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Is it ever too late to leave the friend zone?

Hi, my name
is Bree Camden, and I’m hopelessly in love with my best friend and star
quarterback Nathan Donelson (as is half of America, judging by the
tabloids and how much the guy dates). The first step is admitting,
right? Except I can never admit it to him because he clearly doesn’t see
me that way, and the last thing I want is for things to get weird
between us.

Nothing but good old-fashioned,
no-touching-the-sexiest-man-alive, platonic friendship for us!
Everything is exactly how I like it! Yes. Good. (I’m not crying, I’m
just peeling an onion.)

Our friendship is going swimmingly until I
accidentally spill my beans to a reporter after too much tequila, and
now the world seems to think Nathan and I belong together. Oh, and did I
mention we have to date publicly for three weeks until after the Super
Bowl because we signed a contract with...oops, forgot I can’t tell
anyone about that!

Bottom line is, now my best friend is smudging
all the lines and acting very un-platonic, and I’m just trying to keep
my body from bursting into flames every time he touches me. How am I
going to make it through multiple weeks of fake dating Nathan without
anything changing between us? Especially when it almost-sorta-kinda
seems like he’s fighting for a completely different outcome?

Send help.
XO Bree










Year:
2021
Language:
english
Pages:
306
ISBN:
B095BSDWZK
File:
EPUB, 681 KB
Download (epub, 681 KB)

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5 comments
 
key
thank you for sharing omg
17 August 2021 (12:02) 
oumaïma
We’ve been robbed guys?
But still love this book, I WANT A NATHAN??‍♀️
30 September 2021 (19:49) 
Cul girl
It's a good book. I freaking loooooooooved it!!!!!!!
20 October 2021 (22:16) 
ccooonalc
i don’t understand the hype over this book. The whole time I felt like I was stuck in a wattpad story.. sure Nathan and Bree were cute but the story was pretty off
04 November 2021 (15:59) 
duck
Dgvrbjdidjsjangstdhfnfnjfkdms. THE PLOT!?!?
02 December 2021 (04:51) 

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



* * *



The Cheat Sheet © 2021 by Sarah Adams



* * *



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of quotations in a book review.

First edition August 2021



* * *



Cover design by Sarah Adams

Editing by C. Marie

Proofreading: Julia Griffis - The Romance Bibliophile

WWW.AuthorSarahAdams.com





Contents




Sensitivity Note





Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10



Chapter 11



Chapter 12



Chapter 13



Chapter 14



Chapter 15



Chapter 16



Chapter 17



Chapter 18



Chapter 19



Chapter 20



Chapter 21



Chapter 22



Chapter 23



Chapter 24



Chapter 25



Chapter 26



Chapter 27



Chapter 28



Chapter 29



Chapter 30



Chapter 31



Chapter 32



Epilogue





Dear Reader



Also by Sarah Adams



About the Author





Sensitivity Note





*DO NOT READ IF YOU WISH TO AVOID SPOILERS*



* * *



Readers please be advised that on-page panic attacks are portrayed. As someone who experiences anxiety and panic attacks, I hope that I have given this subject matter the care and sensitivity it deserves.





To my best friend, Chris. Thanks for always taking jokes way too far with me, and giving me so much material for my books.

Also, you’re super hot. So that’s awesome too.





Cheat Sheet:





A piece of paper the quarterback has on his wristband to easily reference plays to be called.





* * *





Balancing two cups of burning hot coffee and a box of donuts while trying to unlock a front door is not easy. But because I’m the best friend a person could ever ask for—which I will remind Nathan of as soon as I make it inside his apartment—; I manage it.

I hiss when I turn the lock and a splash of coffee darts out onto my wrist through the little hole in the lid. I have fair skin, so there’s a one million percent chance it’s going to leave an angry red mark.

The moment I step inside Nathan’s apartment (which really should not be called an apartment because it’s the size of five large apartments smooshed together), the familiar clean and crisp scent of him knocks into me like a bus. I know this smell so well I think I could follow it like a bloodhound if he ever goes missing.

