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Brady sits down confidently, looking uber-handsome in his all-too-clean jersey.

“How’s the arm?” a reporter asks.

He holds it up. “Getting stronger every day.”

“Any idea when you’ll be off the DL?”

“Soon,” he says.

My eyes are glued to the TV as he gets asked some more technical questions about his injury which he answers very diplomatically.

“Rumor has it, you’ve met a special lady and you’re off the market, Brady,” another reporter asks. “Care to comment on that?”

All eyes at the table turn to me. My heart races and my palms become sweaty.

“I don’t ever like to talk about my personal life, haven’t you learned that by now?”

Another reporter starts asking a question, but Brady cuts him off. “But in this case, I’m happy to confirm that the rumors are true. I do indeed have a girlfriend.” He pretends to look at his non-existent watch. “Well, as of midnight tonight, I will.”

“Midnight? Why midnight?” the reporter asks.

“Nothing. Next question,” Brady says.

“What’s the lucky girl’s name?”

“I meant next question about baseball,” he says. “Anyone? Okay, I guess I’m done. Jason, you want to talk?” He hands the mic over to the team owner.

I’m left with my chin in my lap. “Did he just …?”

“Yup,” Murphy says.

“Oh, my God.”

Several of my friends squeal in delight.

“What happens at midnight?” Baylor asks.

“At midnight, it becomes June 1st,” I tell her, still reeling over his declaration. “I gave him until then to prove to me he was done with other women. He said that would be the day he called me his girlfriend. I just didn’t think he would tell the whole world.”

“But he didn’t say your name,” Baylor says.

Murphy shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter. Everyone knows he’s taken now and that was his intention. Talk about grand gestures, Rylee. That man just put himself out there. The most private guy I know just gave up a very personal detail.”

I stare at the TV as the news anchor glosses over the story of the winning streak in favor of Brady’s uncharacteristic declaration. “There you have it, New York,” he says. “And if I were a betting man, I’d bet the quest to find out who this girl is will pale the quest to find out who shot J.R. back in the eighties.”

I drop my forehead and bang it on the table.

“What’s wrong?” Lexi says. “This is a good thing, isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” I say looking up at her. “Or maybe Brady has just made me enemy number one.”

Mallory, Murphy and Piper all try to comfort me, being that they have been in my position in one way or another.

“They’ll get over it soon enough,” Mallory says. “In two months, this will be old news.”

“Just remember who your friends are,” Piper says. “You can trust every woman at this table, but you can’t trust anyone else. People will try to break you up. Crazy women from his past may become jealous and try to sabotage your relationship. Don’t go jumping to conclusions and believe them.”

“You say that as if you speak from experience,” I say.

“Sadly, I do. Even after I trusted Mason, I still almost let someone rip us apart.”

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I say, tearing up at the gravity of my situation.

“Do you love him?” Murphy asks.

I stare at her. How could she possibly know?

“Do you?” she prods again.

I close my eyes and nod.

“I knew it,” she says. “And he loves you too. I’m just as sure of that, Rylee.”

“But … Stryker.” I look at her with sad eyes.

“Brady will come around,” she whispers to me. “Healing has a funny way of happening slowly and then all at once.”

Murphy stands up and puts money on the table. “Come on, you’re going to need your sleep. After all, at midnight you transform into a girlfriend.”

Suddenly I’m excited and terrified all at once. He’s talked about tomorrow so much I fear it will be a huge letdown when it actually happens. I fear I’ll be a letdown. He’s put me on a pedestal these past six months. How can I live up to that?

Maybe that’s not the problem. Maybe the problem is that I can never measure up to a ghost who was his first love. To the woman in the picture who will always be perfect in his eyes. And to the son who can never be replaced.

Chapter Thirty-six

I’ve been plucked, waxed, shaved, and perfumed in all the right places. I’ve changed my clothes three times. I’ve had a glass of wine to calm my nerves.

Still, I pace around the apartment until he arrives. I take a deep breath when he knocks on the door fifteen minutes early. I open it to see he’s still got his duffle bag.

“Sorry,” he says. “I know I’m early. I still have to hit the shower, but I wanted to bring Stryker his animal before he went to bed.”

