Ginger Scott has a brand new enemies-to-lovers, sports romance coming this week, and I get to share with you the entire first chapter.
I should say no to the shot of tequila Kiki is swaying in front of me in her open palm. Is she swaying it? Or do I think it’s swaying.
See. I should say no.
“I’m beyond buzzed, Keeks. I should go home and sleep this whole entire asshole-of-a-day off.” I’m taking the shot from her hand as I say these words. The liquid is down my throat already. I’ve blown passed buzzed. Hello, bathroom floor when I get home.
“When men we waste our time on propose to other women with the same damn ring they gave us, we’re allowed to get shit-faced.” She’s right. I’ve earned a night out. And I earned that drink. And the four that came before it.
Before I have a chance to slip back into my self-pity party, I plop the shot glass down on the tabletop and take my best friend’s hand, leading her out to the dance floor that has distracted me quite nicely for most of the night. McGill’s is a college pub with everything. Dance music, check. Frat boys who like to dance, check. Big screens on every wall with various games on constant stream, triple check. It’s where I took my first legal drink, and it’s where my friends and I solve all of our problems. Unfortunately, it’s also the official bar for the Arizona Monsoon triple-A baseball team. And that fucker my friend mentioned before, the one who wasted my time and proposed to another girl with the ring he gave to me less than a year ago? Yeah, his shit is all over this bar. Corbin Forsythe is a goddamned Monsoon legend. And he’ll be pro-ball royalty one day. Only, someone else will be his queen.
I know my best friend is trying to push me to the other side of moved on by dragging me out tonight, and the last few times we’ve been here, I haven’t felt the pangs of heartbreak from seeing his signed jersey and the wall dedicated to his various newspaper and magazine clippings. I ripped the photo of him and me celebrating the day he got called up from the wall two months ago, so I don’t have to stare at that anymore. But those TVs on the wall are incessant tonight, and apparently Corbin Forsythe proposing to Meghan-nobody after his start for Texas last night is still big news. Probably because he did it seconds after the Gatorade was dumped on his head. While he was still on the field and talking to the post-game reporter about throwing a complete game shutout. On national TV.
“I hope that ring turns her finger green,” Kiki shouts in my ear. The music is thumping in here, yet somehow I can still hear the proposal news blaring from the TV across the bar.
I twist my lips into a soured pucker.
“It’s a really nice ring. Remember? I’ve seen it,” I say, squeezing my left hand into a ball at my hip, still feeling the burn of where it was wrapped around my finger for an entire month.
“What an asshole. Who asks for their proposal ring back?” my friend says, waving away the story on repeat on the TV before blowing up at the loose hairs sticking to her glistening forehead.
A few people dancing near us glance my way, and whether it’s real or imagined, the sense that they’re staring at me with pity for being the jilted ex instantly chips away at the thin emotional armor I’ve worked really hard to construct.
“Hey, you know what? I should go. That last shot is hitting me hard.” That’s not a lie, either. My feet are starting to feel like bricks and my arms are tingling. I begin shuffling my way backward to the bar when Kiki reaches forward and grabs the strap of my small crossbody purse.
“Keeks, I’m tired. I really want to go home,” I plead.
“Liar,” she says through pursed lips. Her hands have moved to my small bag and she’s unzipping it as she stares me down. I drop my gaze to her grip and force a yawn.
“Seriously, I am truly tired.” Sure, I’m also a lot of other things—emotional, embarrassed, angry, jealous—but tired definitely factors in. My spine straightens when Kiki tugs on my bag again, and my eyes snap to hers.
“Sutter, I know you. You aren’t going home from here. Admit it.” Kiki’s knowing, hard glare breaks through even the foggiest of drunk goggles. My attempt to dispute her claim lasts an entire two seconds before I exhale and let my shoulders slump.
“That’s not fair. Billy’s place is closer by like, uh, several miles. He’s my brother, and he doesn’t care when I crash there.”
“One, he does care,” my best friend says as she reaches into my purse and pulls out my phone.
