Confetti stuck to every inch of me. It was even inside my shoes. I shook my hair as I scurried down the corridor to the locker room trying to get as much of the colorful strips of paper off me. Loud whooping sounds echoed down the hall and hit me square in the face as I walked through the door. So did the cold blast of a whole bottle’s worth of champagne.
I stopped short, blinking and wiping the fizzy mess away. I felt the liquid sliding down into my shirt, soaking my bra.
I squinted and glanced around but had zero clue who yelled that. Or who sprayed me for that matter.
We’d just won the championship so this was one of those moments where I had to let it all slide and just, you know, be in the moment.
A towel hit me in the head from somewhere. I gave a thumbs up and wiped as much champagne off as I could before squeezing my way through a sea of half naked, sweaty football players. I thought by now most of the team and coaches would be on their way to the after party to celebrate their big win.
My feet lifted off the floor with a jolt as air rushed from my lungs.
“We won, Victoria.” My body swung around in a circle. I had enough presence of mind to clutch onto the muscular arms that swept me into an aggressive, excited hug.
When I hit the ground again, I stared up into the smiling face of Cade Gallagher. His gray eyes glinted with the satisfied joy of a man who’d just overcome an impossible feat.
“That you did. How does if feel to be MVP? Again?” I smirked at the star quarterback.
“Fucking amazing,” he smiled.
“I was humble after the first six times. It’s lucky number seven and I’m allowed to be cocky.” He bent his six-foot-four frame down so his mouth was close my ear. “You should join me back at my suite so I can show you how cocky I can be.”
“You know the rules, Gallagher. No sleeping with the product.”
“The product? Is that all I am to you? And who said anything about sleeping? I will rock your world.”
A lopsided grin pulled at his lips as he sauntered over to his teammates to continue the celebration. I scanned the locker room for any sign of management but couldn’t find a soul. I had a sneaking suspicion I was the only responsible member of the organization still here. I grabbed my phone and sent a quick text to the owner’s assistant, asking where they were. It vibrated within seconds with a response.
10:53pm Hotel. Early flight in the morning. Press is still hanging out by the locker room. Get rid of them asap.
I shoved the phone back in my jeans pocket and looked around again. The guys finally started to disperse, heading toward a second set of doors on the opposite end of the locker room so they could avoid any reporters that might be hanging around.
Cade caught my eye and winked as I shoved open the double doors nearest to where we were standing. Sure enough, a decent sized group of journalists and photographers lingered in the hallway.
“Ms. Chase,” one of them said as he approached me. “Any chance we’ll get to talk to Gallagher or Coach Pruitt again tonight?”
No sooner had he asked the question, Cade popped his head through the doors.
“You guys want another word?” he grinned.
I shot him a warning glance and mouthed for him to get back inside the locker room.
“You know we do, Gallagher,” a reported yelled from the back.
Cade challenged my stare with one of his own and emerged from the locker room. The reporters and photographers gathered around him until he looked liked Julius goddam Caesar holding court.
Flashing his megawatt MVP smile, Cade held up his hands in modesty. “To be fair, this win wasn’t just about me.” He tossed me a smug grin. “The whole team contributed. But….” Cade paused, making eye contact with each and every one of the people in his impromptu crowd. “It sure does feel fucking spectacular to be a seven-time world champion and a seven-time MVP. Nobody else in this league can say that but me. And at the rate I’m going, nobody ever will.”
Placing his hands on his hips, Cade soaked in the adoration with a satisfied smile. I stifled an eye roll at how these grown men —some of them seasoned reporters— fawned over him.
Cade was America’s favorite son, the small town, pretty-boy footballer who came from nothing and dazzled his way into millions of homes every Sunday. It didn’t hurt that his first four years in the league were punctuated with back-to-back-to-back-to-back championships. Attention followed him like a golden ray of sunlight and most fans excused his lust for attention and adoration.
“Alright, guys, that’s enough.” I clapped my hands together and wedged myself in between them and my attention-whore quarterback. “We’ll see you all back at the stadium on Wednesday for our final media availability and then most likely at the parade on Thursday.”
I made no effort to hide my frustration while shoving Cade back in the locker room.
“What is wrong with you?” I hissed. “Do you enjoy making my job miserable?”
“You know better than anyone that’s what the people want. They could give two shits if I diplomatically praised our competition and said what a—” he made air quotes “— challenge it was to beat them. Yeah, they’re a tough team but Christ, they laid down out there in the second half.”
I massaged my temples and took several cleansing breaths. Some of the other players nearby feigned disinterest in our conversation and pretended to pack their duffle bags.
The adrenaline from the past two weeks was on its last leg and I could feel my body surrendering to exhaustion. “Just get your shit together so I can get out of this stadium and go home.”