Using the heel of my tennis shoe, I slam the front door shut with enough gusto to warn Nathan that I’m on the premises. ATTENTION ALL SEXY QUARTERBACKS! COVER YOUR GOODS! A GREEDY-EYED WOMAN IS IN THE HOUSE!

A high-pitched yelp sounds from the kitchen, and I immediately frown. Peeking around the corner, I find a woman wearing a light pink shorts-and-camisole sleep set pressed into the far corner of the wraparound white marble kitchen counter. She’s clutching a butcher knife to her chest. We’re separated by a massive island, but from the way her eyes are bugging out, you’d think I was holding matching cutlery against the jugular vein in her neck.

“DON’T COME ANY CLOSER!” she screeches, and I immediately roll my eyes, because why does she have to be so screechy? She sounds like a clothespin is pinching the bridge of her nose and she has recently inhaled a whole balloon full of helium.

I would raise my hands in the air so I don’t get knifed to death, but I’m sort of loaded down with breakfast goods—goods for me and Nathan, not Miss Screechy. This isn’t my first rodeo with one of Nathan’s girlfriends, though, so I do what I always do and smile at Kelsey. And yeah, I know her name, because even though she pretends not to remember me every time we meet, she’s been dating Nathan for a few months now and we have met several times. I have no idea how he spends time with this woman. She seems so opposite of the type of person I would pick for him—they all do.

“Kelsey! It’s me, Bree. Remember?” Nathan’s best friend since high school. The woman who was here before you and will be here well after you. REMEMBER ME?!

She releases a big puff of air and lets her shoulders sag in relief. “Oh my gosh, Bree! You scared me to death. I thought you were some stalker girl who broke in somehow.” She sets the knife down, raises one of her perfectly manicured eyebrows, and mumbles not so quietly, “But then again…you sort of are.”

I narrow my eyes at her with a tight smile. “Nathan up yet?”

It’s 6:30 AM on a Tuesday morning, so I know for a fact he’s already awake. Any girlfriend of Nathan’s knows if she wants to see him at all that day, she has to wake up just as early as he does. Which is why Satin-PJ-Kelsey is standing in the kitchen looking pissed off. No one appreciates the morning quite like Nathan. Well, except for me—I love it too. But we’re sort of weirdos.

She turns her head slowly to me, hate burning in her delicate baby blues. “Yes. He’s in the shower.”

Before our run?

Kelsey looks at me like it grieves her deeply to have to expound. “I accidentally bumped into him when I came into the kitchen a few minutes ago. He had his protein shake in his hand and…” She makes an annoyed gesture, letting it finish the story for her: I dumped Nathan’s shake down the front of him. I think it’s killing her to admit she did something human, so I take pity on her and turn away to set the donut box down on the ridiculously large center island.

Nathan’s kitchen is fantastic. It’s designed in monochrome tones of cream, black, and brass, and an expansive window wall overlooks the ocean. It’s my favorite place in the world to cook, and exactly the opposite of my dumpy little garbage bin five blocks down the road. But that dumpy little garbage bin is affordable and close to my ballet studio, so all in all, I can’t complain.

“I’m sure it wasn’t a big deal. Nathan never gets upset about things like that,” I say to Kelsey, waving my white flag one last time.

She takes out her samurai sword and slices it to shreds. “I already know that.”

Alrighty then.

I take my first sip of coffee and let it warm me under Kelsey’s frigid stare. Nothing to do but wait for Nathan to surface so we can get going with our Tuesday tradition. It dates all the way back to our junior year of high school. I was a sort of self-designated loner in those days, not because I didn’t love people or socializing, but because I lived and breathed ballet. My mom used to encourage me to skip dance occasionally to go to a party and be with my friends. “These days of getting to just be a kid and have fun won’t last forever. Ballet isn’t everything. It’s important to build a life outside of it too,” she said to me on more than one occasion. And of course, like most dutiful teenagers…I didn’t listen.