“Pffft, he cares when I come over to talk about him. But he doesn’t care when I just come over to sleep.” Drunk as I am, even I don’t believe the bullshit coming out of my mouth. Since I moved out six months ago, my brother has relished the idea of owning a bachelor pad. I’ve barged in on a few of his dates with my own late-night breakdowns, and while he tolerates me in the moment, his cold shoulder for the following week gets the point across.
“Sutter, you haven’t given in to the urge to wallow in your old bed in a month. Don’t let today set you back.”
My old bed. Our old bed. I lived in that room with Corbin. I made plans in that room, with Corbin. I believed in him—in that room. I know it’s self-inflicted emotional torture every time I step foot in there, but there’s a tiny element that still feels good too. That’s something a heroin addict would say.
Kiki palms my phone and lifts a single brow before looking down and tapping on the screen. She slips it back inside my purse seconds later, zipping my bag closed. Placing her palms on my bare shoulders, she squares me with her and forces me to look her in the eyes. “Your ride will be here in six minutes. And it will take you to your apartment. The one you were so excited to live in by yourself. The one that is super inconvenient for me, but away from everything you found triggering. And you’ll tuck yourself in and wake up with a nasty headache in the morning. But . . . you won’t have broken your streak.”
“What streak?” I question, gravity pulling my body down a little more than it did a minute ago. I’m not sure if that’s the tequila or the lecture.
“The streak of not giving Corbin space in your heart and head that he doesn’t deserve.” She holds me steady and doesn’t let go until I nod. I sell it with a salute just to make her happy, then I let her march me out the door to the curb. After a few minutes, the black Camry driven by a woman named Natalie pulls up to take me away, just like the ride share app said she would.
“You can do this,” Kiki says to me as I fall back into the back seat and swivel my legs into the car.
“I can do this,” I echo.
I’m a liar. I’m totally not doing this. But I can pretend for Kiki. I don’t need to drag her down with me. She should enjoy her Friday night, and dance with the cute guy that kept trying to get her attention away from me. She’s put her own good times aside for me too many times lately.
I wait until Natalie takes me a full block away from McGill’s when I clutch my bag against my chest and utter “shit!” It’s a lame plan but it’s the best I could do with little notice.
“Everything alright?” Natalie glances over her right shoulder.
“Yeah, I just realized my friend has my credit card. You know what? I’ll get out here. I’m sure I can catch her,” I say, my hand already on the door handle.
“Do you want me to wait?”
“Nah, it’s ok. It might take me a little while, and I can just request another ride for later. You know how it is when you start talking to your friends.”
Before she has a chance to counter me and offer to wait as long as it takes, I pull a twenty from my purse and toss it into the front seat. “For your trouble,” I say before exiting the car and walking back toward the bar.
I spend the next several seconds in paranoid freak mode, glancing over my shoulder until rideshare Natalie pulls away and finally turns a corner. The second she does, I do a one-eighty and slog my way to my brother’s apartment five blocks away.
The scent of freshly watered grass cuts through the desert air, cooling it in the breeze and letting me know that I’m almost to the building’s entrance. I don’t have to check the time to know it’s 11:30, when the outfield sprinklers cycle through. The smell is enough of a reminder tonight. I don’t give in and look across the street to the gates of the Monsoon Ballpark. I don’t need to. I have that view memorized. Afterall, it was my view for five years of college and grad school. Tucson was my home well before college, too. We moved here from Washington when I was five and Billy was eight. Back then, being the kid of the Monsoon head coach was epically cool. Billy and I coveted this apartment building since we were in grade school, and when Billy got the chance to rent a unit here as a college student, I begged him to let me stay during the weekends while I was in high school. He tolerated me for a few weekends, but the older we got, the closer we grew. He was between roommates when it came time for me to start at the university, so I moved in.
Corbin was only supposed to do a stint on our couch while he waited for a host family to come through. But after a few weeks, the only move he made was from the couch to my bed. He stayed there for two years—two seasons. Then he got the call. The one every ballplayer waits for. He said he’d come back during his breaks, and I could come stay with him on mine until I finished my masters. Then we’d set a date. He came back only once, and it was to take back his ring—I always thought it was my ring.
