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Me: Remind me never to go walking at night if I go there.

Brady: I’ll go with you if you do. I’ll always protect you, Rylee.

I know he will. I feel it. But the question is, can he ever feel the same about Stryker?

Brady: Are you still there?

Me: Yes.

Brady: I know you must be tired. I just wanted to say hi. I miss you, Ry.

Me: I suppose I miss you too.

Brady: You suppose? Come on, throw a guy a bone.

Me: Okay, fine. I miss you.

Brady: How much?

Me: Now you’re pushing your luck.

Brady: See you tomorrow night, Ry.

Me: See you then.

I put the phone down and think about how much I miss him. I miss the way he kisses me until he knows I can’t stand it and then he does something mundane like picks up a magazine or turns on the television like he didn’t just wreck me. I miss the way he follows my every move with his gorgeous brown eyes when he comes for physical therapy. I miss the way he holds my hand when he takes me to the movies.

I miss everything about him.

And I realize I also love everything about him. Or at least the man he’s proven himself to be.

I just wonder if he’s capable of loving me. Of loving anyone.

~ ~ ~

There’s a knock on my door. I check the time. It’s just after nine o’clock. He said he would stop by, but I figured he was too tired when he didn’t show up at the usual time.

I check the peep hole to make sure it’s him and I see a … mountain lion?

I laugh and open the door. Before he even says hello, he sweeps me into his arms and plants a kiss on me. But he releases me almost as hastily. “Oh, shit,” he whispers, looking past me into my apartment. “Is the little guy around?”

I shake my head. “He’s been asleep for an hour.”

A devious smile comes up Brady’s face. He picks up his duffle bag and drops it inside my door then he lifts me into his arms and carries me to the couch.

“How light of a sleeper is he?” he asks.

“A freight train couldn’t wake him.”

He laughs. Then he looks into my eyes. Deep into my eyes. I swear he’s telling me all the things he’s afraid to say out loud. And I’m saying them right back to him.

“God, you’re beautiful,” he says, leaning down to give me a proper kiss hello.

His kisses start out light and feathery. He explores my face with his lips. He tickles my eyelids with them. He traces a path down my jaw. He tastes the lobes of my ears.

I take his head into my hands and pull him towards my lips. I need to taste him. I need to feel the connection that I long for when he’s away. I force his lips onto mine. I kiss him long and hard.

My hands wander across his biceps, along his back, even down to the seat of his pants. His hands never leave my face, my shoulders, my arms.

When I can’t stand it any longer, I grab one of his hands and put it on my breast. “Touch me,” I say, breathlessly.

He pulls back. “Are you sure?”

I haven’t felt his touch on my body for far too long. I crave it. I need it. I grab his other hand and pull both of them to my chest. “Touch me,” I say again.

His eyes close as he feels me beneath his hands. I’m wearing a t-shirt and yoga pants. I didn’t bother with a bra so I know he can feel every part of me.

“Jesus, Ry. You’re incredible.”

“Put your hands under my shirt.”

He obliges without question, lifting my top to get a full view of what he’s touching. He stares first, before putting his hands back on me. He traces every inch of my creamy flesh with his eyes, causing my nipples to pucker.

He sees my reaction and reaches out to roll my nipples between his fingers. My head falls back against the couch at the sensation. And without thinking, I grab his shoulders and pull his head to my chest.

He takes me into his mouth, giving equal attention to both my breasts. The one he’s not tasting, he’s fondling. He licks and sucks and laves me until I’m squirming beneath him. My hand goes in search of his lap, needing more.

When I find what I’m looking for – when I find his manhood straining beneath his jeans, he stops me, removing my hand. “No, Ry. That’s not why I’m here.”

I question him with my eyes.

“We still have two more weeks,” he says.

My head falls forward in frustration. “What if I tell you we should change the rules?”

For a second, I see hunger in his eyes. For a second, he wants to change the rules, too. But then he pulls my shirt back down. “We’re not changing the rules. You’re not ready.”

“I am,” I tell him.

He shakes his head. “Do you trust me, Ry?”

I study him. “I think I do.”

“That’s not good enough.”

He jumps up off the couch and holds his hand out to help me up. “Do you have a sitter this week?”

“Chloe can come on Tuesday if that’s okay.”

