I was swept away into the bliss. I was in paradise. Jay was paradise for me. “Fuck…you’re so tight, I don’t know that I can hold out for much longer,” Jay groaned a moment later, and I panted and moaned a reply. “It’s fine, I already came,” I said breathlessly.

“But I want you to come again,” he said. “And I won’t stop until you do.” He adjusted me against his hips, changing the angle of our lovemaking slightly. I slid only an inch down the bed, but the way he was penetrating me now rubbed his groin perfectly against my clit, and I gasped out my satisfaction, struggling for breath. “Oh god, that’s so good…” My words were lost as his kiss came down hard on my lips. My fingers dug into his back; my body remained pinned against his, ready for him to give me whatever he wanted. Whatever he needed. He was driving me ever-closer to the edge of another orgasm, and I knew it wouldn’t be much longer until I crested right over. His movements grew more frantic with each passing second, slamming into me with wild abandon and filling me up so completely, and it turned me on even more to know that it was me doing this, me driving this amazing man so wild and crazy. I felt another wave of tingling bliss strike down every last ounce of cognizant thought that I could muster, and my mind went blank with pleasure. I could barely even breathe. All I could do was be in the moment of ecstasy with Jay. Then, finally, when I thought I could bear it no longer—when I thought I’d been past bearing it for an eternity—he finally came, shudders overtaking his frame until he slowed. The world was still as we lay there on the bed, his skin against mine. My heartbeat and our mingled breaths rasped in my ears, and only then did I finally close my eyes to savor the moment that I knew must end—in less than two days, I’d be back home on the other side of the world, and I had no idea when I’d ever feel such contentment again. Jay seemed to know what I was thinking; perhaps he was thinking the same thing. “I wish you didn’t have to go back,” he murmured. “Me too,” I whispered, too scared to say the three words I really wanted to tell him in this moment. I knew he cared deeply for me, but surely it was far too early for me to be declaring the L word to him. I felt the warmth of his chest against mine, and comforted myself in the rhythmic rising and falling of his lungs. Nestling closer to him, I nuzzled my face into his neck and finally slipped into sleep.


When I woke up, I felt like crap. The sex last night had been a successful distraction from reality, but it had taken a long and exhausting amount of time, and Jay was up at six as per usual, needing to be at practice soon. He looked at me after he’d climbed out bed and gotten dressed. “You want me to take you back to Lizzy’s so you can pack?”

I nodded. “Yes, please. I want to see her before I go, and I’d hate to be alone on my last day.” Jay relaxed into a smile. “Like I’d let you be alone on your last day here,” he said. “Come on, after practice, I’m taking you out to the Peak District, while Lizzy has that class of hers. It’s beautiful there, it’s like…um, Pride & Prejudice.” I laughed. The idea of a big beefy guy like Jay curled up in a chair with a Jane Austen book was too much, but I had to admit, the idea of exploring another park was appealing. After all, maybe I’d spent too much time in the city. Maybe what I really needed to get myself together was some fresh air. I took a quick shower in Jay’s magnificent bathroom—it beat Lizzy’s by at least a mile—and then got dressed. As we climbed in his Mercedes, I strapped myself in and marveled at how far I’d come. The first time I’d ridden in Jay’s car, I’d been absolutely terrified. I didn’t even think I was going to survive. And now? I had to laugh. I wasn’t exactly a pro, but I was no longer clinging onto the door handle every time I realized we were driving on the left. And that was progress, right? “Whoa, there,” I heard Jay say, snapping me out of my thoughts. “What’s all this?” As we pulled out of his parking lot, reporters and photographers mobbed the car. Instinctively, I reached down and pulled an atlas on the floor up to cover my face. Jay had to slam on the brakes so he wouldn’t hit any of the paparazzi, and I felt my stomach clench into knots. Not now, I thought desperately. Not now. Any time but now, please. But for once, the reporters weren’t clamoring for stories about me, or any other girl. One of them was holding up a newspaper with a headline that read: ‘Jay Walsh on Drugs!’ with a blurry photo of him standing outside a white stucco building with another man. “Jay! Jay! How long have you been using?” One of the photographers yelled at the car as we slowed to a crawl. “I think it’s great you want to get clean!” “I’m not on fucking drugs!” Jay called through the open window. “Jay, this photo was leaked by a certain reporter who knows you all too well,” the reporter called back. He tossed a printout of the photo into the car, and I saw Jay and another man standing in front of a building. The sign read ‘Promising Light Rehab Facility’. There was a caption at the bottom of the photo that read ‘Hannah Joyce’. Of course. I’d honestly thought she might’ve given up on harassing Jay after he’d threatened her with the recording of her admitting to breaking into Lizzy’s apartment, but I guess she hadn’t learned at all. Either that or she was willing to risk her job to slam Jay’s reputation. My stomach curdled as Jay ripped the photo out of my hands and tossed it out the window. “You morons have no idea what you’re messing with here!” he shouted at the photographers. “Leave us alone!” Jay sped up, making the photographers scramble out of the way and over the curb, and then he pressed his foot on the gas until they were safely in the distance. With a heavy sigh, he looked over at

me. “Sorry about that.” I was too shocked to speak for a moment. “Jay, that can’t be true,” I finally managed to get out. “I know it’s not true.” After all we’d been through already, I knew better than to put any stock in photos that were being bandied about. I trusted Jay, and I knew he wasn’t a drug addict. However, there still had to be a reason he’d been at a rehab facility. He nodded. “It’s not true,” he replied, confirming my words. “That’s where I was yesterday. My best mate, Connor, was picked up for narcotics possession. I had to go to the police station and pick him up. He had a huge bail, and they only let him out when I said I was taking him right to rehab afterwards.” He let out a long sigh. “I didn’t want to tell you yesterday because of everything that was going on, but that’s what that phone call was about.” I was silent for another moment. Jay was truly a good person, a great person even. Part of me had already known this fact, but this most recent event had proved it beyond a shadow of doubt. He wasn’t like the media and tabloids painted him to be at all. He cared about his best friend, who was obviously from a different walk of life—someone who wasn’t famous, someone who wasn’t going to pay him just to hang out. I bit my lip as I thought back to when I first met Jay, and how I’d had the impression he was just an asshole playboy, and guilt seeped down my throat. I swallowed hard. “That’s really good of you, Jay,” I said softly. “You’re a really good friend.” He didn’t say anything. He was staring straight ahead. I could tell he was angry, and I couldn’t blame him. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to live in a world that demonized my every move, and if I were in Jay’s shoes, I couldn’t begin to think how pissed off I’d be. “I try,” he finally said. His lips were set in a thin line. “But Hannah makes it damn hard sometimes. Honestly, I thought we were done with her.” “So did I, but I guess not.” He sighed. “I feel like such a jerk, like such a shit friend. If I’d paid more attention to Connor, I would have seen the signs so much sooner. But I didn’t, and it took him getting arrested for me to finally see what was going on.” “Jay, don’t say that,” I said. “You had no way of knowing. Abusers are often really good at hiding their drugs from their friends. Trust me, I know this. I did research for a show about people who were secretly addicted. A lot of the time, their family had no idea.” Jay shook his head. “That’s nice of you to say, Kate, but this is on me, all right? I fucked up.” His tone let me know that he was done with the conversation, and we pulled up in front of Lizzy’s. “Want to come in?” I asked. Jay shook his head. “Can’t, or I’ll be late. But I’ll pick you up after practice,” he said. “See you then.”

“I can’t wait.” A ghost of a smile finally crossed his face, and he squeezed my hand. “I can’t wait either.”

Chapter Nineteen Kate

I was surprised to see Lizzy in the kitchen when I got home; she usually had an early lecture at this time of the day. She was gnawing on one of the scones that I’d brought the day before, and she flicked her eyes over me with interest. “So….are you gonna tell me what happened with the whole Josh and Jay thing?” she asked. “Josh was just here to be a dick,” I said with a sigh as I slid down into one of the chairs. “Those photos were fake, and then he told me he slept with my secretary while we were still dating. Oh, and he thought I was still interested in him, even after I told him we weren’t going on a date like fifteen times.” Lizzy rolled her eyes. “He’s such a loser,” she said, finishing the scone. “And then what happened?” I let out another sigh. “Well, he also told me that the head showrunner might want to cancel my show. So I’m going home tomorrow to sort that out. I have to pack, that’s why I’m here so early. I’m surprised you’re here, by the way. Don’t you have a lecture?” Lizzy pouted. “I hate morning classes,” she said, kicking her backpack with a toe. “But I had to get ready anyway, I have a study group session with some friends soon.” I nodded. “Damn. I wish you could stick around a bit longer,” I said. “And I wish I didn’t have to go home.” “Well, why do you?” Lizzy asked, frowning at me. “Maybe Josh was lying about whatever the showrunner said, too. You know, since he lied about the pictures…god, I can’t believe he did that! I mean, I totally knew the whole time that they were fake, but what a sleazeball!” “He told me the producers wanted to wait until the last episode had aired to check the ratings and then make a decision based on that,” I said. “And the ratings weren’t great for the last few episodes— which I saw myself in my emails—so they might want to kill the show. I have to go and see them in person, because if I look like I don’t care about this, then no one will listen to me.” Lizzy nodded and gave me a sympathetic look. “So, how did Jay take the news?” I pouted. “It’s the middle of the season, so he can’t come with me, if that’s what you’re asking,” I replied. “And by the way, why did you tell him I was on a date with Josh? You know I’m done with him.” Lizzy shrugged and gave me a sneaky little smile. “I had to get him moving,” she said casually. “I wanted him to rescue you, so I told him I thought you and Josh were going on a date. So did he?”