Since that day, this building and its stupid, amazing view has lost its appeal. I still have a key, though. My brother knows better than to ask for it back. As much as I hate this place for all of its reminders, I’m not ready to quit on it. Sometimes, I need to get my fix. To slip under the comforter that my brother has yet to throw away, to smell the sheets and pillows that still make up my old bed. I’m a pathetic junkie.
I punch the code for the building’s side door and teeter my way down the hallway past the laundry room and maintenance office to the charming art-deco-styled elevator. My thumb presses the green button and I hold it there for a few extra seconds to make sure it reads my request. As much as I love the quirks of this building, I don’t miss the way shit’s always breaking. If the ground weren’t wobbling so much, I’d take the stairs to the third floor. But risking getting stuck in the elevator for the night is a better option than potentially rolling down concrete steps end over end.
When the door dings and slides open, my mouth stretches into a sloppy smile. I’m almost home. Well, not home home, but in a place where I can drown in my feelings until I pass out. I’ll set my alarm and trot my way out of here before Billy wakes up. It will be as if I was never here. No witnesses.
The elevator door begins to close when a hand grabs one side and shoves it back open.
“You’re gonna break it,” I mumble, laughing at the sound of my voice. I sound like my mom. Layers of blonde hair zigzag across my face, and the bangs I’ve been trying to grow out have slipped free of the pin I had them secured under earlier this evening. I spit out the strands sticking to my lips and rub my hand over my face with the vigor one uses to clean a window. And that’s when I see the body attached to the arm that cut my elevator ride short.
Standing at least six inches taller than me with dark hair tucked under a State ballcap and blue eyes that somehow make this seventy-year-old elevator feel fancy, my interloper stares down at me with an annoyed expression. Plump, kissable lips in a straight line. Why isn’t he smiling? Am I smiling?
Uh, you interrupted my elevator ride, dude.
“What floor?” His mouth pulls in on one side as he blinks at me.
My god does he smell delicious. Too bad every other clue points to ballplayer.
“Three,” I respond.
He taps the button with his knuckle then backs toward the opposite side of the elevator, leaning against the wall before pulling his phone from the pocket of his gray joggers. His white t-shirt is damp from sweat, and the ends of his hair curl around the back of his hat. He’s been at the gym—probably the Monsoon gym. Typical. This building is full of guys trying to prove they’re special by working out late at night.
My gaze drops to his shoes, and I chuckle lightly when I see they’re New Balance turfs. Of course they are. I bet he’s a pitcher.
When the elevator dings, I run my hands through my hair to clear my face and exit to the right. It takes me a few seconds to realize that Mr. New Balance has gotten off behind me. He never pushed another button. My eyes dart from my right periphery to my left, and my bat-like hearing tunes in to his gait. He’s keeping up with me step-for-step, and the farther down the hallway I go, the more my chest tightens against the firing beats of my heart. I don’t have a lot at my disposal—tank top, jeans and a cotton shirt tied around my waist. My purse isn’t even very heavy, so I’m not sure swinging it at him would do any good in fending him off.
As my brother’s apartment door comes into view, though, I remember the small bottle of dry shampoo spray I wedged into my bag at the last minute. I unzip my purse and plunge my hand in with a few steps to go and before I reach the apartment door, I spin on my heels, pop the cap from the spray and blast my follower’s eyes.
“What the fu—!” He takes a few strides back and bends forward, quickly bringing the bottom of his shirt up to his face and holding the cotton against his eyes.
I pound on the door and fumble for my phone, dropping it in my manic state.
“Shit!” I turn to the door and begin to beat it with both fists. “Billy! Let me in! Help! Billy!”
In seconds, my brother flings the door open, and I fall forward into his chest.
“Sutter, what are you doing here?” My brother’s large palm covers my shoulder, and he steadies me as he bends down to look me in my crazed, drunken, panicked eyes. His gaze flits up a second later, just as I hear my attacker groan his way into the doorway.
“Oh, shit,” Billy says, moving his hand from my shoulder to the bridge of his nose.
“Oh, shit? I think you mean, quick Sutter, get inside and call the police,” I say, moving myself so I’m now standing behind my brother’s large frame. He seems completely fine with the fact that Mr. New Balance is hobbling into the apartment and closing the door behind him, though.