Between dancing and my afterschool job working in a restaurant, I didn’t really have friends. But then he happened. I wanted to increase my endurance, so I started running our school’s track before school, and the only day I could make this happen schedule-wise was on Tuesdays. I showed up one morning and was shocked to see another student already running. Not just any student, but the captain of the football team. Mr. Hottie McHotterson. (Nathan didn’t have an awkward phase. He looked like a twenty-five-year-old at sixteen. So unfair.)

Jocks were supposed to be rude. Chauvinistic. Full of themselves. Not Nathan. He saw me in my scuffed-up sneakers, curly hair piled on my head in the grossest bun anyone has ever seen, and he stopped running. He came over and introduced himself with his huge trademark smile and asked if I wanted to run with him. We talked the entire time, instant best friends with so much in common, despite our different upbringings.

Yeah, you guessed it—he comes from a wealthy family. His dad is the CEO of a tech company and has never shown much interest in Nathan unless he’s showing him off on the golf course in front of his work friends, and his mom pretty much just hung around and badgered him to make it to the top and bring her into the limelight with him. They always had money, but what they didn’t have until Nathan made it big was social standing. In case you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of his parents.

So anyway, thus began our Tuesday tradition. And the exact moment I fell for Nathan? I can pinpoint it down to the second.

We were on our final lap of that very first run together when his hand caught mine. He tugged me to a stop then bent down in front of me and tied my shoe. He could have just told me it was untied, but no—Nathan’s not like that. It doesn’t matter who you are or how famous he is; if your shoe is untied, he’s going to tie it for you. I’ve never met anyone else like that. I was so gone for him from day one.

We were both so determined to achieve success, despite how young we were. He always knew he’d end up in the NFL, and I knew I was headed to Juilliard and then to dance in a company after. One of those dreams became a reality, and one did not. Unfortunately, we lost touch during college (fine, I made us lose touch), but I serendipitously moved to LA after graduating when a friend told me about another friend who was looking to hire an assistant instructor at her dance studio just as Nathan signed with the LA Sharks and moved to town as well.

We bumped into each other at a coffee shop, he asked if I wanted to go for a jog on Tuesday for old time’s sake, and the rest was history. Our friendship picked right back up as if no time had passed at all, and unfortunately, my heart still pined for him the same as it had back then too.

The funny thing is, Nathan was never projected to reach the heights in his career that he has. Nope, Nathan Donelson was drafted in the seventh round, and he effectively warmed the bench as a backup quarterback for two whole years. He never got discouraged, though. He worked harder, trained harder, and made sure he was ready if his time came to take the field, because that’s how Nathan approaches everything in life: with nothing but 100% effort.

And then one day, it all paid off for him.

The previous starting quarterback, Daren, broke his femur on the field during a game and they had to put Nathan in. I can still close my eyes and see that moment. A stretcher carrying Daren off the field. The offensive coach running down the sidelines to Nathan. Nathan shooting up off the bench and listening to the coach’s instructions. And then…just before he put his helmet on and entered the game for what would go down in history as his career-making start, Nathan looked up in the stands for me. (He didn’t have a private box at that point.) I stood up, we made eye contact, and Nathan looked like he was going to hurl. I did the one thing I knew would help him relax: contorted my face like a ding-dong and stuck my tongue out the side of my mouth.

His face exploded in a smile, and then he led the team to play the best game of their season. Nathan stepped in as the starting quarterback for the rest of the year and carried the Sharks to the Super Bowl, where they took home a win. Those months were a whirlwind for him. Actually, they were for both of us, because that was the year I went from just being an instructor at a dance studio to owning the studio.

Today, I’m here for a run with Nathan, and since he didn’t play his best last night, I know we’ll be running extra hard today. His team still won the game (and they are officially in the playoffs, YAY), but he threw two interceptions, and since Nathan is a perfectionist when it comes to…well, anything, I know he’ll be stomping around here like a bear with an empty honey pot.