“Did he what?” She rolled her eyes. “Rescue you!” I couldn’t help but smile. “He punched Josh right in the face,” I said with a grin. “Normally I wouldn’t condone violence, but Josh tried to grab me. It was pretty awesome when Jay defended me. Josh didn’t even try to fight him. I think he just knew that Jay would win.” “Jay would win against almost anyone,” Lizzy said with a grin. She looked at her watch and then groaned. “Shit, I have to get going to meet my friends,” she mumbled. “Will you be around later?” I bit my lip. “I think Jay is taking me to the Peak District,” I said. “He even knew that it was from Pride & Prejudice. Isn’t that adorable?” Lizzy laughed. “You are so in love with him,” she said, sticking her tongue out. “I still can’t believe you’re dating a footballer!” “I don’t know exactly what we’re doing,” I said. “I mean, we’ve never talked about it. He said he hasn’t been seeing anyone else since we met, and he’s so good to me, but on the other hand….I live halfway across the world.” Lizzy raised her eyebrows. “Come on, Kate, you sound like one of the clueless women who watch your show,” she said. “You know he’s into you. Just trust your gut and go with it.” When I didn’t respond, she ran across the kitchen and threw her arms around me. “You should spend your last night here with Jay. So I’ll say goodbye now,” she said into my hair. “I’ll miss you. But you’ll come back, right?” I bit my lip as she broke away. “I want to,” I said slowly. “But I don’t know if I can anytime soon. I mean, if they want me to stay and work on the show….” Lizzy gave me a serious look. “You’ll make the right choice, Kate,” she said. “I trust you will.” My stomach churned as Lizzy let herself out the front door with a cheerful wave. Even though her good mood had been infectious, I found myself feeling a little down again as soon as she left. My stuff was all over the apartment, and half of it was at Jay’s. It looked like I’d been here for months, not mere weeks, and I didn’t want to go home, but I felt like I didn’t have a choice. After all, three weeks was enough time for a sabbatical. Now it was time to return to Real Life, to get things back on track and settled and keep them that way. I changed into boyfriend jeans and a fitted white blouse with espadrilles and a bandanna around my neck. Don’t think about leaving, I ordered myself. Just have fun with Jay. Thinking about him made my body start pulsing with desire, and I wondered how tonight was going to go. Sex with Jay was alternately fun and breathtaking, and I didn’t know if he would ravish me until I couldn’t breathe or exhaust me tonight. I shivered thinking about it. Smiling to myself, I walked back into the bedroom and changed my lingerie to a matching set of pink and blue lace. Three hours later, Jay pulled up in front of Lizzy’s flat, and rushing down the stairs, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. I was excited to see him—I was always excited to see him—but this time meant something special.

“You look gorgeous,” he said as I slid into the front seat of the Mercedes. “Who are you waiting for?” His bad mood from earlier had all but evaporated, and he was wearing a teasing smile on his face. Leaning across the seat, I plastered my body against his and gave him a passionate kiss. “Just this guy I know,” I said. “This handsome footballer stud I happen to date sometimes…” Jay grinned and we took off. He drove at an easy pace, meandering through the streets of Manchester and heading out of the city at a rate that made my anxious heart stay calm. “How was practice?” I swiveled in the seat and looked at him. “I missed you.” Crap, Kate, you sound like a Stage Five Clinger. Do not say you missed him, do not say that! “I missed you, too,” Jay replied, and he looked over at me and grinned before taking my hand in his. A deep blush rose over my cheeks and I had to look out the window and pretend like I didn’t want to jump for joy. About an hour later, Jay was parking the car. I was amazed at the way the park looked, even on a grey, cloudy day like this; the sky was gigantic and swirling, above a vast stretch of plain and hills. It was incredible, like something from the movies. I couldn’t believe it was real, and I couldn’t believe that I was here, that we were here. “This is amazing,” I said as I stretched my legs and wandered off, away from the car. “Do you come here often? I’d probably live here if I was in Manchester year round.” Jay laughed, catching up with me and keeping pace, and I appreciated that he didn’t make me run to keep up with him. In the past, when I’d dated very tall men, I’d always had to trot to keep up with them, and I wasn’t even short. But Jay was respectful. He was a gentleman. He was basically everything that I thought a famous footballer could never be. “That’s an image,” Jay said with a smirk. “I imagine the bobbies would show up and pull you off pretty quickly. Britain cares about protecting her parks.” I shook my head, still smiling. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said with a grin. “I’d build a little cabin, and you could come to stay. It would be so cute that they wouldn’t even want us to go. Our picture would be in the papers.” Jay laughed drily. “My picture is already in the papers enough as it is,” he said with a smirk. “And yours is, too.” I rolled my eyes. “Nothing by Hannah,” I clarified. “Only flattering pictures and things that didn’t make us look like asshats.” Jay chuckled. “Did you seriously just say ‘asshats’?” I nodded, blushing. “I picked it up from Lizzy,” I said. The moment turned serious between us as we walked. The breathtaking landscape was overwhelming my senses and making me feel like I was in some distant, magical land, and I felt about as far away from New York as I ever had in my life. I didn’t want it to end.

“Speaking of your sister, I’ll make sure she doesn’t drink too much if she comes to any more club events,” Jay said. “Thanks,” I replied, putting my hand on his arm and drawing him close to me. “I appreciate that.” The words ‘I love you’ were on the tip of my tongue, but still I couldn’t say them yet, and Jay and I strolled on, blissfully disconnected from the real world. Every time he looked at me, I wanted to tell him how I really felt, but something was holding me back. “Let’s go home,” Jay said, looking at me hungrily. His voice was thick with lust. “I’m not ready to let you leave yet.”


Back at Jay’s flat, our clothes came off in a frenzy of lust and desire. He picked me up and carried me into the bedroom, where he pleased my body for hours on end. I was still so surprised by the sex with him; I had no idea that I could feel like this so often, that it could be so amazing. I didn’t even think I’d ever feel as connected to another human being as I felt to Jay. I felt like I could tell him everything, like he was my best friend, like he was the only best friend I’d ever had. And I loved pleasuring him, too. Seeing the look of sheer release on his face was enough to make me glow. It was a perfect night, and I wished that it never had to end. In the morning, I woke up at the same time as Jay. Sleepily, he pulled me towards him, and we cuddled for a few moments, tangling up in each other’s limbs and nuzzling each other’s faces. Then he slipped out of bed and into the bathroom. I heard the spray of the hot shower just as I was trying to relax enough to fall back asleep. Just a few more minutes, I thought in my groggy brain. Just a few more. But Jay apparently had other ideas. He lifted me out of bed and carried me into the bathroom, standing me on my feet and helping me into the shower. Then he followed me into it, and we soaped each other, occasionally pausing to embrace and hold each other close. It was the most intimate shower that I’d ever taken, and by the time it was over, I felt like I could have fallen back asleep for hours. “Come on, Sleeping Beauty,” Jay teased. “Time to get you off to your carriage.” “You know, it’s actually Cinderella who had a carriage,” I said, yawning as I climbed into the car. “Sleeping Beauty just had a bed. And a prince. She had the life, really.” Jay laughed as he turned the key in the engine and pulled out of the garage. “For someone as healthy as you, you sure can be lazy,” he said with a grin. I reached out to playfully swat him. “But I love it,” he added, winking at me. A lump formed in my throat. “I don’t want to leave you,” I said softly. “I don’t want to go.” Jay smiled. “Then stay,” he said. “Easy peasy. I’ll turn the car around and we’ll go back.”

I swallowed hard. “I wish I could,” I replied. “This is…way too hard for me.” He pulled me close and nuzzled my hair. “It’ll work out,” he said quietly. “I promise.” At the airport, we clung together like barnacles, and Jay stayed with me until I had to flash my boarding pass and go through security. Even though he was laughing and smiling the whole time, I could tell he was covering a lot of sadness. It was plain to see that he was sad at the prospect of my leaving. “I feel like I’m never going to see you again,” I whispered into his neck right before I had to leave. “I feel like I’m going to walk through those gates and never come back.” Jay pulled away and looked me in the eye. His gaze pierced right through me, exposing me down to a raw nerve. “Rubbish,” he said, his voice solemn. “You’ll see me again. I know it, Kate.” “I hope so,” I said softly as I leaned in for our last hug. “I really do.” I gave him one last lingering glance, and then I turned and walked towards the boarding gate.

Chapter Twenty Jay

After I dropped Kate at the airport, my head was spinning. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, not even for a split-second, and it was the strangest thing in the world for me. Even with my other exes, including Hannah, it hadn’t felt like this. Not even close. I grinned to myself. I was one lucky bloke to wind up with someone like Kate, and I wanted to show her exactly how I felt about her. I was willing to give anything and everything up if it meant being with her; hell, I’d even follow her across the world. In fact, that was exactly what I planned to do when I’d set my affairs in order. When I walked into the jewelry store on St. Ann’s street, a fresh wave of emotion washed over me. The salesgirls saw me and started blushing and tittering, like they already knew why I was here, and one of them darted over to me—a little slip of a thing with brown hair and a friendly smile. “Can I help you?” she asked. She blushed as she waited for my answer. “I’m looking for a ring. A diamond ring,” I said slowly. The girl exploded into giggles. “I’m so sorry,” she said when she’d managed to catch her breath. Her face was as red as a tomato. “It’s just, we recognized you. Or at least we thought we did. Are you Jay Walsh?” I nodded. “The one and only,” I said in a joking tone. The girl’s jaw dropped and I could see her friends giggling and blushing behind the counter. “That girl is so lucky,” she managed to say. “What kind of diamond rings?” “Engagement rings,” I said. The words felt clunky in my mouth. “Do you have any matching sets, with wedding bands?” The girl nodded mechanically. I could tell she was thinking: Oh my god, Jay Walsh is going to propose to some girl! And I get to help pick out the ring! She led me over to the corner of the store that was marked ‘Engagements & Celebrations’. There, under the glass counter, she pointed to a few trays of rings. “Tell me a little bit about her personal style,” the girl said. “We’ll want to make sure whatever you choose reflects something that she’d really like.” I thought about Kate. “Well, she’s a stunning brunette,” I said. “With a fabulous wardrobe and lots of great shoes. She’s a girly girl. Like, I don’t think she’d be much for camping. And her sister had to drag her to one of my matches.” The salesgirl burst out laughing. “Oh my god,” she said. “She didn’t even want to go to a match?

