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“You did?” I say, surprised. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

She shrugs.

Because she went with Stryker, that’s fucking why.

“So where are we going?” she asks.

When I tell her what restaurant we’re going to in Clearwater, she scolds me with her stare. “That’s an expensive place, Brady.”

“The rules don’t apply tonight.”

“Rules?” Murphy asks from the back seat.

“Rylee has a rule that I’m not allowed to spend money frivolously. She’s all about being responsible and saving for the future.”

Murphy laughs. “Oh, so that’s why.”

“That’s why what?” I ask.

“Rylee, you’ll be happy to know you are rubbing off on Brady. He wouldn’t let me waste money on a hotel room when he has a suite.”

“Oh,” Rylee says, studying Murphy in the rearview mirror.

For a split second, I think she looks at Murphy the way I look at Alex, but then she forces a smile.

Murphy covers her mouth. “Oh my gosh, that didn’t come out right. We didn’t … he didn’t … I mean, Brady slept on the couch.”

“It’s fine,” Rylee says curtly, eyes laser focused on the road in front of her.

“I’m very happily engaged, Rylee,” Murphy says. “I don’t want you to think … I guess I should have kept my big mouth shut.”

Murphy apologizes to me with her eyes. But she doesn’t need to. I’m amused by Ry’s reaction. She’s jealous. But what’s even more surprising is that I like it.

“Brady helped get Caden and me together,” Murphy says. “Did he ever tell you that? He and Caden flew out to Iowa when I fled New York, and Brady made a very convincing argument for me to come back.”

“Why do I find that hard to believe?” Ry says, looking at me out of the corner of her eye.

“It’s true,” Murphy says. “Beneath that rough and roguish exterior, Brady Taylor is actually quite charming. But he only brings it out for those he truly cares about.”

I give Murphy a cease and desist look, but she ignores me.

“I happened to see a picture of the two of you at dinner last week,” Murphy continues. “And he looked like he was being very charming.”

I’m beginning to get the feeling that Murphy has ulterior motives here. She’s playing matchmaker. Maybe she thinks Ry can fix me or something. But she’s wrong. There is a lot more than my arm that’s broken. And not even the best physical therapist in the world can help me.

“There was a picture of us?” Rylee asks.

“Someone must have snapped it at the restaurant,” I say. “Don’t worry, no one could tell it was you.”

She looks relieved and I wonder if she’s worried about her job, or worried about someone seeing her with me. Someone named Stryker.

We pull up to valet parking and exit the car. Onlookers watch us enter the restaurant and I think of how lucky I am to be escorting these two lovely ladies.

We get seated along the windows in the back overlooking the pier.

Rylee looks out the window longingly. “I love Pier 60.”

I momentarily wonder why she loves it. Does she walk the pier with other men? Then I remind myself that I don’t care. That I can’t care.

“My dad taught me how to fish when I was young,” she says. “We had the best times together. So, now when I want to feel close to him, I go fishing. Pier 60 is really long – good for fishing.”

“I’m sorry,” Murphy says. “Did you lose your father?”

Rylee nods. “About four years ago.”

“I lost mine when I was twelve. But sometimes, it feels like it was yesterday. Every kid deserves to grow up with a father, you know?”

Rylee sighs and looks down at the table. She must really miss him.

The waiter comes over and I order a bottle of wine. I don’t miss Rylee’s smile. She knows I didn’t order the most expensive bottle.

“What looks good?” I ask them as I peruse the menu. I glance up at Rylee. “And don’t say the sandwiches. You are not allowed to order one tonight.”

“I was thinking about a burger,” she says.

“That’s a sandwich,” I admonish.

“It is not,” she says.

“What do you think, Murphy,” I ask. “Is a hamburger a sandwich?”

She looks at the menu. “Well, it’s not listed that way. It’s under handhelds.”

“Right. You eat it with your hands,” I say. “Like a sandwich.”

“You also eat chicken wings and corn on the cob with your hands,” Rylee adds. “Do you consider those sandwiches?”

Murphy laughs. “I think you’d better concede this one, Brady.”

“One of these days, I’m going to get you to order the prime rib. Or the chateaubriand,” I say to Rylee.

“That’ll be the day,” she says.

“When’s your birthday? Surely you’d order it then.”