Cade leaned close.
Here we go.
“You need to get laid, Chase. Unleash some of that tension. I can show you things you only fantasized about.”
“Does it include me whipping your ass with a jock strap?”
“Kinky. That can absolutely be arranged, Vicki.”
“Not with you it can’t,” I groused. “And stop calling me ‘Vicki.’ You might be the anointed one but right now I outrank you in this locker room for fuck’s sake.”
He smirked. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“Daily.” I shook my head and chuckled as he walked away. Cade was a piece of work but he’s harmless. We’ve bantered like this for most of the ten years I’ve worked with the team. And I know he’s trying to keep my spirits high since everything went to hell with—.
Yeah, we’re not going there.
I spun on my heel and went back into the hallway. It was empty except for a handful of stadium security guards and —oh no.
He shouldn’t be here.
My sneakers squeaked on the floor when I moved towards him.
He turned slowly. My breath caught when his ice blue eyes locked with mine.
“Victoria.” The sexy, raspy voice that caressed my name sent a shiver down my spine. A dimple appeared when he smiled at me.
He walked toward me in strides filled with purpose and confidence. I knew that walk. I’d seen it countless times in my bedroom, in his bedroom, in hallways like this.
“What do you want, Xavier?” I hoped the words didn’t sound as strained and choked as they felt coming out of my mouth.
Stopping a few feet in front of me, he ran a thumb across his lips. A silver ring glinted in the fluorescent hallway lights. The sight of the ring nearly winded me.
His full lips lifted in an easy, familiar smile. “Thought I’d celebrate with my teammates.”
“They’re not your teammates anymore. Who are you —“ I stopped short, staring at the lanyard with an all access pass around his neck. “Where did you get that?”
“Does it matter?”
Something about the way he said that sent a tingle down my spine. I looked him up and down, absorbing as much detail as I could. Not that I needed to. His every feature was seared into my consciousness. The wavy brown hair tousled to a fault, the piercing ice blue eyes, the hint of a tattoo peeking up from the neckline of his t-shirt.
My throat tensed, swallowing back against deep regret and intense hurt. “Yeah, it does. I’m not about to get fired over you.”
His expression faltered. “Bennet. I was actually hoping to catch him before he took off for the post-game celebration.”
I swore under my breath. Bennet Logan was the owner’s son and Xavier’s only friend left in this organization.
“Guess I’ll catch him at the club for a beverage or two.” He smirked, raking his eyes up and down my body. “Or did all the fun drinks end up on you?”
“Still an asshole,” I muttered.
He grinned, the dimple deepening. “Still beautiful.”
I folded my arms across my chest and planted my feet firmly on the concrete floor. “I was sprayed with a bottle of champagne. It’s a side effect of winning. You do remember what that is, right?”
“And you do like winning, don’t you.” His hooded gaze fixed on me. It was almost enough for me lose what shred of control I had left. I squeezed my fingertips into my arms, fully aware that my nails were digging into my skin.
We stood in silence staring at one another. Not comfortable silence. Far from it to be honest. We were both too stubborn to back down. But he always had an edge over me. And he knew it.
Now that he was closer I couldn’t help myself and studied his face and those perfectly imperfect features that I’d traced with my fingers on so many mornings, afternoons and evenings. The arch of his eyebrows, the gentle slope of his nose, the rugged angle of his jaw. The tiny scar above his left eye. And that mouth. It was made for promises and sin, and not necessarily in that order.
“Xavier.” I breathed his name out without warning and in an instant I saw the cool ease that he’d wrapped around himself chip away. His eyes darkened, his lips parted. We were standing even closer, unaware of how the space between us kept shrinking. The adam’s apple worked in his throat as he swallowed. And then I felt the cool, calming metal of that ring on my skin when he reached out and placed his hand on my arm.
He stared at me. Through me.
The locker room door burst open as Cade strutted out. He looked from me to Xavier.
“Am I interrupting something?”
I shrugged away from Xavier’s hand, regretting the loss of its warmth immediately.
“This piece of shit bothering you?” The muscles in Cade’s jaw twitched.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
Xavier cleared his throat, resting a steady, non-flinching gaze on Cade. “Not that it’s any of your business Gallagher, but I’m here for Bennet.”
“He’s gone already, bro. Nice try though.”
I eyed the two of them. Former college roommates. Former teammates. Former best friends. It seemed everything involving Xavier was punctuated with ‘former’ these days.
Cade towered over Xavier by almost three inches but I knew by Xavier’s stance that he was not intimidated. His ice blue eyes darkened when Cade gently put his arm around my shoulders.
“Locker room’s just about empty, V. Need a lift to the party?”