That’s so funny.” “I managed to charm her anyway,” I said with a roguish grin on my face, and the girl blushed and pulled out a tray of heavy-looking rings. “These are all two to three carats,” she said, pointing at the giant diamonds in the tray. “She’d definitely know that you spent a lot of money on one of these.” I looked at them. They were beautiful, but something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t about the amount of money I spent, it was about picking something that I knew Kate would love. “These are lovely,” I said diplomatically. “But I’m not sure that this matches with Kate’s style. She’s….a little more subdued than this.” “How about these?” The girl put the first tray back and pulled out a second tray. “These are between one and one-and-a-half carats.” My gaze immediately went to a simple solitaire ring, with an oval-shaped diamond. The band was platinum, and I could tell that Kate would love it. It was exactly like her: elegant, unfussy, perfect. “She’d love this,” I said. “I’ll take it.” The salesgirl looked up at me with a grin on her face. “Do you know her size?” she asked. “And don’t worry, Mr. Walsh…we might giggle and stare a little bit, but we’re very discreet here. We won’t be calling the media or anything.” “I appreciate that,” I said with a smile. “And I have to admit, I’m not sure on the ring size, though think her fingers are almost exactly the same size as yours, if that helps.” Ten minutes later, I strolled out of the jeweler’s shop, clutching a small bag and box containing Kate’s ring. I didn’t want to think about how crazy it was to propose to someone that I hadn’t even known for four weeks yet, but I knew how I felt and I could tell Kate felt the same way. As soon as I could fly across the pond to visit her when the season was done, I was going to get down on one knee and make an honest woman out of her. She didn’t have to give up her career or anything else, because I was willing to give up mine if that’s what it took. That’s how much she meant to me already. I felt like I could fly, like I could do something magical. I had a match later in the day, but I wasn’t even thinking about it—all I could think about was Kate. My car smelled like her hair, and my flat smelled like her delicious, sweet perfume. My cock stiffened in my pants when I thought about how my bed would smell; like a heady, musky blend of her and me. I whistled to myself as I slid back into my Mercedes and pointed the car towards my flat. It was still early in the day; I had time to get in a good workout and manage to eat a decent lunch before the match. Plus, I wanted to call Connor. I felt bad that I hadn’t gotten a chance to tell him about Kate when I’d last seen him, and I wanted him to know what I was doing, even though I expected a lot of ribbing. The last time Connor and I had talked about women, I was pretty sure I’d told him to take me out to pasture and shoot if I ever asked some bird to marry me. But things were different now. I couldn’t wait to introduce Kate to my oldest friend. I had a

feeling they’d get along. After I’d returned home and eaten lunch, I grabbed my mobile out of my pocket and dialed Promising Light. A snide-sounding receptionist answered the phone as soon as I picked up. “Hello?” “Hey, I was hoping to speak with Connor Callaghan. He’s my best mate, I just dropped him off yesterday.” “Name?” “Jay Walsh,” I said as politely as I could manage. “I just want to talk to him for a few minutes, I have some good news for him that I want to share.” “We do try to encourage friends and family to share positive news,” the receptionist replied. I grimaced; it sounded like she was reading a canned reply from a piece of paper in front of her. She set the phone down for a few mind-numbing minutes. I couldn’t help it; I kept picking up the little green box that contained the ring and taking a peek. It was perfect for Kate, and I couldn’t wait to see her expression when I dropped to one knee and asked her to be my wife. “Hello, Mr. Walsh?” “Yes?” “Connor will be right here to take your call. We advise that you speak for ten minutes or less,” the receptionist said in an icy tone. “He has therapy to get back to.” “Of course, sorry for pulling him away,” I said. There was a pause, and then she was gone, replaced by Connor. “Hey, mate!” He already sounded a million times happier than he had the previous day, and I could tell he was excited just to talk to me. “How’s it going?” I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. Between my best friend finally getting the help that he desperately needed and Kate, I was so happy that I thought I might burst. “Fine,” Connor said. He lowered his voice. “The food here is shite, though. I had no idea I’d be eating such rubbish!” I laughed heartily. “You’ll be fine, mate. You could stand to lose a few stone!” “A few stone?” Connor pretended to be outraged. “Anyway, you didn’t call to ask me about the food. What’s really on your mind?” My mouth went dry. “I met a woman,” I said. “A few weeks ago. Her sister dragged her to one of my matches. She’s bloody beautiful, and we’ve been spending all this time together, and—” “I can hear the wedding bells already,” Connor said in a dreamy voice. We both snickered. “So when do I get to meet this beauty of yours?” “As soon as you’re all sorted,” I said. “I can’t wait to introduce you to her. She’s amazing.”

“I bet,” Connor said. Then he snickered. “So, are you asking my permission, or what?” I laughed. “Hardly, mate,” I replied. “I’ve already got the ring in my hand.” Connor laughed out loud. “That’s my Jay, you don’t waste a freaking second.” “I should have thought of this before she left,” I said. “I should have asked her this morning.” “Wait, she’s not British? Good job,” Connor said. He was laughing again. “These British girls are too uptight for you, mate. Where’s she from?” “New York,” I said. “She’s a TV host, she has her own show and everything. She had to fly home this morning to take care of some things—I actually just dropped her at the airport an hour or so ago —but I’m flying over there once the season is over.” “So, are you going to become a Yank?” I snorted. “Hardly,” I said. “But I don’t care where we live, as long as I get to stay with her.” “Well, that sounds great. You got lucky, mate.” I grinned. I was in such a good mood, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this amazing. “So, what’s life like at Promising Light so far?” I asked. Connor pretended to snore. “Not exactly fun,” he admitted. “Wake up at six, breakfast, therapy, more therapy, lunch, play time, therapy, dinner, bed.” I laughed. “Are there any cute birds?” Connor snorted. “No,” he replied. “I wish. That would make the whole thing more bearable. But they keep us split up. I don’t think they want us pairing off with any fellow addicts, which is fair enough.” We were silent for a moment. “Connor, I’m glad you’re there,” I said after a pause. “I’m glad you’re getting help. I know you really needed it, and thank you for not turning me down.” There was a commotion in the background and Connor told me to hold on for a moment. “Hold on,” he repeated when he got back to the phone. “Some bloke turned up the telly and it’s on loud! Oh….shit.” I frowned. “What’s going on?” Connor didn’t reply. A bad feeling wormed its way into my stomach and up my throat. “Connor, what’s going on?” I repeated. “Turn on the news, mate,” Connor said in a clipped voice. “I’ll wait right here.” With my heart pounding in my chest, I strode over to the TV and flipped it on. The news was on, and I turned up the volume to ‘high.’ “Reporters are standing by at Manchester Airport, only moments after Lufthansa Flight 2670 experienced a mid-air collision with a landing plane, Air France 207, shortly after take-off. Officials are already attributing the incident to a communications misunderstanding, and also to the poor

weather conditions over the last few days—conditions that have left several flights grounded for the last two days.” I gaped at the screen. “Flight 2670 was bound for New York City, and it was a full flight. The plane it collided with was arriving from Paris, and currently, the number of survivors from either aircraft is unknown.” Icy terror shot up my spine, and the little green box went rolling from my hand. I was so numb that I didn’t even hear it hit the ground.

Chapter Twenty-One Jay

“Mate? Are you there?” Connor’s voice sounded distant and far-away from my ear and I realized I was holding the mobile a good meter away from my head. “I have to go,” I said quickly as I hung up the phone. My brain was instantly ablaze with horrible thoughts—Kate on the plane, terrified for her life as the engine gave out. Kate shrieking, pushing past other passengers, trying to get to an exit. Kate unconscious, lulled into a dull, uneasy sleep by the plane’s rapid descent. A plane crash was my worst nightmare. I hadn’t ever told any of the other blokes on the team about my fears, but every time we traveled I feared the worst. Every time I closed my eyes I thought the plane would break apart mid-air, would crash to the ground in a spectacle of fuselage and tin. I shuddered just thinking about it. My heart was racing and my blood had gone cold; it felt like my whole body was broken out in a cold, uncomfortably sweat. I had to get to the airport, and I dashed to the door and grabbed my trainers, stuffing my feet inside and grabbing a jumper. My keys were still in my pocket. It was surreal to think that the last time I’d been inside my car, I’d been driving home, planning on how to pop the question to Kate. Now I had no idea if she was even alive. Don’t think like that, I urged myself. Don’t think like that and everything is going to be okay. She’s going to be okay. Everything will be okay, just stay calm, breathe, breathe Jay, breathe. But deep down, I knew I was kidding myself. Mid-air collisions were a serious incident, and they carried a very low survival rate. I hadn’t felt this much adrenaline or fear in my whole life. Now I was suddenly worried about everything. If I lost Kate, I didn’t want to continue with anything. I couldn’t play football or continue carrying on like I had. All I wanted was her, and I wanted her for the rest of my life. I wanted her to be safe, I wanted her in my arms. I wanted her in my bed, every night, ready for a kiss goodnight. I wanted her at every single one of my matches, and I wanted to watch every episode of her show. “Please be okay,” I muttered under my breath. “Please, please be okay, Kate.” Leaping into my car, I slammed my foot down on the gas and drove as fast as I could to Manchester Airport. It was just outside of the city, but the streets were mobbed with traffic and emergency vehicles headed in the same direction. I knew it was selfish, but I wanted to get there before anyone else. I thought about calling Lizzy, but I realized there wasn’t time, not while I was driving. My chest kept aching like I’d just missed at scoring a massive goal, and I had to remember to breathe. Breathe, Jay, just keep driving and breathe, I thought. Easy does it. This will be okay. Just get there and

she’ll still be alive. I found myself praying, something I hadn’t done since I was a little boy in Belfast. I’d been raised a Catholic, and even though my parents hadn’t been particularly observant, Catholicism had its own kind of lure. I remembered learning how to go to communion and confession, the ominous dark church with heavy wooden accents, and the prominent smell of incense. I also remembered the way that girls would float past me in their white dresses and veils, ready for first communion. It brought back a powerful memory. “Jay, hurry up,” Mum was saying. “You don’t want to be late. You’ve studied so hard and I hate to think that you’d miss your own confirmation!” “Hurry up, son,” Dad added. “Don’t stress your mother.” Eagerly, I fastened my dark red tie around my neck and stepped into the patent leather shoes Mum had bought just for the occasion. We didn’t have a lot of money at home, but I wanted to make a special impression. My childhood hadn’t been spectacular, and now I was worried that I was going to embarrass myself in front of everyone. After all, church hadn’t come easy to me. I’d been an easily distracted child, a child who spent way too much time playing outside. All of my friends were quiet and obedient, except for Connor. I liked Connor, but Mum called him a troublemaker. “Mum, can I go to the pictures after church?” I looked up at my mother’s beautiful face. Her features were youthful and radiant—I got my blue eyes and brown hair from her. Dad was a redhead, with warm brown eyes and laugh lines around his mouth. He was big and strong and I wanted to grow up to be just like him. “If you’re a good boy,” Mum promised. She slipped some coins into my hand. “And don’t spend all of this at once, you hear?” She squatted down to my height and looked into my eyes. “You promise me, Jay.” I nodded. “I promise,” I replied. I ran out the door, skipping and playing in the street. As a kid, I had boundless amounts of energy. Mum and Dad were always irritated because I could never sit still. “That’s right,” Dad said mildly as my parents strode past me. “Get all of your crazies out before we can get to the church. You’ll have to behave yourself inside, son.” I laughed and whirled around in circles, kicking imaginary footballs at my feet. Ever since I could run, I dreamed of being a football player for some famous Irish team. I wanted to make money and bring all of it home to Mum and Dad. They didn’t have a lot in life, and I wanted to take care of them like they’d taken care of me. “Jay,” Mum was calling. “You’d better come with us now, we’re going to be late!” Darting across the yard, I scrambled into the backseat of Dad’s old Fiat. He drove to the church with careful precision, as if he knew that this was the day his son would become a man. It was spring outside, and hotter than anything, but inside the church always felt cool and hushed. I lowered my eyes as Mum guided me inside, helping me to one of the pews in the front where I’d sit