Kelsey’s shrill voice yanks me out of my nostalgia. “Yeah, so don’t take this the wrong way…but what are you doing here?” By Don’t take this the wrong way, she means, Don’t take this as anything nice because I fully intend for it to come out extra witchy. I wish she’d act like this when Nathan is around. When he’s watching, she’s sweet as pie.

I give her my most sunny smile, refusing to let her steal my joy so early in the morning. “What does it look like I’m doing here?”

“Being a creepy stalker who’s secretly in love with my boyfriend and breaks into his apartment to bring him breakfast.”

See, here’s the problem. She says the words my boyfriend like they should be trump cards. Like she just tossed them on the table and I’m supposed to gasp and close my hands over my mouth in shock. My heavens! She won!

Little does she know, her card is the equivalent of a lonesome five of clubs. Girlfriends come and go in Nathan’s life like fad diets. Me, on the other hand—I was here long before two-faced Kelsey, and I’ll be here long after, because I am Nathan’s best friend. I’m the one who’s been through it all with him, and he’s been through it all with me: high school gangly phase (me, not him), college football signing day, the car accident that changed my entire future, every stomach bug of the past six years, the day I took ownership of the dance studio, and when the confetti was falling on him after his team won the Super Bowl.

But MOST importantly, I’m the only person in the entire world who knows how he got the two-inch scar right below his navel. I’ll give you a hint: it’s embarrassing and has to do with an at-home waxing kit. I’ll give you another hint: I dared him to do it.

“Yep!” I say with an overly bright smile. “Sounds about right. Stalker who’s secretly in love with Nathan. That’s totally me.”

Her eyes widen because she thought she’d really zing me with that one. Can’t burn me with the truth, Kels! Well, except for the stalker part.

I turn away from Kelsey and wait for Nathan. There was a time in my life when I tried to befriend Nathan’s girlfriends. Not anymore. None of them like me. No matter what I do to earn their affection, they are predisposed to hate me. And I get it, I really do. They think I’m a major threat. But that’s where the story gets sad.

I’m not.

They all get to have Nathan in a way I never will.

“You know,” she says, trying to grab my attention again, “you could just go ahead and save yourself the embarrassment and leave. Because when Nathan comes out here, I fully intend to ask him to make you leave. I’ve been patient so far, but the way you act toward him is super weird. You hang around him like a clingy piece of toilet paper.”

I try not to look too patronizing when I give her an over-the-top Okay honey turned-down smile and nod. Because here’s what I forgot to mention before: I’m not a threat to these women…until they make him choose. Then, I’m more threatening than a glitter bomb. I might not get to sleep in Nathan’s bed, but I do have his loyalty—and to Nathan, there’s nothing more important than that.

Kelsey scoffs and folds her arms. We’re deeply engaged in a battle of frightening expressions when Nathan’s voice rumbles from the room behind me.

“Mmmm, do I smell coffee and donuts? That must mean Bree Cheese is here.”

I flash Kelsey a not-so-subtle grin. A winner’s grin.





Nathan turns the corner wearing a pair of black athletic shorts and no shirt. His chiseled, tan chest that could only belong to a professional athlete is on full display, and that Adonis V of his is winking and making everyone blush. His hair is damp and glistening, and the tops of his shoulders are slightly pink from the hot water. This is his fresh from the shower look, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it never ceases to make me swallow my tongue.

He has a small towel in his hand, and it’s getting rubbed all over his incredible chocolate brown hair. That lucky towel is giggling with glee. Nathan’s hair is so wavy and delectable that he has a five-million-dollar endorsement deal with a men’s luxury haircare brand because of it. After that first commercial went live—Nathan stepping out of the locker room shower with a towel wrapped around his waist, beads of moisture clinging to his taut muscles, and holding that bottle of shampoo—women everywhere flocked to the store to grab the same brand in hopes of it magically turning their man into Nathan. At the very least, they wanted their man to smell like Nathan. But here’s another secret that only I know—Nathan’s hair doesn’t smell like that shampoo because he prefers a cheap generic brand in a green bottle that he’s been using since he was eighteen.