“I need to go back to the hotel first and clean up.”
Cade grinned and stared at my champagne soaked clothes. “You look amazing to me. I’m digging the wet shirt.”
Hot jealousy and fierce possessiveness shot from Xavier’s unwavering stare. His body stilled as he moved his eyes over the arm that draped lazily around me. My shoulders tensed. He had no right to react this way. He gave up that right when he let me walk out of his life.
“Just go, Cade. I have to grab my things and—” I paused, locking eyes with Xavier. “I have to make sure Mr. Maddox finds his way out. Go. I’ll be at the party before you know it.”
“Have it your way. I’ll see you at the club.”
The star quarterback leveled another hard stare at his former wide receiver before giving me a hug and walking toward the exit.
Xavier flexed his hands, clenching and unclenching them. His astute eyes studied me once more. “So you two wasted no time getting together, I see. What are you? His retirement bonus? You do realize he has zero class.”
The statement hung thick and heavy in the air. Xavier could slice and dice a person’s soul with just a few pointed words.
Got together? Retirement bonus?
I’m not together with anyone.
I haven’t dated anyone since you.
The words readied themselves at the tip of my tongue. I wanted to shout them at him but I didn’t. I couldn’t. In the time since our world broke apart, since my heart splintered and evaporated, I haven’t met anyone who filled the gaps and holes in my soul like he did.
Xavier’s chin lifted slightly, as though he could read my thoughts. He always had that uncanny ability to know what I was thinking just by the expression on my face. He stopped flexing his hands.
“I’ll give you a ride to the hotel so you can get cleaned up and then take you to the party.”
“That’s not necessary,” I said. “Thank you, though.”
I felt the thick electricity building between us again.
“I, um, I have to grab my stuff.” The second I walked back into the locker room I was able to breathe. Standing so close to Xavier was suffocating. And now that he wasn’t near me, all I wanted was to be close to him. Touch him. Slide my fingers along every inch of him and pretend it all wasn’t a horrible nightmare.
But it was real, raw and devastating. The sleepless nights. The long, numbing days. And it was all on repeat, over and over and over.
The smell of stale champagne and sweaty athletes shook any further thoughts from my brain. I grabbed my bags and went back to the hallway.
He was still there. I opened my mouth to say something, then stopped.
Xavier stood with his head tilted to the side looking down at his phone. I examined his face, his hair, his lean body. He raked his fingers through his hair, pulling at a few pieces in front before rubbing his ring-clad thumb across his lips. I nearly broke open from the aching pull that had been building deep inside me the minute I found him in the hallway. Some men are handsome in a safe way. Not Xavier Bradley Maddox. He was handsome in a way that was too profound, too mesmerizing.
A security guard managed to catch my attention and motioned toward the exit. I nodded at him and cleared my throat.
“We really do have to leave now.”
Xavier looked up, wet his lips and pinned me with a heated gaze. “I got in touch with Bennett. He’s expecting me at the party shortly.”
“Do you really think it’s a good idea for you to even be there? You didn’t exactly leave on the best terms.”
Moving closer with slow purpose, he stopped in front of me. I inhaled sharply. He reached up, pushing my damp hair off my shoulder. The cold metal of the ring on his thumb contrasted greatly with my heated skin as he traced along my collarbone.
“Come find me when you get there.”
“You know how I feel about ‘maybe.’ I want to see you. I have— There’s something I need to tell you.”
My temper flared. “Do you? And you expect me to wait? Tell me now or not at all.”
His fingers circled my wrist, and oh God, the smooth metal of his ring rested on my pulse. “I expect nothing from you except what you are willing to give me. You know that.” His mouth hovered next to my ear. “And there was a time when you would give me everything.”
He punctuated his words with a firm squeeze of my wrist. The sensation stirred up memories that I worked so hard to suppress.
“Don’t deny me this, Victoria. Please.”
I looked up at him in a heady fog, trying like hell to regain some composure. But this is how he always affected me. How he always would affect me, no matter how long we’ve been apart, no matter the extent of our heartache. It was a double-edged sword that I pulled from a stone long ago and would never be able to set down.
A wicked gleam brightened his eyes. He slipped two fingers under the edge of my shirt, pinched them together and pulled them out. “You are covered in this shit.”
I noticed two long strips of confetti between his fingers as he waved them in front of my face.
“Yeah, well,” I snatched them from his hand and tossed them to the floor, “another side effect of winning.”
He chuckled, the sound reaching the depths of my soul and filling me with something I hadn’t felt in ages. And then the warmth was gone. He seemed skittish, like an untamed thoroughbred that was confined to a stall. The pained expression on his face was too much for me take.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m leaving. For good this time. You won’t see me again, baby girl.”