“Sutter, I was going to tell you . . .” Billy begins.
“This is Sutter?” the man says, gesturing toward me with one hand while still holding his shirt up to his face with his other. He puffs out a short laugh that I’m pretty sure wasn’t meant to be nice then meanders into the kitchen where he bends over the sink and begins to splash water into his eyes.
“Billy? How does he know my name?” I round my brother again, tugging at his T-shirt so he turns to face me.
His palm runs over his scruffy chin, and he glances over his shoulder to the sink then back to me, his hand still covering his mouth as he speaks.
“I had to take on a roommate to afford the rent. And I didn’t think you were going to break your lease and move back anytime soon, so I—”
“Billy?” I swallow down the tequila-tinged bile threatening the back of my throat.
“Don’t say my name like that,” he says.
“Like . . . like mom does.”
“Billy, mom says your name like that when she’s disappointed in you. And I think I maybe have a good reason to be disappointed.” I step to the side to fully take in the new roommate. He’s finished washing out his eyes, and he’s taken his shirt off completely to use it as a towel. He’s practically carved from marble, and before I made his eyes bloodshot orbs of misery, they were pretty phenomenal too.
“Before you say it, yes,” my brother says. I snap my gaze back to him, ignoring the one locked on me from the other side of the kitchen counter.
“He’s a ballplayer. You took in one of his boys?” That’s how we always referred to my dad’s players. Even Corbin was one of dad’s boys. I bet despite what happened between us, my dad still considers him as such.
My brother’s head cocks to one side and his shoulders shrug. His mouth draws in tight. I hold his stare for a few solid, awkward seconds, mostly because the adrenaline is beginning to wear off and the tequila is really beginning to work against me. Finally, the rest of if clicks.
“A pitcher? He’s a fucking pitcher?” I point toward the guy, my hand still clutching the now empty bottle of dry shampoo.
“Hey, I’m in the room by the way. Yeah, me . . . the fucking pitcher. And I’m not entirely against filing assault charges,” he says as he tosses his shirt on the counter and marches over to my brother and me. His hands on his hips, right where his waistband sits along a ridge of muscles on his super-toned stomach. Corbin was taller, but he was never built like this. He had a softness to his middle. Nothing soft going on here.
“Eyes up here,” he snaps, jolting me out of my ill-timed drool fest.
“I know where your eyes are!” I fire back, as if that’s any kind of defense.
He shifts his weight and chews at the inside of his mouth for a beat before smirking.
“Whatever. It’s late, and I’ve got a bullpen in the morning. I’m going to bed.” With a wave of his hand, he strides across the living room and into the bedroom that I considered my spare for as long as I needed it.
When the door slams shut behind him, I spin to face my brother again and push hard against his chest. Billy’s twice my size and doesn’t move an inch.
“Look, Sutter. I didn’t go out and find some replacement for Corbin to move in here and shove it in your face. I’ve been struggling to make the rent on my own for a few months, and dad said Jensen was really stuck because his host family bailed. I was going to tell you in the morning, I swear.”
I nod as I try to process the facts as he says them, and buzzed as I am, I’m not too drunk to realize that Jensen has been living here for more than a day or two.
“So, is that a week after he moved in? Two?” I squint up at him and drop my fist onto the center of his chest with a thud.
“He’s been here eight days. But I swear, I really was going to tell you tomorrow. I was working out how. I knew you’d get like this.”
“Like what?” I hold my palms out, a small part of me realizing how ridiculous and unfair I’m being but not loud enough to cut through my rock-solid self-righteous exterior.
“Upset, Sutter. I didn’t want you to be upset. More upset than you’ve been lately.” Billy’s shoulders tick up briefly with earnest defeat. His eyes round with that pleading look he always gets when he’s in trouble. He’s been making that face since we were kids, when I would tattle on him for not sharing or for skipping his homework. I was a brat sometimes.
Unable to maintain the eye contact because of, well, guilt, I shake my head and move toward the couch. I’m still sleeping here.