“January 21st,” she says.

I frown thinking it’s well after I go home. “Maybe we can celebrate it late, when I come back for spring training.”

The waiter comes to take our order before she can answer. But I get the feeling I might not have gotten one anyway. Rylee is so unlike the other girls I date. She never wonders when she’s going to see me next. Never asks questions about the future. Of course, this isn’t a date. She’s only here because of Murphy.

“Speaking of spring training,” Murphy asks, nodding to my arm. “Not that I think you won’t be recovered by then, but what happens if a player is injured during that time? Do they stay home?”

I laugh. “Hardly. Nobody gets out of spring training. And remember, this is the best rehab facility around. That’s why I’m here.” I rub my left arm from elbow to wrist as I’ve done so often lately. “It’s almost four months away, so who knows what will happen.”

Rylee gives me a sympathetic stare. “Even if you aren’t ready by then, I have confidence it will happen. These things can be slow, but that doesn’t mean you won’t make a full recovery and come back even stronger.”

“If anyone can do it, Brady can,” Murphy adds.

“I believe that’s true.” Rylee raises her wine glass. “To a better, stronger future.”

Murphy and I tap our glasses to hers. “Hell, yeah,” I say.

“Have you cut your hair?” Murphy asks after taking a drink.

I run my hands through it. “No. Why?”

She shrugs. “It just looks nice. Don’t you think so, Rylee? I love Brady’s hair. He always looks like he’s just rolled out of bed, yet perfectly put together. I shudder to think what he looks like after a roll in the hay. Swoon-worthy, I’m sure.”

Rylee’s cheeks pink up and she sips her wine.

“And his face.” Murphy reaches over and swipes a finger across my jaw. “Don’t you think it belongs on the cover of a magazine? All these sharp angles.”

“Uh, I suppose,” Rylee says, gulping down another swig.

“You’re not going to team up on me, are you?” I ask. “I haven’t agreed to it yet, Murphy.”

“I know. But you’d be doing the world a disservice if you didn’t.” She turns to Rylee. “You should see this guy without a shirt on, Rylee.” She fans herself. “Can you imagine all the sportswear he could sell for the gym? I mean, those rock-hard abs. Go on, show her, Brady.”

What the hell is Murphy doing? She knows Rylee and I slept together. Rylee shifts around in her seat.

I can’t tell if she’s really uncomfortable or just really turned on.

“I’m not sure this is the place, Murphy.”

She laughs. “Oh, right.”

“So, Murphy, how do you manage with Caden gone so often?” Rylee asks.

“Well, I have a job that takes up most of my time. Keeping busy helps. I miss him, of course, but with all my responsibilities and all my friends, it helps me manage being alone.” Murphy looks around and then leans in closer to whisper to us. “And I’m not normally one to kiss and tell, but … wow … when Caden travels and then comes home again, sometimes we barely make it past the front door. I mean absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Last week, when I ripped his shirt off—”

Rylee’s chair scrapes on the floor as she backs it away from the table. “Excuse me,” she says. “I need to hit the bathroom before dinner comes.”

Murphy and I watch her as she rushes through the restaurant.

I turn back to Murphy. “I know what you’re doing.”

“What?” She tries to look all innocent.

I shake my head and laugh. “If you’ll excuse me as well, I’m going to see if she’s okay.”

“Yeah – you better. It looked like she was about to blow.”

I walk to the back hallway and see a woman exiting the bathroom. “Ma’am, can you tell me how many other people are in there? My sister was upset and I need to go in and talk to her.”

“You mean the girl splashing water on her face? I think she’s the only one in there now.”

“Thank you.”

I go through the bathroom door and lock it behind me.

When Rylee sees me behind her in the mirror, she looks around the bathroom quickly. “What are you doing in here?” She looks under the two stalls. “And … did you really just lock the door?”

“Rylee,” I say, standing right in front of her. “I want you.”

“I, uh …”

“If you can stand here and tell me you don’t want me, I’ll leave right now. If you can tell me that, even though I know it’s a lie, I’ll leave you alone.” I put a hand around her and caress her neck. Her eyes close briefly and she takes a shaky breath. “But look at how your body reacts to me. I’m the same way. Just thinking about being with you makes me hard.”


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