with the other boys and girls getting confirmed. Her eyes glistened with tears and she looked at me proudly. “I can’t believe that you’re my son,” she said, with a sad smile on her face. “I always wanted so many children, but you’re the only one we had. And you’re so special, Jay. You’re all I need.” My cheeks reddened and I pulled away before any of the other boys could see my mother fussing over me. I knew that they probably had to deal with their own mothers doing the same thing, but being seen like that would be mortifying. My best mate, Connor, slid in next to me at the pew, and he poked me in the ribs. I started giggling. Father O’Donohue, the priest, glared at me and I shushed instantly. “Look at that old penguin,” Connor whispered in my ear. He pointed to an older nun who had fallen asleep in the corner of the church. “She looks like she decided to get to heaven a little bit early!” I lost it. Peals of childish laughter filled my ears and when everyone grew silent, I realized the sounds were coming from me. From the back of the church, Mum and Dad were glaring. “I’m sorry, Father,” I mumbled under my breath. He nodded and moved on, but I still felt like everyone was staring at me, and I slumped down in the pew and stared at my new shoes. They were already scuffed and dirty, like everything else that I owned. Shame burned like a brand. I knew that I’d somehow managed to embarrass my family again, even without trying. The rest of the ceremony was a blur. I stood up with the other boys and took communion, then we lined up in the back of the church for confession. “This is a very special day,” Father O’Donohue was saying. He folded his hands together in front of his chest. “This is a very special day indeed. This is the day that you become men and women in the eyes of the church, do you understand?” “Yes, Father,” we chorused in unison. “We understand.” One by one, we slipped into the small confessional booth to confess our sins. When it got to be my turn, I couldn’t stop shaking. “Knock ‘em dead,” Connor whispered in my ear. But even with my best friend’s vote of confidence, I still felt like I didn’t deserve to be here. The inside of the confessional was even darker than the rest of the church. A carved wooden screen kept me separate from Father O’Donohue, even though I knew he could tell it was me. “Tell me, son, how long has it been since your last confession?” “Eleven years, nine months, and six days,” I said automatically, reciting my age. “And what are your sins, child?” I burned bright red with shame. “I’ve embarrassed my father and mother, and I’ve been a holy terror while Mum has been sick. I haven’t helped out at home. I laughed during the sermon, during the holy word of God.”

“These are venial sins, my son,” Father O’Donohue’s calming voice replied. “Say a Hail Mary tonight and you will be cleansed the eyes of the Lord.” A strange, disquieting calm feeling settled over me. When I left the confessional booth, I felt like a real man, like a new person in the eyes of God. So maybe that was why Mum and Dad were so keen on coming to church. “Jay! Jay!” Connor ran up to me, holding a new toy airplane. “Mum got me this, wanna take it to the park?” Already, my new status as a man was forgotten. I pushed through the crowd of worshippers until I found my parents. “Mum, Dad, can I go with Connor to the park? His mum gave him an airplane, and we want to fly it all the way to the continent!” Mum and Dad exchanged glanced. “All right, son,” Dad said gruffly. “Be home before dinner, and don’t bring Connor with you. We have a special meal planned for you.” I never got to find out what that special meal was. I bolted out of the church with Connor, and my parents stayed behind for a few minutes to chat with the clergy. I never heard the explosion, never saw their car erupt into a flaming ball of gas…. I shook my head to clear the memory. Since that day, the day my parents were killed, I hadn’t prayed. Not once. But now, I couldn’t stop myself from praying. Please God, let her be all right… please, I’ll do anything. The airport was a madhouse. People rushed from door to door, crying and sobbing and running with their arms flung out in front of them. I could tell everyone was tremendously upset, and I could only hear snatches of conversation like, “very few survivors” or “I heard none, did someone actually live?” The small flame of hope that had lit in my chest during my car ride began to die. As my eyes clouded over with tears, my throat clenched up and I tightened my hand around the ring box in my pocket. Maybe I could give it to Lizzy, and she could give it to their parents. Maybe they would have wanted to know their daughter had found love. “Jay?” A familiar and tearful voice called out my name. My heart leapt. No. It couldn’t be. I whirled around before I could let myself think any more horrible thoughts. Kate was standing there, clutching her suitcase.

Chapter Twenty-Two Kate

Jay was staring at me like he’d seen a ghost. “Jesus….Kate!” He was at my side before I could even exhale, his strong arms wrapping around me and pulling me close. I let out a deep breath—the breath it felt like I’d been holding since Jay had left—and snuggled close against his muscular torso. When I was with Jay, everything else faded away. The screaming and the shouts in the airport seemed to vanish, and I was able to feel strong, safe, and loved. “I didn’t get on the plane,” I said softly. Jay held me at arm’s length and looked me over, his blue eyes penetrating every open pore, every surface of my skin. “I can see that,” he said. “Christ, you have no idea how glad that makes me, Kate.” “I couldn’t. I had to tell you something.” Suddenly, I was nervous again. It didn’t seem fair, that I’d gotten to escape death and get a second chance at life, and now I was nervous about telling Jay that I’d fallen in love with him. Jay shifted his weight from foot to foot and grabbed me close to him, crushing me against his chest. “You can tell me from here,” he mumbled into my hair. “I’m not letting you get away for a bleeding second.” I grinned into his chest as his hands stroked over my hair. “I love you,” I said softly. Then, louder: “I’ve fallen in love with you, Jay. Head over heels.” He stepped back and looked into my eyes. A lick of desire shot through me and I shivered. I knew it wasn’t right or appropriate to be feeling that way, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted him—it was probably at least partially a reaction to all of the stress that I’d gone through since Jay had left this morning—but I wanted him now, more than ever. “I love you, too,” he said. “I love you, Kate.” We hugged again. It felt closer, more intimate this time, like we were really reacquainting ourselves with each other’s bodies. Jay smelled like soap and aftershave, and I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, enjoying the masculine scent as it washed over me. “I couldn’t get on the plane without telling you that,” I said softly. “I had to let you know. And I had to tell you in person, I didn’t want to FaceTime or tell you over the phone. It had to…it had to come right from me, does that make sense?” He leaned back and nodded. “I am so bloody glad you felt that way,” he said, rubbing his close-

cropped hair. “I had no idea what I was going to do if I lost you. I was on the phone with my mate, Connor, and he told me to turn on the TV. I half expected to see you, but when I saw the plane…” He choked on his words and covered his eyes behind his hands. “I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you, Kate. I couldn’t stand that at all.” “I wish I had called you to tell you I was okay,” I said. “My phone died, I was playing with it too much before security. And then the payphones were mobbed—I think everyone had the same idea as me.” “A call would have been nice,” he said. “But I understand. I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad you are too.” We stood facing each other in silence for a moment. Something had changed between us; it felt more serious, less capricious, and I knew in my gut that Jay was the man I’d be spending the rest of my life with. It was crazy…we hadn’t even known each other for a full month. But I knew. “I’ve never been this happy in my life,” Jay said, as if confirming everything I’d just thought to myself. “This is it for me, Kate. I can’t even tell you how scared I was at the thought of losing you,” he added, choking up slightly. I took his hand and led him to a nearby bench where he sat with a grateful sigh. “I thought I was going to lose you forever,” he repeated. “I couldn’t go through that, not again…” Jay’s voice trailed off. “I couldn’t lose you, but especially because I hadn’t yet gotten the chance to tell you how much I love you.” My eyes teared up as I stared at him. He was overcome with profound emotion, and it was affecting me as well. A trail of hot salty tears dripped down my cheek, and Jay reached over and laced his fingers with mine, pulling them close. “That’s what happened with my parents,” he said softly. “I…I never got to tell them how much I loved them. It was the day of my confirmation, the day I joined the church. They wanted me to go home for supper with them but I wanted to go play with my best friend in the park. When they got in the car to leave, it exploded immediately. Someone had planted the bomb while we were all in church.” I sucked in a deep breath. Jay’s story was heartbreaking. As much as he’d told me about the past, I’d never imagined anything quite that painful. “Jay, they must have known how much you loved them,” I said softly. “And I bet wherever they are now, they’re very, very glad that you weren’t in the car with them that day.” Jay didn’t reply. Instead, he pulled me into a tight, intimate hug and I closed my eyes and let him stroke my hair. All around us was chaos. The airport had bloomed into a fantastic mess of people and luggage. Adults wailed and hugged each other like toddlers, and children ran forgotten on the maroon tiled floor. “We have to do something,” I said under my breath. “We have to help these people.”

There were two people crying and holding each other, on the floor, not twenty feet from where Jay and I stood. They were sobbing so intensely that I could barely make out their facial features, and just watching them was enough to hurt my heart. Suddenly, I felt intensely guilty about being so selfish. “This isn’t just about us,” I said quietly. “Come on.” Jay followed me as I walked over to the women and knelt down to where they were kneeling. Putting on the brightest expression I could muster up in the circumstances, I reached into my bag and handed over the jumbo sized bottle of water that I’d bought for the flight. “I think you could both use this a lot more than me,” I said, as casually as I could muster. The women broke their embrace and turned to me with red eyes and faces streaked with tears. “Thank you,” one of them muttered before reaching forward and taking the bottle of water. She unscrewed the cap and took a long, deep drink before handing it to the other woman. After a few seconds, some of the color returned to their cheeks. “Thank you,” the other woman said. “Of course,” I said. “Is there anything we can help you with? Is there anyone you want us to call?” The older of the two nodded. “My daughter,” she said. “She doesn’t know where I am, and she will fear the worst.” I helped the woman call her daughter on Jay’s cell phone, taking the phone and explaining what had happened, then passing it back to the woman. The conversation took less than five minutes and by the time she’d hung up, the woman was crying again. But this time, I could tell, it was tears of relief and joy. “Thank you so much,” the woman said. “Thank you, you are an angel for helping us.” Jay had been standing off to the side and watching the whole thing, and when he rejoined me, he looked at me with clear admiration in his blue eyes. “You’re a bloody saint,” he told me. “I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to get someone like you.” “It was the least I could do.” We began the slow, exhausting process of moving around the airport and trying to comfort those who needed it the most. My heart broke multiple times for these people, these people who had lost a loved one, and I wished I could’ve helped to heal them all. The hardest was a boy who had watched his mother get on the plane—she was going to America to study abroad for the summer—and his father hadn’t been able to explain what happened. He was clearly still in shock, standing there listlessly while his son looked around with wide eyes, asking if his mother would ever come home now. “They’re still looking for survivors,” I said softly to the father. “There’s a chance she made it.” I didn’t want to give them false hope, but at the same time, hope was all we had right now, while we didn’t know what was going on. Jay came up behind me and squatted down to the boy’s height. The boy, suddenly shy, darted

