Author: Jaci Burton


When he gave her a look, she added, “With Tara.”


“Fine. Whatever you want.” He grabbed his helmet and headed off to the shower, wondering when his life had gotten so damn complicated. He had enough to worry about with his first preseason game coming up this weekend. He used to ease into these games with the zeal of a kid—no worries. But since he turned thirty and the bloodthirsty wolves of youth and vigor had started hounding his heels, every step he took had to be a careful calculation, and this time he had to put it all on the field. Management told him he was on solid footing and he was still their franchise player, but he knew that didn’t mean shit if he got hurt or his performance this season didn’t rack up the numbers.


And then there was Tara. How could something that had started out so lighthearted and fun and had just been sex turn into something serious?


He stood in front of his locker to get dressed and wondered what the hell he was going to do about that. He didn’t do serious relationships. Hell, he didn’t do relationships with women. He dated them. He fucked them. He had fun with them. Then they went one way and he went another. His career—the love of his life—was football. Always had been, and he assumed it always would be. Oh, he figured he might settle down one of these days, after his football career was over and he had the time and attention to focus on a woman.


What he hadn’t expected was for Tara to come into his life and knock him back on his ass and turn his world upside down.


He wasn’t ready for a relationship and commitment yet. He had to focus on this season, and that meant everything else had to go away once the season started.


He pulled the shirt over his head and sat down on the bench to shove stuff in his gym bag, then dragged his fingers through his hair.


So what was he supposed to do about Tara? Dump her? Walk away and tell her the summer had been fun, but he was done now that the season was starting up? With the other women that had breezed in and out of his life, they’d known how it was going to be. Fun trips, fun photo ops, great sex, but when the season started, it was over. They knew it and he knew it, and they’d been fine with it, because they hadn’t wanted permanence any more than he had.


They’d known the score, they’d played the game, and both sides had won.


Yet on the field today he’d read the riot act to Elizabeth for suggesting he go to a movie premiere with another woman. He’d told Liz he wasn’t seeing anyone else, that Tara was the only woman in his life.


Shit.


Did he even know what the fuck he wanted?


He’d better figure it out before he led Tara on.


Or maybe he’d better figure out what she wanted. She might not want anything other than a summer with him. She was busy building her career. She had a kid to think about. It wasn’t like she was the sort of woman who was out there trying to land a husband. She was fiercely independent, protective of Nathan, and hadn’t wanted to get involved in his lifestyle in the first place. So it wasn’t like she was all in about becoming a permanent fixture in his life.


Did he want her in his life permanently?


He sat and laid his head in his hands. Jesus, he didn’t know. Could he handle that? He’d been chasing after her from the first night he met her, not even thinking about where it might lead. He’d operated on blind instinct. The chase had been fun because he’d never had to chase a woman before.


Now that the season was going to start, it was time to make some decisions, because it looked like his relationship with Tara was headed somewhere. His feelings for her were headed somewhere.


And he had no fucking idea how he felt about that or if he could even handle it. The thought of just walking away from her wasn’t acceptable. He wanted her in his life. But what did that mean, both for him and for her?


Christ. If he ever needed a drink, it was now. Alcohol had always been good for making him forget things he didn’t want to think about. And this was a great topic not to think about.


He grabbed his bag and fished for his keys, then pushed through the doors of the locker room, needing fresh air to clear his head. He hit the parking lot and sucked in a huge lungful of it, realizing he’d been breathing too hard, damn near hyperventilating. He popped the lock on his car, tossed his bag in back, and climbed in, forcing his breaths to calm before he started up the car.


Breathe. Settle. God, what was wrong with him? He had a great life, an amazing, successful career, an awesome woman who seemed to care a lot about him, and for the first time in years he was craving a drink.


What kind of motherfucking weak-willed asshole did that make him?


He had a lot of thinking to do. It was time to go home, change clothes, and take a long run before he did something stupid like stop at the nearest bar and get a drink.


MICK AND HIS BROTHER WEREN’T THE CLOSEST AS FAR as siblings went, but Gavin knew what he’d been through. He needed someone to talk to, and since Gavin was in town for a game, he figured this was a good time to take his brother out for a late-night meal.


They met at a bar overlooking the city. Mick walked in and surveyed the panoramic view of the Bay Bridge and downtown San Francisco before skirting his gaze to the bar. He located his brother, who was surrounded by three women. It figured.


As soon as Gavin spotted Mick, he signaled him over.


“Sorry, ladies,” Gavin said. “I have some business to do with my brother tonight.”


“Oh. My. God,” the tall blonde said. “It’s Mick Riley the football player.”


The brunette standing next to the blonde sized Mick up with a head-to-toe glance, then offered up a sexy smile that said she was all his for the taking. A couple months ago he might have been interested. Now ... not so much.


“See you later,” Gavin said, taking his beer and moving to the other end of the bar, much to the disappointment of all the women, who pouted and flounced off.