“Thought you might need this,” I say, handing Nathan a steaming cup of coffee from our favorite little shop a few blocks away. I open the donut box like a treasure chest. The donuts shine in the light. Bing!

Nathan groans and cocks his head to the side, a soft smile in the corner of his mouth as he tosses the towel onto the countertop. “I thought it was my day to get the coffee and donuts.” He plucks a maple glazed out of the box and leans down to give me a quick peck on the cheek like he always does. Completely platonic. Brotherly.

“Yeah, but I woke up super early this morning with a charley horse in my calf and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I went ahead and got it.” I hope he buys my fib.

Truth is, I couldn’t sleep because I broke up with my boyfriend last night and I’m dreading telling Nathan. Why? Because I know he’ll prod me with questions until he finds out the truth behind the breakup. And he can’t know that I broke up with Martin because Martin isn’t Nathan.

Maybe if I’d squinted, plugged my ears, and wobbled my head side to side, I might have been able to trick myself into thinking it was him. But who wants to live like that? It’s not fair to me or Martin. So now, the goal is to find a man who attracts me more than Nathan does. A real bug-zapper of a man is what I’m looking for. This time I won’t settle for anything less than complete and total smittenness.

Nathan lifts one of his thick brows. “Probably should’ve eaten a banana before bed last night.”

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, yeah, but my answer is still the same: I hate bananas. They’re so squishy, and they taste like…bananas.”

“Doesn’t matter. Clearly your potassium is—”

Kelsey clears her throat, and that’s when we notice her massive scowl. “Excuse me. Is it not odd to you that she is here at 6:30 in the morning with coffee and donuts when you have your girlfriend over?”

Again with that G word. And okay, yeah, maybe I should have realized Kelsey would be over this morning, and I should have waited for Nathan to meet me with the coffee and donuts. That’s my bad. Sometimes I forget Nathan and I don’t have a particularly normal friendship.

Nathan clears his throat lightly. “Sorry, Kelsey, I just thought you remembered Tuesdays are always my running days with Bree.”

“Yup.” She rolls her eyes and pops the p sound. “How could I forget when it happens EVERY SINGLE TUESDAY. Literally your only morning off during the season.”

This feels like a private conversation I shouldn’t be here for. Actually, I kinda agree with her. It’s weird that Nathan and I are such good friends. I’ve tried to take myself out of the equation many times before so he could spend more time with his girlfriend, but he never allows it. If I were his girlfriend, though, I would be very territorial with free time.

Tuesdays in the NFL are off days for nearly every team. But here’s the secret sauce that not all players realize: The best ones still go into the training facility on their off days. They use the extra time to focus on their weaknesses, meet with physical therapists, review old game tapes—anything that will help them excel above the rest. Nathan never sits Tuesdays out, but he does go in a little later so we can have our run together in the morning.

“Can’t you take, like, this one morning off?” She is overexaggerating every single word, and I don’t know how he handles her voice.

Nathan’s brows dip, and he folds his arms. I want to slowly scoot out of the room because I know what’s going to happen next.

“Not really. I need a good run to shake off that bad game before I go train today.”

Kelsey’s mouth falls open. “Bad game? Babe, you won! What are you even talking about?”

In unison, Nathan and I both say, “Two interceptions.”

Yikes. Kelsey did not like that. Her eyes narrow down into scary little slits. “Cute. See what I mean? This is not a normal friendship. And you know what? I’m done competing with whatever this is. It’s time you”—Don’t say it, Kelsey!—“choose. It’s either me or her.”

She blinks several times, and I turn around to give Kelsey some privacy in this moment of loss. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the insignificant, minuscule relationship that was Nathan and Kelsey.

“Kelsey…I told you up front I wasn’t looking for anything serious right now, and you said you were good with that…” Nathan pauses.