behind his father. But Jay wasn’t deterred. “Hello there,” he said. “Do you like football?” The little boy nodded, and he slowly peeked out from behind his father’s legs. His father was a young man, not much older than Jay and myself, who looked weary with grief. He watched carefully as Jay coaxed the boy out, then wrapped an arm around him and pulled him close. “When I get sad, I play football,” Jay said. “That’s what I’ve always done.” The boy nodded shyly, and Jay continued. “You’re being much braver than I’ve ever been, you know that?” he said. The boy nodded again and Jay pulled him into a surprising hug. I found myself touched as I watched their interactions; Jay was such a good man, with such a big heart that I couldn’t help a few more tears from leaking down my face. “Promise me you’ll stay strong,” Jay said to the boy. He reached into his pocket and came back with his keys. “This is my special football keychain,” he said, fingering a Manchester United strip of red, gold, and black. “But I think you’re going to need it more than I do.” The father seemed to have recognized Jay, and he leaned down. “You don’t need to give us anything, Mr. Walsh, but thank you for the thought,” he said softly. “You’re very kind.” But the boy reached for the strip of fabric once Jay had separated it from his keys. “Is this really mine?” Jay nodded. “All yours,” he said. “It’s good luck, so don’t lose it.” A well-dressed woman carrying a microphone walked up to me. “What’s going on?” She looked at me, her eyes narrowed critically. “Is that Jay Walsh?” I nodded. “He made a new friend,” I said as I pointed to the boy. “I think they have something in common.” “That is so sweet. I can’t wait to get my crew over here! Wait until they see this!” the woman gushed, and it dawned on me that she must be a journalist. Jay stood up with a frown on his face when he spotted the woman. He walked over towards us. “What’s all this?” “You’re going to be on the news, and for once, it’s for something good!” the woman chirped excitedly. “Don’t you want all of your fans to see you helping out?” Jay shook his head. “Don’t film me,” he said in a serious voice. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who’s doing good just to be on camera.” “But wouldn’t this inspire your fans?” “I’m not doing it,” Jay said in a gruff voice. “Have some damn respect for the tragedy that’s occurred here today.” The journalist rolled her eyes and walked away in a huff, and I smiled up at Jay. I knew something now; one pure, indubitable fact.

This was definitely the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

Chapter Twenty-Three Jay

Even though I felt like dropping down on my knees in the exact second when I saw that Kate was alive, I knew that it wasn’t the right time for a proposal. Not by a long shot. With the plane crash and multitude of people thought to be dead, it would have been an utterly selfish, jackass move to propose. And as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I didn’t think Kate would want a big, public proposal. She was poised and outgoing, but I knew that she didn’t like being a spectacle. It just wasn’t the right time. By the time we left the airport, we were both exhausted. I was starving, but I felt guilty about being so hungry. All of those people grieving probably weren’t thinking about food, and I felt like I shouldn’t be, either. But after my stomach grumbled more than once when we were in the car, Kate turned to me. “You don’t have to beat yourself up, you know,” she said softly. “We can get something to eat. I’m hungry, too.” Without replying, I drove us towards that little Chinese food stall where we’d had one of our first conversations. Kate gave me a watery smile when I pulled up, but she didn’t say anything. “I’ll slide out and pick us up some food, and then we can take it home to eat, sound good?” I said. Kate nodded. “I wish I knew why I felt so tired,” she said softly. “I feel like I just ran a marathon.” I’d had a game scheduled for later in the day, but I had to call my coach and tell him that I would be missing it. I’d never missed a match, not even for the most foul of hangovers, but today was something different. When I told my coach a short version of what had happened, he let me off the hook, scot free. I loaded up with a variety of wontons, fried chicken, and vegetable dishes before heading back to the car, and Kate smiled when I slid behind the driver’s seat. It already felt final, like she was back for good. “What are you going to do?” Kate pursed her lips. “I’m not sure,” she said softly. “I don’t know what I should do. I emailed my producers and told them about what happened, and I don’t know if I’ll have to get on a plane to go back home or not.” She shuddered. “I hate the idea of flying right now, it seems so awful.” “I don’t blame you,” I said as I reached over the seat and gripped her pale fingers in my own. “I don’t blame you at all. After what happened to my parents, I couldn’t get in a car for a year.”

“I’m so sorry about that, Jay,” she said, looking at me with pain in her eyes. I nodded. “It was a bad time. But I’m glad I can talk to you about it. Thank you…for listening to me.” “Always.” We drove back to my flat in silence until Kate let out a strangled cry. “Oh my god, Lizzy!” she said. “I totally forgot to call her! She’s probably a wreck.” I widened my eyes. I’d been terrified earlier that Kate was dead, and I couldn’t imagine how fearful her sister had been. Even though Kate and Lizzy looked like opposites, I knew their sisterly bond ran deep. “You’d better call her,” I said. “You know how she’s prone to overreacting.” Kate nodded. It was the most normal interaction we’d had since I arrived back at the airport and saw her amazingly, stunningly alive. “Lizzy, it’s me,” Kate said a moment later, presumably to Lizzy’s voicemail. “You’re probably in class right now, but I just wanted to let you know I’m okay. There was a plane crash, the plane I was supposed to take crashed into another plane as it was landing. Something about bad weather preventing visibility. But I didn’t get on the plane, and I’m not going back to the States.” Our eyes met and Kate’s cheeks colored. “At least not right now,” she added. “Call me. Love you.” When Kate had hung up, she let out a deep sigh and reclined against the headrest. “It feels good to be here, with you,” she said softly. “I was dreading leaving, you know.” I nodded. “I’m not playing in the game later,” I said. “I called my coach while you were getting some things together. He understood, but it’s probably a one-time-only exception.” Kate let out a dry laugh. “The fans of Manchester United are going to kill me,” she said lightly. “For keeping their precious Jay Walsh from them.” I grinned broadly. “You can keep me from whomever you’d like,” I said with a wink. “Just as long as I get a snog every so often.” I carried Kate’s suitcase into my building while she carried the bag of takeaway food. The doorman smiled at us and let us into the elevator, and I noticed that even though Kate seemed to be relaxing as time went on, she was still tense. “You okay?” I asked, squeezing her hand. “I know this kind of stuff can be traumatic.” She nodded. “The only way I would have gotten on that plane was if Josh was chasing me,” she said in a dry voice. “And that just makes me think…well, I can’t help but wonder about my job. What’s going to happen?” I shook my head. “No way of knowing,” I said as I reached over and ruffled her hair. “But everything will be fine, you’ll see.” “I hope so,” Kate said. “It seems trivial to worry about now, after what happened today, but I

can’t help it. I just spent so much of my working life on that show. To watch it go up in flames now would hurt a lot.” I shrugged. “The media is fickle,” I said, remembering how my ‘fans’ lapped up every piece of shit journalism from Hannah. “I wouldn’t worry about it, or at least try not to.” We set up a feast on the floor of my flat and turned on the news. I was relieved to see Kate eating —she looked wan—and admittedly, the food helped to calm my nerves. But the news wasn’t good; despite the best efforts of the rescuers, most of people on board the planes had died. I could only thank whatever god was listening to me that Kate hadn’t been on that plane. There was a buzz and Kate and I both looked at our phones. “It’s me,” she said. “Hold on.” I watched as she wiped her lips and composed her face into a professional mask. “Hello?” I couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation, but it was fascinating to watch Kate’s face as she spoke. She had a colorful range of expressions and I loved seeing how animated she could be, even though the news perhaps wasn’t great. “What happened?” I asked as soon as she’d hung up. “That was one of my executive producers,” Kate replied. “He said the same things that Josh said, but at least he was nice about it.” She let out a long sigh, sending a stray strand of hair high into the air. “He told me that the ratings have fallen pretty sharply in the last three weeks while they’ve been airing the remaining episodes, and they think it’s because of that so-called scandalous piece your ex wrote about me. But he said he was holding off on telling me because he wanted to be sure.” “And?” I raised my eyebrows. “Is he sure now?” She shook her head. “I don’t think he has much of an idea,” she replied. “He said there’s a meeting with all of the producers at the end of the week, and then he’d get back to me and let me know. But….” She paused and let out a sigh. “But since I talked to Josh the way I did, it’s possible that he could sway everyone into voting against me. It was stupid for me to ever be involved with him.” “I feel your pain, trust me. I never should have gotten involved with Hannah.” I said, rolling my eyes. “She’s tried to ruin my life more times than I can count. And yours, too, if I might add.” “Yeah. Hey!” Kate suddenly said as she pointed towards the muted TV. “There we are!” I groaned as I saw the caption beneath the footage: “Hunky Footballer Jay Walsh Steps In!” Reaching forward, I tried to turn the TV off, but Kate held up her hand. “As disgustingly crass as it is for the reporters to cash in on you doing that,” she said. “It’ll do your reputation good, Jay. You could probably use that, to be honest, after that whole drug rehab scandal.” I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure Hannah will find a way to twist it somehow,” I replied. “Just give her time. She’ll come up with something. She always does.”

“Well, at least she doesn’t have my career to trash anymore,” she said. She kept her voice light, but I was impressed with how she was dealing with things. I had a feeling that before she’d met me, she’d controlled her image tightly. This had to have thrown a wrench in her plans to have a spotless career, but she was taking it like a champ. “Come here,” I said, patting a spot of floor next to where I sat. “I want to snuggle with my girlfriend.” Kate smiled. “After the horrible day we’ve had, I like the sound of that,” she said as she lowered herself down and rested her head against my shoulder. “I like the sound of that a lot.”