“Hearts are breaking,” Mick said.


“Yeah, yeah.” Gavin took a seat. “Didn’t figure you for the sight-seeing type, but the view is nice, both outside and inside the bar.”


“What? You don’t want me to take you down the world’s crookedest street?”


Gavin smirked. “I’ll pass.”


“Good game today.”


“I would have sent you tickets.”


Mick laughed. “I see you play plenty. Caught some of the game on TV, though. Nice homer.”


Gavin grinned and tipped the bottle of beer to his lips. “Thanks. Your hometown fans didn’t seem to care too much for it, since it was the winning run.”


“San Francisco will get you next time.”


“I wouldn’t bet on it.”


The hostess called them to their table, so they headed into the restaurant. Mick had asked for a booth with some privacy, so Casey had given them the small private room. After their waiter took their orders, he shut the door.


“We having a party here tonight? And if we are, please tell me those three gorgeous women we met in the bar earlier are somehow involved.”


Mick shook his head. “No, I just didn’t want to be overheard.”


“Oh, yeah?” Gavin laid his beer on the table and leaned forward. “If it’s illegal, immoral, and naked women are involved, I’m all in.”


“It’s kind of serious, Gavin.”


His smile died. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?


“A few things. I really didn’t know who to talk to about this stuff.”


“Look, I realize I’m full of shit most of the time, Mick, but you know if you ever need me, I’m here to listen. No judgment.”


And that’s what he needed to hear. “It’s a lot of things. Tara and me, Liz, football.”


Gavin leaned back. “Start talkin’. You have me all night.”


Mick inhaled and blew out a breath. “I told Tara I was an alcoholic.”


Gavin’s eyebrows rose. “Really. So you trust her that much?”


“I do. Something happened with Nathan, and I wanted to show her, and him, what could happen if a kid got too involved with alcohol.”


Gavin leaned forward. “So wait. The kid knows, too?”


“Yeah. I took him to a meeting with me.”


“Jesus, Gavin. I can maybe understand you telling Tara. But the kid? You know how volatile they are. What if he spills? You’ve taken a lot of care to keep your secret out of the hands of the media.”


“I know. I don’t think Nathan will say anything. He understands it’s important to me to keep it a secret.”


Gavin snorted and took a long pull of his beer. “Yeah. Best intentions and all that. What if you dump his mother or hurt her in some way? You know the first thing he’s going to do is spread the word across the Internet that you’re a drunk.”


Mick shrugged. “I took the gamble. Now I have to trust them both.”


“Well, that’s your risk to take, I guess. Me, I don’t trust anybody. All my skeletons stay in the closet where they belong.”


“Hell, Gavin, you publicize all your skeletons. You’re the bad boy of baseball, and you love it that way. That’s why women flock to you like you’ve been sprayed with some kind of goddamned aphrodisiac.”


Gavin waggled his eyebrows. “What can I say? I’m irresistible.”


“Don’t make me sick before dinner, okay?”


“Hey, you’re the one who’s gone all one woman, so don’t blame me if you’re jealous.”


Mick rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe I invited you to dinner.”


“You can read all about me in the magazines, brother. And remember the good times you used to have.” Gavin grabbed his bottle and leaned back in his chair.


Mick laughed and shook his head. This was just what he needed. The playful teasing of his brother to help lighten his mood and lift some of the seriousness.


“Okay, so tell me what else, besides you vomiting up all your secrets to Tara and her kid. So things are serious between you two?”


“I don’t know. I think so. I might want them to be. I thought that’s where things were going.”


“But she pulled back?”


“No.”


“You pulled back?”


“No.”


Gavin laughed. “What the fuck, man? What’s going on then? Sounds like it’s all goin’ good. What’s the problem?”


“I don’t know.” He leaned forward, clasped his hands together. “I’m scared, Gavin. What if I can’t do this?”


“You’re asking me about love and relationships? Maybe you should talk to Mom about that. I’ve never had a real relationship with a woman in my entire life. I don’t do girlfriends. You’re way ahead of the game as far as women and the commitment thing.”


Mick leaned back in his chair. “It’s just that I don’t know if I’m good long-term material. And then with the new season starting, I’m worried about my career.”


Gavin lifted his beer. “Aren’t we all. But I thought you were locked in to a contract?”


“I am. But that’s only as good as the last season and the current season. They’ve drafted a young hotshot with a rocket for an arm. And the kid they brought in a year ago is hungry.”


“So? That keeps you on your toes. And a team always has to have backup. I face the same thing in baseball. The farm clubs have kick-ass first basemen with stellar averages just waiting for me to fuck up or pull an injury. In sports you’re up one day and down the next. You know there are no guarantees and you can’t ride the high forever. At least you have the smarts and the business sense for backup when you’re done with the game, so you’re ahead of me on that.”


“If you’d paid attention in school, you’d have had the same thing.”


Gavin took a long pull of his beer. “Yeah, yeah. Now you sound like Mom.”

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