“What about my stuff?” I’ve purposely dragged my feet clearing my things out completely because it makes for a good excuse to stop by. It’s a thinly veiled excuse that both Billy and Kiki have called me out on. But like the rest of my pathetic behavior, it endured their criticism.
“I boxed it up. It’s in my closet,” he says. “You wanna get it now?”
I huff out a short laugh.
“No. But I’ll take a blanket. It’s been a long day and I might be a little drunk,” I say, moving toward the couch. I begin to pull the cushions away and Billy helps.
“A little drunk?” He scrunches his face up, mocking me.
I shake my head and shrug.
“You see the news today?” I know he has. My brother wakes up to Sports Center and he manages a golf resort, the kind of place that breeds locker room gossip. And the guy on track to be the youngest Cy Young award winner ever dropping down to a knee post-game is definitely good gossip.
“I saw,” Billy croaks. He doesn’t meet my gaze, instead pulling the remaining cushions away from the sofa and stretching out the pull-out bed on his own. I flop down face first the moment it’s level with the ground.
“So . . . the spare blankets are in, uh . . .” he chokes out.
I roll to my side and crack an eyelid open to see him point toward what used to be my room. Now Jensen’s room. I roll my eye and close the lid again.
“It’s fine,” I say, flailing my arm at him to leave.
“You can have mine—”
“I’m fine,” I cut him off. My brother still wears the same cologne he did in high school, and I can’t stand the smell. It stinks of teenager and gas stations.
“Alright, well . . .” He’s hovering because my brother is a fixer. It’s why he didn’t want to tell me he let another baseball player move in before he had a full story worked out to ease my mind. And he wants to fix me now, patch up my feelings and hurt. It’s sweet, and it’s why he’s my favorite human. But he can’t fix the shit I’ve got going on inside. He can’t make me believe in people that aren’t him or my best friend again.
“Goodnight, Billy. I’m sorry I’m a mess,” I say, my words muffled by the mattress my mouth is mashed up against.
“It’s okay,” he says, nudging my right foot that’s dangling from the end of the bed. I laugh into the mattress, loving his honesty. No “you aren’t a mess, Sutter.” Simply an “it’s okay.”
The sound of the light clicking off is followed by the creak and click of Billy’s bedroom door. I roll my face against the abrasive sheets that never get changed on this thing and push my hair from my face. It takes me longer than it should to toe my ankle boots from my feet, and even longer to unwrap the overshirt from my waist. I fashion it into a blanket to cover my shoulders and shift in the bed so I can stare at the door that used to be mine.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been staring at it when it opens. I shut my eyes in a panic, not wanting to get caught—not wanting to face him again after the way I acted. I suppose I’ve found a way to keep me away from this place for good.
With my eyes closed, my other senses take over. Jensen is trying to be quiet, but the wood floors in this building make sneaking around impossible. The floorboards creak under his weight but stop maybe a few steps from the side of the couch. He must have showered, because the dulled mix of cologne and sweat he emanated in the elevator has been replaced by a clean cucumber scent. The floor creaks again, his footsteps getting fainter as he heads back to his room. I crack my eyes open for a quick glance, but his room is dark. When his form fills the frame again, I snap my eyes closed and hold my breath. He’s not wearing a shirt, and I didn’t get to stare long enough to know if those were boxers or sweatpants. More creaking floors prelude a whoosh of air over my body as a blanket unfurls over me, covering me from shoulders to toes. The weight is nice, like a hug, and the fabric is warm, as if it’s already soaked in someone’s body heat. Jensen’s body.
He treads back to his room and closes the door, and I keep my eyes closed for nearly a minute, instead grasping the edge of the blanket in my hand and bringing it to my cheek. It’s soft, and small threads tickle my face. It smells like he did in the elevator. When I feel safe enough to look, I open my eyes and wait for them to adjust to the dark, taking in the hundreds of tiny squares stitched together and quilted with threads every few inches. Someone made this blanket, and I wonder if it’s the kind of treasure that stumbled into his possession or one that was made with love and affection, the kind my mom put into the things she made for Billy and me before her mind wouldn’t let her anymore.
Whoever it was made for, it was stitched with care. And it’s not the comforter I came here looking for tonight.