The next few days were incredible. I barely let Kate out of my sight; she went back to Lizzy’s to drop off some of her things and reunite with her sister, but aside from that, we were together all the time. The season was almost over and when I finished, I’d be able to spend every morning with her. I was so excited—I felt like a little kid waiting for a holiday. Even though I hadn’t been thrilled to see Kate and myself on the news, helping out at Manchester Airport, I couldn’t deny that she’d been right. It was good for my reputation—now all of the tabloids were calling me the “Hunky Helper” instead of whatever slang they could come up with after all of Hannah’s little articles. Even my coach was impressed—he’d slapped me on the back and told me I’d done a good job. My mates teased me, naturally, but after a stern look they calmed down. “Shut up, you lot could do well to learn something from Jay,” Coach had snapped one afternoon when my mates couldn’t stop calling me Hunky Helper. I’d just grinned. It felt better than I’d expected it would to be recognized for something nice. One morning, a few days later, Kate burst into the bathroom when I was in the shower. She grinned at me and tossed her hair back over her shoulders, and just the sight of her was enough to make my mouth go dry; after dating countless women over the years, somehow Kate managed to excite me every day. I wanted to spend the rest of my life staring at her, looking deep into her green eyes and wondering how I’d gotten so bloody lucky. “I got an email from the producers,” she said after knocking on the glass door of the shower. “I haven’t read it yet. Can you come sit with me?” I nodded. “Of course,” I called. “I’ll be right out.” Suddenly, my heart was pounding in my chest, and I grinned to myself. I couldn’t believe it—I’d never been nervous for another person before, and here I was. Oh, well. As they say…there’s a first time for everything.

Chapter Twenty-Four Kate

I paced nervously from one end of the room to the other as I waited for Jay to get out of the shower. The past few days had flown by, and I was jolted out of whatever happy, warm place I’d been in when I saw the subject line from my producers. My heart was pounding in my chest. Somewhere in my inbox lay the keys to my future. I was afraid to open the email without Jay by my side, and it didn’t even occur to me to feel embarrassed if the news was anything less than amazing. I knew he’d be supportive of me no matter what it was. After the plane crash, after everything that had happened, I realized how much I felt at home in Manchester. Even though I hadn’t planned on staying, I was definitely thinking about it now. It was going to be so hard to go back to New York, to the hustle and bustle of jaded urbanites every day, especially after being in such a beautiful and relaxed city, so close to some of the most gorgeous parks I’d ever seen. My phone beeped once and I looked down, smiling as I saw a text from Lizzy. When we’d gotten together the other night, we’d had one of the most honest talks that we’d ever had. Even though we were close, we didn’t often spend a lot of time talking about our emotions and how we felt about things, because I wasn’t exactly comfortable sharing my anxieties with my younger sister. I thought it would make me a bad sister. Instead, I wanted to do everything in my power to make sure Lizzy felt like she had a strong, fearless role model. “I was so afraid,” I’d said to her when I’d let myself into the flat. “I was so afraid to get on that plane, I couldn’t go without letting Jay know how I really felt about him.” Lizzy looked at me with wide eyes. “Are you kidding?” She reached over and lightly cuffed me on the side of the head. “My big sister, afraid to tell some jock asshole how she feels?” She winked at me and I felt a blush spreading over my cheeks. “Hey, just because I called him a jock asshole a month ago doesn’t mean anything now,” I replied. Lizzy stuck her tongue out at me. “So, where are you going to live? And don’t say New York, because people will literally want to kill you if you take Jay away from Manchester United.” I laughed wryly. “I couldn’t see myself living in New York and being happy ever again, honestly,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “That city is just so unhappy and jaded. At least with all the people I know there, anyway. I don’t know why I used to idolize the place so much.” Lizzy smiled. “I remember that. You had posters of New York in your dorm room!” I laughed. She was right—in college, I’d been completely obsessed with the idea of moving to the city. I shook my head. “I just don’t think I can go back,” I said. “Or at least, I don’t think I can go back

and have things be the same as they were before.” Lizzy batted her eyelashes at me until I was choking back laughter. “And leave your precious Jay?” She fluttered a hand to her chest, then closed her eyes and pretended to faint. “I doubt you could, Kate.” “It’s not just him,” I said, although that was maybe only half true. “I really like this area. Even some of the foods that I wasn’t a fan of before are growing on me.” Lizzy raised her eyebrows at me. “You’re telling me you want to try blood pudding now?” I shook my head quickly. “Maybe not that,” I said, before she could suggest any other number of things. “But there’s something magical about being here.” “I know,” Lizzy replied. She folded her hands in her lap. “I don’t want to go back to the States, either. I want to stay here and finish university in Manchester. Then maybe I can get a job and I won’t have to go home.” I frowned. “Isn’t it hard for Americans to emigrate to England?” “Maybe if my older sister marries a famous football player, I won’t have to try very hard.” Lizzy pouted at me and folded her arms over her chest. “I mean, you would do that for me, right?” I laughed. My cheeks were burning bright red. Marry Jay? I’d barely known him a month! And yet… wasn’t the craziest idea I’d ever heard. It definitely wasn’t the worst, either. “He’s different,” I said, barely aware of the dreamy tone that was slipping into my voice. “He’s different from any other guy I’ve ever been with. He’s…considerate. And he’s kind. He doesn’t do things just so people will know he’s doing them.” “That’s good,” Lizzy replied. “And I know he’s a nice guy, Kate. You wouldn’t be with anyone who treated you like crap. At least not anymore.” Crying over other guys seemed like a thing of the past. I didn’t know how Jay and I were going to end up, but I had to believe that we would succeed, somehow. Even though we lived an ocean apart from each other, we’d find a way to make everything work. I had a feeling this email from my producers would be a defining moment in our relationship, and I looked up at Jay anxiously as he finally exited the shower. “Hey there,” he said. He swatted me with a towel and made a face at me as he posed naked. “Fancy this bloke, do you?” I laughed. He always did a better job than anyone of making me feel relaxed and happy. I was definitely going to miss that if I had to head back to the States. He pulled a pair of sweatpants over his delicious hips and grinned at me, shaking the water from his close-cropped hair. “So, what’s this email all about?” I pushed my laptop towards him. “Can you read it for me?” I asked. “I can’t look at the screen right now. I feel sick.”

Jay pulled me into a close hug. Water from the shower was still clinging to his face and neck in tiny droplets, but I didn’t even mind. He smelled clean and masculine, just good, the kind of scent I wanted to bury myself in. I kissed his neck and gently bit the soft skin, and he groaned and nuzzled into me. “Come on, let’s go to bed,” I whispered. “I don’t even want to look at this right now.” Without waiting for a reply, I wrapped my arms around him and kissed my way down his chest, and Jay put his hands on my shoulders. I thought he was guiding me further down his body, so when he pushed me away, I was surprised. He grinned at me. “You know how bloody strong my will has to be to decline sex with you, Kate?” I blushed furiously. “So don’t decline,” I said, as casually as I could muster. Jay shook his head. “Nope, sorry, but nice try. We’re looking at this email right now, and that’s that.” He pulled me onto his lap, and I reluctantly pulled his computer towards us. My nerves were jangling and I could feel my heart thudding in my chest, slamming against my ribs to the tune of my anxiety. As I settled on his muscular thighs, Jay wrapped his arms around me and hugged me close. “Just breathe for a minute, okay?” He nuzzled into the back of my neck. The sensation of his warm breath against my skin made me shiver, and I could feel goose bumps breaking out over my whole body. “Just relax. Know that whatever happens in this email, everything is going to be okay. I love you, Kate, and I’ll love you no matter what your producers have to say.” I felt a tiny wave of calm break over me, and I grinned and blushed, glad that Jay was unable to see my face. “Okay,” I said in a shaky voice. “Here goes nothing.” I clicked on the subject line (‘Hello Kate, Please Read’) and took a deep breath. In front of me were several paragraphs of text that threatened to swarm together in one mass of black and white scribbles. I closed my eyes. “I almost don’t want to know what it all says. It’s better not knowing sometimes, right?” Jay chuckled, low and deep in his throat. “You wouldn’t be saying that if you knew what it said already,” he replied. “Come on, Kate. Don’t drag this out any more than you already have.” I frowned. “Okay,” I said. “I’m reading it now.” Taking a deep breath and swallowing hard, I began to skim the first paragraph. When I was finished with the whole email, I read it again, then once more, to be sure that I’d really understood what they were saying. My mouth was dry and I wanted to get off Jay’s lap but I felt like I couldn’t move. “Well, what is it?” Jay shifted underneath me. “What happened? What did they say?”

I blinked. “They’re ending my show,” I said softly. “The ratings were too bad towards the end. But they’re giving me one more episode, which they say I can broadcast from here in England, to kind of wrap things up.” I wiped a tear from my eyes. Even though it wasn’t the news I’d been hoping for, I couldn’t deny that I felt better for having read it. At least now I knew where I stood, and I could start to plan for the future. “Oh, Kate,” Jay said. He wrapped his arms tightly around me and squeezed. “I’m so sorry. I know that isn’t what you wanted.” I bit my lip. “It’s not, really,” I said. “But I guess this is how it had to end.” I slid off Jay’s lap and climbed to my feet. Already, miraculously, I was starting to feel better. He frowned at me before giving me a cautious look. “So, how do you feel?” I shrugged. “Not great,” I admitted. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen now. My future is in limbo.” I sighed and stretched, raising my arms high above my head. “I could do anything, I guess.” He grinned. “You could be a zookeeper,” he said with a grin. “Or maybe a lion tamer.” I rolled my eyes. “With you and your Manchester United lot, I feel like I already am a lion tamer.” Jay winked at me and pulled me close. He wrapped his arms around me and I pressed my face into his bare, muscular torso, wondering how I got to be so lucky. I had one of the hottest and most sensitive guys in the world rooting for me and my career. I’d never felt as supported as Jay had made me feel, and we’d barely known each other for a month! There really was a silver lining to every dark cloud. “I guess I’m lucky,” I said into Jay’s smooth chest. “I mean, now I get to stay here, right? And on top of that, I get to stay with you.” He reached down and slipped his fingers under my chin, tilting my head up so our eyes were locked. “Yep, you’re a lucky bird, all right,” he said in a cheeky, teasing tone before leaning down and pressing his lips against mine. A little shiver of lust went through me. “And I love you, too,” he added. I licked my lips. “Now I can do whatever I want,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. In truth, I wasn’t as upset as I’d thought I might be. I mean, part of me was sad—part of my life was over. But now I felt hopeful about the future. Now, I could do something else if I wanted, and on top of that, it meant no more working with Josh. I grinned as I realized I’d never have to see his smug face ever again. “What’s so funny?” Jay smirked at me. “Just realized I never have to see Josh again,” I replied. “Definitely a perk of being fired.” He chuckled. “True. Although you weren’t exactly fired. Having a show canceled isn’t really the same thing. And with the show canceled, that means Josh is out of a job too….boo hoo.” “That’s true,” I admitted. “On both counts.”