I want to jump into his arms but my son is in the room behind me. And we don’t hug or kiss in front of Stryker. I don’t want to give him hopes of having a man in our lives until I’m sure about who that man will be.

Stryker runs over to stand next to me. He looks up at Brady. “Did you bring one?”

“Of course I did,” Brady replies, handing a stuffed eagle to my son.

I laugh. “You were right, Stryker.” I turn to Brady and explain, “We research every city you visit and guess which animal you’ll bring home.”

“Sounds like a lot of fun,” he says. “I have something for you, too. But you have to come upstairs to see it.”

I smile at the seductive look on his face. “I’ll bet you do,” I say.

Suddenly, my son surges forward and latches onto Brady’s leg. “Thank you, baseball man. I love it.”

It’s the first time Stryker has shown affection for him.

Brady stiffens and I try not to notice the intense pain that crosses his face when he leans down to ruffle Stryker’s hair. “You’re welcome, sport.”

“Baby, why don’t you go add him to your collection? Chloe will be here in a minute and you can show her.”

Stryker traipses off happily as Brady’s gaze follows.

“How about you go shower and I’ll be up in about fifteen minutes?” I ask.

“Sounds good,” he says, his eyes coming back to meet mine. Then he looks at me as if he’s seeing me for the first time tonight. “Holy crap, you look amazing, Ry.”

I wonder if he gets so nervous about seeing my son that he doesn’t even really see me sometimes.

“Thank you. Is there anything I can bring when I come up?”

“Just yourself. There is nothing else I need.”

He grabs his bag and I smile knowing what’s in store.

Chloe arrives and I assure her I’ll be home by eleven thirty as it’s a school night for her. I brush my teeth again and do one last check of my makeup before leaving.

When I arrive at 16F, Brady opens the door wearing a white linen shirt, a black tie and tan dress pants. His hair is just slightly damp and he smells heavenly.

“Wow,” I say.

“You didn’t think I could clean up, too?”

He traces the heart neckline of my little black dress, his fingers tantalizing me, his hands making promises of what’s to come.

He pulls me through the door and I look around the room to see it decorated with candles and flowers. There is champagne chilling in an ice bucket and canapés on the bar.

“You did all this in fifteen minutes?” I ask.

He laughs. “I had a little help. I had the caterer come early and set things up.”

“We’re eating in?”

“Rylee, I’ve waited two months for this day. Hell, I’ve waited six months for this day. I’m not going to drag it out any longer by having to sit through dinner at some stuffy restaurant.”

He grabs my hand and pulls me to him. “Now, am I going to get a proper hello from my girlfriend, or what?”

I smile at my new designation. But then his lips find mine and I lose all sense of who I am, who he is and where we are. He feels divine as his hard body presses against my soft one. His mouth explores my mouth and his tongue tangles with my tongue as we taste each other. He moans into me. I sigh into him. We kiss until we’re breathless. We kiss beyond that, needing each other more than we need air.

Our lips finally part and he presses his forehead to mine. “Now that was worth waiting for.”

We walk over to the bar and he pops the cork on the champagne. I eye the label on the bottle, impressed that he’s not trying to impress me.

He sees me peeking at it. “You expected Cristal?” he asks with a smirk.

I shrug. “Old habits die hard.”

He hands me a glass. “All of my old habits are dead, sweetheart, you can be sure of that.”

Sweetheart.

It’s the first time he’s ever used a term of endearment for me.

“I saw the press conference. I can’t believe you said what you did.”

“What, that I’ll be off the disabled list soon?”

I roll my eyes and he laughs.

“I know what you meant, Ry. I told you I was going to tell the world about us.”

“Well, I suppose I should thank you for not saying my name.”

“People will find out soon enough.”

“Women everywhere will hate me,” I say.

“They’ll move on as soon as they know I’m serious.”

“Are you? … Serious?”

He pulls me to him and wraps his arms around me. “As a heart attack.”

I put my glass on the bar. “What am I supposed to say when people find out?”

“Say whatever the hell you want, Rylee. Admit it. Deny it. You do what you’re comfortable with and I’ll back you up.”

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