Braxton was there that night, the only one able to talk some sense into me before I broke shit beyond any sort of repair. He was insightful enough to know it was about the girl Gerard was talking about, but how he knows Denny is that girl is beyond me.

His voice carries enough to catch many people’s attention…including Denny’s.

Standing on the outskirts of the circle, mid-conversation with another one of the guy’s dates, she sends me a questioning look.

I avoid her stare, suddenly finding the bubbles in my glass very interesting as I take yet another sip.

I fucking hate champagne.

“Is that so?” Joe says, grinning. “You have one hell of a right hook.”

“I know,” I tell him, my voice conveying the message instead of my words. Back off, dude.

He gets it, loud and clear. Still grinning, he holds his hands up, backing away. “I’m tapping out. I saw the aftermath, and my face is way too pretty for that kind of reconstruction.”

I dare a peek over at my date.

She looks confused, and I already know I’m going to be hammered with questions on the ride home.

Goddammit, Joe.

A reporter corners a handful of the guys, leaving just me and Braxton off to the side. The press knows better than to bother me too much.

“How’d you know that was her?” I say out of the corner of my mouth, not looking at him, eyes still settled on Denny.

“Because of this right here.”

I glance at him, confused. “Let’s use some real fucking sentences, shall we?”

“That right there, that small flick of a glance my way—it’s one of about five times you’ve looked away from her all night. You might have introduced her as Bucky, whatever the hell that’s about, but it’s easy to see that’s Denny.”

He didn’t go to college with me and Gerard, so he has no idea who Denny is…how important she is to me. None of the others that night knew either, not even Gerard, which is probably why they were so freaked out when I pounced on him for bragging about what an easy bang Denny was.

I don’t try to act like I’m a good guy, don’t hide the fact that I can be a huge fucking ass and have been one in the past. I’ve made massive mistakes, ones that have changed relationships with people I love. I’ve bragged about my conquests. I’ve treated women like toys. I might be a king, but I never said I wasn’t an asshole too.

That said, I am trying to change, trying to be a better man, one worthy of love.

One worthy of Denver.

I just hope she can see that too.

Like I conjured her up, she appears in front of us.

Braxton steps toward her, holding his hand out. “Hi, I’m Braxton James. I play with this douchebag over here.”

“Oh, I know exactly who you are, Mr. James. You have one hell of a batting average.”

She takes his hand, and the strength of the champagne glass I’m holding is tested when he brushes his thumb over the back of hers in a not strictly friendly way.

Fucker.

“I’m Denver, or Denny to some, Bucky to this asshole, and I’m only here with him because he’s blackmailing me.”

“Blackmailing, huh?” Braxton looks my way. “Yeah, that sounds like him.”

I flip him off and he laughs.

“I’m going to head out. Party’s winding down and I’ve done my duty.” He turns back to Denny. “If you need any rescuing, you just let me know. I’ll take care of you.” He winks at her, knowing he’s getting under my skin, then pulls me into a bro hug, clapping me on the back just a little too hard. “Don’t fuck it up, dick.”

I push him away, glaring. “Get bent, Braxton.”

He just laughs then says, “Great meeting you, Denver. Have a good night.”

He disappears into the crowd and my jaw relaxes for the first time in several minutes.

We’re left alone, and I know Denny is dying to shoot many questions at me, questions I’m not ready to answer just yet.

I’m spared when a few other players stop by to bid us good night, and then it’s finally our turn to leave.

It’s a rule with the players. We have a roster, rotating who gets to leave charity events first and last, spacing out our departures by at least fifteen minutes.

Tonight, Denny and I are second to last, and for the first time in…well, ever, I want to stick around the stuffy gala just to avoid a car ride with a beautiful woman.

“It’s our turn,” I tell her, having explained the roster on the way here. “I’ll go grab our coats.”

She says good night to a few people she’s met this evening—because of course Denny, social butterfly that she is, would make friends at the gala—and I head to the coat check.

We’re quiet the entire time, even standing there in the cool night air not saying a word as the valet pulls my truck around.

He hands over the keys and I give him a well-deserved tip for not messing my baby up.

I’m surprised when I turn around to find Denny sitting in the driver’s seat.

I wrench open the door. “Fuck no. Move it, Bucky.”

“Not happening. You drank tonight. I’m driving.”

“I had a few sips of nasty champagne.”

She holds her fingers up. “You had three. That’s enough for me to not want you to drive. Get in and shut up.”

“It’s not even real alcohol!” I argue.

“A drink is a damn drink.”

I did knock down three glasses, but I’m not drunk. If I were to drive right now, I’d be fine.

Which is probably exactly what someone who shouldn’t be driving would say.

“Fine,” I grumble, climbing inside. “But I swear, if anything happens to my truck, I’ll kiss you.”

Her lips twitch at what we both know is a non-threat.

“Just for that, I promise to drive extra careful.”

She adjusts the seat, pushes in the brake, and hits the button to start the truck.

“I’ve never driven a truck before.”

“I can tell. You look stiff.”

She darts her eyes down to my lap. “You’ve looked stiff all night.”

“I’m sorry—did you just admit to looking at my dick all night?” I smirk at her. “My, my, Denny. I didn’t expect this from you.”

“You know what, on second thought, maybe I will wreck this truck, put us both out of our misery.”

“So you want me to kiss you?” I grin, knowing I have her trapped.

She groans. “I thought I told you to shut up, Shep.”

Laughing, I unbutton my jacket and settle into the seat, shuffling around the heels she’s thrown on the floor.

“Are you driving barefoot?”

“No.”

“Then where are your shoes?”

“On my feet. Remember that bag I tucked into the back? It has normal people clothes in it for when we stop and grab burgers.”

“I’m sorry, but for when we what?”

She lifts a shoulder. “Grab burgers. What part of that is hard to understand?”

“Did you have this planned?”

“Yes.”

“What the hell?”

“What?” she says innocently. “I know you hate stuffy social gatherings, so I figured you’d be drinking. I also know they most definitely do not serve delicious foods at those things and therefore knew I’d be starving by the time it was over, and I also knew I would one hundred percent be ready to get out of this dress for the hour-long drive home.”

She glances at me when I don’t say anything.

“What? I like to be prepared.”

“You just wanted to drive my truck.”

“Yes, this was all one big elaborate scheme to drive this sexy beast.”

I rub the dashboard. “She is sexy.”

“She?”

“Yes. Shelia. Isn’t she a beauty?”

“You’re so weird, Shep.”

“You’re secretly into it, Den.”

“Gag me.”

“I thought we established that I’m not into asphyxiation.”

“I’m about to gag you,” she threatens.

“So you are into it. I’ll make a note for later. Maybe it’s something we can try together.”

I’m not surprised when she reaches over and pinches my thigh…hard.

“Brat.”

“You’re secretly into it,” she fires back.

Eleven

Denver

“Would you fucking quit it?”

“What?” I say through a mouthful of food. Real attractive, Denny.

“Moaning. It’s annoying.”

I grin. “Bullshit. Annoying is code for getting you all hot and bothered.”

He rolls his eyes and takes another bite of his burger, which tells me my assessment is spot-on.

I stopped at the first burger joint I could find and forced Shep to buy me dinner as I changed into something much more comfortable.

My legs swing back and forth as we sit on the tailgate of his truck—because he wouldn’t let us eat in the cab—as we finish off the last of our meals.

I stuff my face with another handful of fries.

“Hot, Den. Real hot.”

I steal one of his fries just for his remark.

“Adding thief to your resume now, huh? Here.” He hands me his milkshake. “Might as well take this too.”

***

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