“And you know, I wasn’t lying when I first met you,” Jay went on. “Wasn’t lying about what?” I asked, my brows furrowing with confusion. “When I said you have tons of fans here in the UK. I bet you’d easily be able to score a gig working in TV here, if that’s what you wanted to do.” I nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s an idea.” I wasn’t sure exactly what the coming weeks, months or years held for my career, but I knew it would all work out in the end, and at least I knew who I was going to be spending all that time with. Jay. He was my future. And what future could be any brighter?

Chapter Twenty-Five Jay

Kate spent a few days nervously getting ready for her last segment. We were going down to a local Manchester studio for it to air, and I knew she was excited but anxious. I kept asking what she planned to talk about on air, but she wouldn’t tell me, and as much as I wanted to know, I respected her decision. After all, Kate had seen me at work several times, but aside from passing glances at her old show, I’d never seen her in a business mindset. The night before we were to go to the studio, she slipped out of the bathroom wearing a fantastic dress. It was black, with lace sleeves and a tight skirt that made her ass look incredible…and it was like nothing I’d ever seen her in. “My god,” I said. “Who are you, and where is Kate Romero?” Kate giggled. She’d put on heavy makeup and dark lipstick, and she looked vampy and sexy. “Feel like taking me on a date?” she asked. “I feel like I shouldn’t let you out of my flat,” I murmured, pulling her close and slipping my arms around Kate’s waist. As I kissed her ear, I mumbled: “Any blokes see you and they’re going to want a piece of that gorgeous bod of yours.” Kate shivered and squirmed in my arms, and she placed her arms around my neck and leaned in, nuzzling me and planting her wet lips on my skin. I shivered, feeling my cock twitch inside my pants. I was hard in a matter of seconds, and Kate seemed to know it. She pressed her lithe body against mine, moaning softly as I kneaded the pert cheeks of her ass. “You look amazing,” I said as I nuzzled her hair. She lifted her face up to me to be kissed, and I was lost in her soft lips. As the kiss deepened, she slipped her tongue into my mouth, and I could feel her nipples hardening through the soft fabric of the dress. When I realized she wasn’t wearing a bra, a powerful wave of lust ripped through me. “I want you, Jay,” she whispered softly. She broke the kiss and ran her hands through my short hair, massaging the back of my neck until I felt weak. Slipping my hands between her legs, I scooped her up and wrapped her slim legs around my waist, and she moaned and began to grind her hips against me. The dress rode up almost to her waist, and I saw that she wasn’t wearing panties. She fastened her lips to the base of my neck and began to gently suck as I walked her backwards to the bed, throwing her down gently, and she immediately got to all fours and crawled towards me. “You are a goddess,” I murmured as I watched her fumble with the snap of my jeans. “And I can’t wait to—”

I gasped mid-sentence. Kate had taken my hard erection out of my pants, and she made eye contact with me while moving her lips closer and closer to the head of my cock. I shuddered as I felt her warm tongue caress my skin, over and over again. “Come and get me, Jay,” she said. She reclined on the bed and raised her arms over her head, smiling seductively, and my mouth watered at the sight of her amazing curves, tightly encased in black fabric. With a growl, I threw myself on the bed and crawled towards her, nipping at her ankles and making her squeal. “You’re going to regret teasing me like that,” I murmured into her ear when I was on top of her. She groaned underneath me and pressed her body against mine. My erection was throbbing and I was dying to take her, to make her mine. “I regret nothing,” she replied. She winked at me coquettishly, and with a grin I reached down and yanked her dress up, exposing her nakedness. She squirmed and moaned when I slipped a finger between her legs, and she was so wet that I groaned. With a grin, I grabbed her thighs and pulled them apart, crawling between them and teasing her with the head of my erection. Kate moaned softly. She arched her back and wrapped her legs around me, covering my cock with her warmth. When I felt the head of my erection slide inside her tightness, I groaned, and she let out a little yelp before leaning forward and nipping at my ear. When I began to thrust, she automatically matched my rhythm. I could tell she was incredibly worked up, and it was only a matter of minutes before she cried out loudly with release. She almost sounded like she was in pain, but I could tell that she was completely giving herself up to me. As our bodies moved together at a frenzied pace, pleasure burst in my lower belly and I groaned into Kate’s neck, fucking her harder until I felt my cock spasm and twitch with the release of my own orgasm. We lay like that together for a few moments before I rolled off Kate and flopped onto my back. “I knew you’d like that dress,” she said. “I brought it on a whim, thinking I could wear it out on some date.” I rolled my eyes and laughed. “I bet you never planned on making it past the bedroom door.” Kate blushed furiously. She tugged the dress back down over her thighs and rolled onto her side. Her green eyes reflected some of the dim light from the bedroom and suddenly, I felt more in love with her than ever before. “This is better,” she said softly. “This is much, much better.” The next morning, we left for the studio early in the morning. Kate was dressed casually; dark wash jeans, a silk blouse, and a scarf in her hair. I thought she looked stunning, but she kept fretting over her looks the whole way to the studio. “Don’t roll the windows down, Jay, I don’t want it to mess up my hair,” Kate said when I started to do that very thing. “I’m sorry. I know I probably sound crazy.” I shrugged. I was a bit nervous myself. “You’re forgiven,” I told her lightly. “Just kiss me first.” At the studio, Kate was whisked away from me into a cloud of makeup and hair stylists. She’d

told me privately that this was the reason she wanted to do her own look before heading to the studio; all of these people were strangers, and she didn’t trust them to make her up right. “I might come out looking like a monster,” she’d said with a laugh. “And we can’t have that. My viewers have to recognize me, after all.” “I’m sure they’ll recognize you,” I said. It wrenched my heart to see Kate unhappy, even if it was just for a moment or two. “And I’m sure they’ll love whatever you have to say to them.” I watched from behind the cameras as she finally took her place on the little set. She was seated behind a desk with a coffee mug in front of her, and the glaring lights were hot, but she seemed unfazed. She was confident and poised, and I realized that she was truly in her element, kinda like when I was on the pitch and had to make a play—all of my energy was focused on doing just that. And Kate, in her own way, displayed the exact kind of discipline that my mates always strived for. The applause was deafening as the show went live, and Kate wore a practiced smile—friendly, but not too casual. As the cheers died down, she greeted everyone loudly. “I’m so glad you are all watching,” she began. She smiled. “And as you can see, despite my time across the pond, I still sound like a brash New Yorker.” There were loud cheers and Kate smiled, a practiced move, waiting for the cries to die down. “Before I begin my main segment, I wanted to speak with you all tonight about something that’s a little more personal to me than some of my previous shows. While big issues are always important and relevant, I want to talk to you about something that seems a bit closer to home.” She paused and looked around the audience with a smile. “When I first came over to Manchester, on vacation, my sister suggested we go to this football match—Manchester United against Liverpool.” There were loud cheers from the audience, and boos for Liverpool. Kate smiled politely. “And you know, sports kind of aren’t my thing.” She blushed, just a little, and managed to look both demure and coy. “But since I was on Lizzy’s time, well, I had to go with her.” “What happened?” Someone cried loudly from the audience. Kate didn’t address them, but she did give a brief smile. “I enjoyed myself,” she said. “I thought it was going to be a miserable time—loud drunks stampeding everywhere, jocks on the field, people making jerks out of themselves. But I had fun. The energy really caught me and I wound up enjoying myself more than I had at any point in recent memory.” The audience was silent. Kate continued. “So I really should have apologized to Lizzy.” She waited for a beat. “Not just because I was rude, but because I had preconceived notions of what it was going to be like. And I was wrong.” She looked out over the audience and a more serious expression fixed on her face. “My show was designed to showcase equal opportunity for women, and I always wanted to feature women making choices for themselves without being judged. We’re all guilty of this sometimes, but lately, I think the

hypocrisy has been overwhelming. I started receiving low ratings on my show after one newspaper —one newspaper—ran a story about how I went out with a football player. That one story was enough to make people turn their backs on me, and that one story was apparently enough to make certain people think that everything I’ve ever said is total bullshit.” Someone in the audience gasped. I chuckled; I didn’t think Kate’s usual audience was used to profanity. Pride and love for her surged in my heart, and I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as I waited for her to finish. “My misconception of football and football games is much like this. Except I knew that I was wrong, and I apologized, and since then I’ve tried to lead a very open life. Right now, my show is ending because of those low ratings, because I went out with a footballer. And right now, I want to let you all know—even though I don’t have to—that Jay is a wonderful man. He’s not just a jock, and he’s not just a guy who plays football. He’s a giving, sensitive, and loyal man. If you all think differently about him, it’s because you don’t know him. I refuse to apologize for being in a relationship with him, and if anyone wants to keep judging me, fine. Keep judging me. Stay a hypocrite.” There was a pause, and Kate shrugged. Someone in the audience cheered and she smiled briefly. “The most important thing in my life is honesty and transparency, and this is what you’re getting. I’m no less of a role model to women just because I have a life. On the contrary, I think role models should have lives. If being a role model is going to hold me to a plastic mold of myself, then I’m done with that.” Kate paused and took a deep breath. She looked over to me and smiled, making my heart thump in my chest. Finally, she said: “Thank you all very much for your support and your love over the years. I’ve really appreciated hosting Keeping Current With Kate. And now, let’s get started with tonight’s last-ever theme…” The rest of the show went smoothly, and when the cameras stopped rolling, Kate visibly relaxed. Some people on set began cheering and she flushed as she got up from her seat and walked over towards me. With a shaky grin, she reached out her arms and wrapped them around my neck. “How did I do?” Kate pulled back and gazed into my eyes. “You were bloody brilliant,” I said honestly, releasing her. “Thank you,” she said softly. She turned around a second later when a producer asked her something, and she didn’t see me as I dropped to one knee on the floor. She turned back around. “Jay, want to go for drinks? Some of the camera—oh my god!” she said. “Will you marry me, Kate?” I asked, holding the ring up towards her. Tears flashed in her eyes and I watched a hundred emotions play on her face. “Yes,” she said. She shook her head up and down. “Yes, yes, yes!” I slid the ring onto her shaking hand and stood up, pulling her close to me and nuzzling into her

sweet-smelling hair. Around us, people cheered and clapped and yelled, and Kate snuggled close to me and sighed happily. “I can’t believe this,” she said dreamily, pulling away. “This ring is so beautiful! And it fits me perfectly, too.” I grinned. “You wouldn’t believe this, but I was actually going to propose to you on camera,” I said casually. Kate’s eyes bulged. “But then I changed my mind,” I said quickly, before she could respond. “Because I’m not the kind of guy who does these things just for attention anymore. This last show was yours, Kate, and I wanted you to have every moment of that to yourself.” “Oh, Jay,” Kate said. A tear ran down her cheek and I reached down to wipe it away. “This is incredible.” “You’re incredible,” I whispered in her ear. “And now you’re going to be my wife.” I couldn’t wait to marry her.