“Tuesday is perfect. I’ll pick you up at ten o’clock. I’m sorry it has to be so late.”

“I get it, Brady. You have to be at the games. It’s okay. But Chloe can only stay until eleven thirty.”

He leans down to kiss me. “That’s not nearly enough time with you, but I’ll take anything I can get.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“For what?”

I shrug. “For understanding my schedule. For bringing presents for Stryker. For being patient even when I can’t be.”

He grabs his duffle bag and opens the door. “You’re worth it, Ry. You’re worth waiting for. You’re worth fighting for.”

I watch him walk down the hall before I retreat into my apartment. I lean against the wall wondering how this man could be so perfect.

Then again, however, maybe he’s not. How can a man go from being the playboy of baseball to being the ideal man in just a few months?

My father once told me a leopard never changes his spots.

But perhaps Brady never really had spots. Maybe his spots were camouflage, hiding who he truly is.

I go to bed and dream of my leopard, thinking that maybe I can be the one to break down the walls he’s built up around his heart. Hoping he has room left in that heart for two more people. Praying he can find his way to love me the way I love him.

Chapter Thirty-five

“This has been one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had,” I tell Murphy as the eight of us leave the dance club.

“I’m glad we could do it,” she says. “It’s been far too long since we’ve all gotten together. Someone is always pregnant or traveling or working. All the stars had to align to set this one up.”

“I need a drink,” Skylar’s sister, Piper, says.

The oldest Mitchell sister, Baylor, stops and reprimands her. “Are you kidding, Pipes? Mason will have my head if I send you home drunk.”

“Not a drink-drink, Baylor. Water. I need water,” Piper says.

“Oh.” Baylor laughs at her youngest sister.

“Let’s go in here,” Mallory says, pointing to a tavern. “We can sober up with coffee and water before heading home.”

“Good idea,” Charlie says, opening the door to let us all file in.

We get settled into a large corner booth and order a round of non-alcoholic drinks.

Lexi points to the television that is showing highlights of the game. “I can’t believe you missed a game for girls’ night,” she says to Murphy.

“It’s not like I’ve never missed a game, Lexi. I miss a lot of the games when I’m working. What do you think DVRs are for?”

“Do you really watch all of them?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Caden thinks I do, but no. I mostly fast-forward to the good parts. I pick out one highlight, something they might not cover on the news, and I tell him about it. It makes him feel important.”

“What is it about men and their need to be the center of the universe?” Mallory says.

“But your man actually is the center of the universe,” Skylar says to Mallory. “I mean, the Thad Stone?” She fans herself melodramatically.

Mallory’s husband is one of the movie stars I’ve worked on at the gym. He goes by his real name, Chad, when he’s not acting. I can’t believe he’s actually an A-list star. He’s so normal and down-to-earth.

“Not to sound too fan-girl or anything,” I say. “But what’s it like being married to one of the world’s hottest actors?”

“Probably the same as it is dating the world’s most eligible baseball player,” she says with a wink.

I roll my eyes. Sometimes I forget the truth of that statement. But only sometimes. Other times my stomach is in knots knowing that thousands of women want him. They want what I have. Well, what I kind of have.

“How do you handle it, Mallory? There are so many women. And Chad has to kiss them and stuff. I can’t imagine.”

She gives me a sympathetic smile. She knows what I’m asking. “It was hard at first. I didn’t trust the girls who threw themselves at him. I didn’t even trust some of the actresses he got paired with. But once I knew he loved me, it got easier. Because no matter how much I don’t trust the women, I trust Chad.”

“But how did you know you could trust him?”

“I just did.” She puts her hand on top of mine. “You’ll know when you know.”

“Look!” Lexi says, pointing to the TV. “They won. That’s fifteen in a row. They are setting up for a press conference.”

It’s late and the tavern is relatively quiet. Murphy asks the bartender if he could turn up the volume on the television.

We all watch as the manager of the Nighthawks talks about the winning streak. Then Cole Crawford talks about being the most winning pitcher on the team right now. My eyes fall to the table. I know that must kill Brady.

Murphy touches my arm in empathy.

Cole gets asked about Brady and he waves someone up to the mic. “Why not let him speak for himself?” he asks, surrendering his chair to Brady.

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