Epilogue Kate

One year later

“Kate! Have you seen my jumper?” Lizzy’s whine carried from her bedroom all the way down the hall to where I was digging through the laundry, looking for my favorite dark jeans. “Try your dresser!” I hollered back. “I haven’t seen it today!” There was chaos all around me. Jay and I had a great little flat in downtown Manchester, with a spare bedroom for Lizzy and Connor, who were dating each other now. I loved it when they stayed with us, but sometimes I felt like I could have used just a pinch more time to myself. Especially today, since I was nervous. I had news to tell Jay, and I secretly wished that we could be alone when I shared it with him, but I loved my sister, and her messiness unfortunately came with the whole package. “I found it,” Lizzy said, the relief obvious in her voice. “Ready to go?” I looked in the mirror, and a very frazzled Kate Walsh stared back at me. She definitely didn’t look like the host of Up To Date With Kate, a new talk show on British TV, and she definitely didn’t look like a glamorous WAG. “You look fine,” Lizzy said, as if she could read my mind. “Come on, let’s go!” She stamped the ground impatiently and charged towards the front door like a bull. Even though she’d graduated from college and had a real job at a marketing firm now, she still acted more the tomboy than ever. “We’re not going to be late,” I said, checking my makeup once more in the mirror. “The game doesn’t start for another two hours.” Lizzy rolled her eyes. “The match, Kate. The match. Haven’t you learned anything?” She skipped ahead of me. Connor was standing in the kitchen, finishing a mug of coffee, and when he saw Lizzy, he grinned and let out a whoop. Both of their faces were painted in Manchester United colors and they were wearing matching jumpers. Lizzy wrapped her arms around him and leaned in for a careful kiss, and he grabbed her and pulled her closer, until their mouths were smashed together in blend of snogging and grinning. “You guys are ridiculous,” I said with a grin, dangling my keys. “Come on, let’s get going.” Lizzy and Connor chattered the whole way to the stadium. Connor had been out of Promising Light for about four months now, and he was working as a social media manager for Manchester United. Jay had gotten him the job after a lot of protest—Connor was still proud, but he knew better now than

he had before, and he’d realized that sometimes it was okay to accept a little help. He was doing great, and Jay was so proud of him. I’d even given him a special episode on Up To Date With Kate, talking about addiction and his path to recovery. My new show hadn’t been easy for me to pitch at first—local network executives were worried that British women wouldn’t want a talk show hosted by an American—but with a lot of work and dedication, I’d managed to see it through. They’d looked at the British ratings from my old show and realized that women here in the UK were indeed perfectly happy to have a host from America…and it certainly didn’t hurt that I was now married to a sports player who was a national favorite. The media and general public absolutely loved Jay and me being together, and they also seemed to love me for being the one who’d finally ‘tamed’ Jay Walsh, so my show was already relatively successful after just one season based on that popularity alone. I knew better—I hadn’t tamed Jay. He’d always been the tender, loving man that he was around me. He’d just needed to meet the right woman for that side of him to come out, and as luck would have it, I was that woman. Seriously, could I be any luckier? The streets were lined with Manchester fans as I drove slowly along the way to the stadium. Jay’s team had played a great season. They probably weren’t going to win the Premiership, but he was still pleased with the year overall. He said it was one of the better seasons he’d ever had, and somehow he managed to credit that to being married to me. I grinned to myself as I recalled our wonderful wedding day. We’d gotten married shortly after the proposal. The wedding had been relatively small—I’d insisted—but still big enough so that Jay’s whole team could come, and afterwards, we’d taken a short holiday to the Isle of Man. I’d always imagined having a honeymoon someplace tropical, but with Jay, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I couldn’t even look down at the ring on my finger without smiling. Even today, feeling nervous, I felt an insurmountable glow of pride at being Jay’s wife. I was never going to be lonely again. “Kate, step on it!” Lizzy thumped me on the shoulder. “I’d like to get to the field before it gets dark!” I rolled my eyes. “It’s the middle of the afternoon,” I said. “We’ll be fine.” Lizzy and Connor were snuggled in the backseat of my car together, making me feel a bit like a chauffeur, and at my latest remark, they both collapsed in a fit of giggles. It had been a good year. My show was off to a great start, and Jay had been able to spend a lot of time on his charity, Helping Hands. He got it started after the crash at Manchester Airport, and it had done a lot to rehabilitate his public image. I was so proud of him—occasionally, an old photo would pop up in the tabloids, but that’s all it was. History.

Nothing but history. Now, he was a changed man, and I knew for certain that a person didn’t need to have a perfect past to have a perfect future. He was living proof of that, and thankfully, we didn’t even have to worry about the tabloids dragging up old stories very often. His ex-girlfriend Hannah had been fired from her job after it was discovered that she’d been plagiarizing work from other journalists, and since then, we hadn’t heard a peep from her. For a while I’d worried about her coming back into the picture, but nowadays she was the farthest thing from my mind. When we got to the stadium, we were taken up towards the VIP Lounge, and Lizzy and Connor ran ahead of me, skipping and jumping like a couple of kids. I grinned. I loved seeing my younger sister happy, and with a man who treated her so well. When I’d been her age, dating had been a nightmare. I’d been a nervous wreck and New York guys had treated me like crap—including Josh. Speaking of Josh, the last I’d heard of him was that he’d had to move back to his hometown after Keeping Current With Kate was canceled, because he couldn’t find another job in the NYC TV industry, and just like with Hannah, we hadn’t heard a peep from him since. Hmm…maybe someone needed to set those two up on a blind date. They really deserved each other. To my surprise, Jay was waiting for me in the VIP lounge at the stadium. He was wearing his home colors, and when he saw me, a grin broke out over his face. “You look amazing,” he said as he pulled me close and gave me a kiss. “The most stunning WAG here, by a long shot.” I smiled and rolled my eyes in a good-natured manner. Despite whatever Jay told me, I was never going to feel as glamorous as some of the other women who were involved with football players. “You’re full of it,” I told him, playfully poking him in the chest as he pulled me close. “No matter,” Jay said with a grin. “You’re mine, and that’s what counts.” He leaned down and gave me another brief kiss, but not so brief that I didn’t feel a bolt of lust coursing through my body. “Come on, knock it off with the mushy stuff!” Connor clapped Jay on the shoulder, and Jay gave me a smile then turned away and embraced his friend. Ever since Connor had checked into Promising Light, his relationship with Jay had been much better. They were back to living like brothers, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. Even though Connor and Lizzy stayed over all the time, I loved having them around. Lizzy had her own flat, a few blocks away, but she was still obsessed with football, and if there was even the slightest chance that one of Jay’s mates was going to drop by, she was over in a flash. “Kate, come here,” Lizzy said. She grabbed my wrist and tugged me over to the bar. “I want to talk to you.” She looked at me, her green eyes flickering around nervously. “I think Connor is going to ask me to marry him soon.” I smiled and raised my eyebrows. “Really?” “Yes.”

“Well, that’s great. But don’t you think you’re a tad young for that?” Lizzy rolled her eyes. “Come on, you’re like, two years older than me! I’m not too young!” I laughed. “Lizzy, you’re five years younger than I am!” Lizzy raised her eyebrows. “But I’m responsible for your current happiness. After all, I introduced you to Jay,” she said. “Don’t you think you owe me a little more credit?” I laughed drily. “Fine, I’ll give you that one. But remember, whether you get married or not, you’re only twenty-two,” I replied. “Enjoy it.” “Yeah, soon I’ll be old and married and boring,” Lizzy retorted. She stuck her tongue out. “Oh, look, the game is starting!” Grabbing my arm, she dragged me over to the viewing area. We were so far up in the air that Jay and his mates looked like little specks, but I could always tell which one was my husband. I grinned again. I loved seeing him on the field; I loved seeing him do what he did best. “He’s really something,” Lizzy said, following my gaze. “He’s the best, Kate.” “Remember the first time you told me that?” I looked my younger sister in the eye. “And I didn’t believe you?” Lizzy laughed. “Yeah,” she said, taking a big sip of her beer. “You were dumb. But you wised up.” She winked at me, then gave me a funny look. “Even for you, you’re being quiet today. What’s up?” I shook my head. “Nothing. Just a bit nervous about the match seeing as it’s one of the last ones for the season,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t immediately realize that I was lying. I had a lot on my mind, but I wanted to tell Jay first. Fortunately, the first half of the game went quickly and before I knew it, he was bounding up to me, sweaty and covered in mud. “You’re doing great, babe. Arsenal don’t stand a chance against you guys,” I said, leaning in for a kiss. “Yeah, this is a great game,” he replied, wiping his brow. “My mates are really working the pitch. You watching?” I nodded. “Always,” I said with a little smirk on my face. Then I took a deep breath; I was finally ready to reveal my secret. “We both are.” Jay gave me a funny look. “You both are?” “Uh-huh,” I said, nodding and grinning as I rubbed my stomach. Jay looked down and watched my actions, then looked back up to my face for confirmation, and when he realized what I meant, he let out a whoop before grabbing me and spinning me around in the air. “Bloody hell, Kate, I’m going to be a father?” he asked. I nodded, and Jay let out an exuberant cry as he leaned down to kiss me. “I can’t believe it! What fucking fantastic news!” I grinned at his colorful language. “You won’t be able to swear like that for much longer. Unless you want our baby’s first word to be ‘fuck’.”

“Could be worse. His or her first words could be ‘I support Liverpool’.” I laughed, and tears of joy came to my eyes. I didn’t bother wiping them away; I was so happy that I didn’t even care about ruining my makeup. I nuzzled Jay, leaning in close and smelling his delicious, masculine scent. “Are you happy?” “Babe, I’ve never been this happy,” Jay said. He grinned at me widely. “And you know what this means, right?” I shook my head. He winked. “This means I get to score two goals in the next half,” he said with a smirk. “One for you, and one for the baby. Arsenal are still on zero, so it’ll be a perfect match for us if it stays that way.” I smiled and nodded, although I knew that even if he didn’t score any goals at all, we still had a perfect match on our hands. Us. We were worlds apart in terms of upbringing and personality, but that meant nothing when it came to two people matching up and being perfect for one another. We balanced each other’s flaws and positive aspects, and we supported each other no matter what. I put my hand on my belly again, watching as Jay headed back onto the field, and for the millionth time, I thought about how lucky I was that he was my man. I’d really made the perfect score.


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Avery wilde stud, a bad boy sports romance  
Avery wilde stud, a bad boy sports romance