Gosh, I hate this for him, I really do. It kills him to deliver breakup lines, because he’s a giant, rock-solid teddy bear. I wish I could do it for him, but I have a feeling I’d just get a cast iron skillet to the face.

Kelsey squeals. “Are you kidding me right now?! Are you choosing her over me?”

Okay, I don’t love her inflection.

“Yes,” he says matter-of-factly.

Flames burst from the top of her head. “You cannot honestly tell me you’re not sleeping with her then!”

“He’s not, believe me,” I say. Then I worry it came out sounding a little too bitter, so I add, “Really. Just friends. We’d be horrible together. We’re more like brother and sister.” Bleh, that tasted bad on my tongue.

His chin tilts down to me, and it takes him a second, but he smiles. “Yeah. We’ve never…” His voice trails off and I see him swallow because it’s difficult for him to even picture us together in that way. “Been friends with benefits.”

Never. Not once. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. A peck on the cheek is the closest I’ve gotten to any action with Nathan, which is why I know he’s not into me. A man who is head over heels for a woman doesn’t keep his hands to himself on movie night for six years straight. And Nathan and I always keep our hands to ourselves.

So now, I work as hard as I can to prove to him that I’m SO GOOD with this friend thing. Because, honestly, I am. Would I love to marry him and have his giant muscular babies? Yes. In a heartbeat. But it’s not in the cards for us, and I’ll be damned if I ruin our friendship by making things weird when he finds out I’m crushing on him while he already has the number of the next model he plans to date halfway dialed into his phone.

The bigger problem is that I know if I told him how I really feel, he’d humor me because he truly does care about me as a friend. He’d give it the old college try, might date me for a few weeks, but then he’d move on to someone he actually felt chemistry with, and I’d be out a best friend. Not worth it.

Yeah—I’m good like this.

I’ll eventually find someone who is just as great as Nathan.

(Probably not.)

“Right. Well, then…enjoy your weird friendship. Because I’m leaving.” Kelsey pauses a minute, but I don’t hear footsteps. I think she’s waiting for him to stop her. This is awkward for everyone. “I really am. Right now. I’m walking out that door for good, Nathan.”

Noooo, don’t go! I think with zero sincerity.

And then she storms off. Nathan follows her toward the door, saying something about how she’s still in her pajamas and shouldn’t she go get her stuff first? She tells him to have it sent over because she can’t bear to look at him for another second. The drama is high.

I hear the door slam, and I kick the air. Good riddance!

I also whip out my phone and text my big sister.

Me: Another one bites the dust. Kelsey’s outta here!

Lily: She lasted longer than I expected.

Me: Aka too long.

Lily: Be nice! He might be sad.

Me: Ummm I’m always nice, thank you very much.

Lily: I bet you have a creepy smile on your face.





When Nathan finally comes back into the kitchen, I train my face into a heartfelt frown, proving Lily wrong. “I’m sorry, friend.”

“No, you’re not,” he says with a chuckle as he leans his bare hip against the counter.

I really wish he’d wear more clothes. It’s painful having to look at something so beautiful and never touch it. Nathan’s skin is like hot golden sand from an exotic beach, wrapped around a rippling form that makes you feel instantly dehydrated. His perfectly crafted physique is the reason he was named Sexiest Man Alive and made the cover of Pro Sports Magazine’s form issue where they highlight and celebrate all the different physical forms of pro athletes and what they have to do to keep their bodies in tip-top shape. It’s a classy spread with well-placed hands and thighs to cover the most important bits. But yeah, Nathan was completely naked in that magazine. And although I own five copies, I’ve never been able to bring myself to look inside (the cover only shows him from the waist up). There are some boundaries you just can’t cross as friends. Nakedness is one of them.

I pick up a donut and shove it in my mouth to keep from smiling. “No! I really mean it. Kelsey seemed…fun.”

“You stuck your tongue out at her in the box last night.”

“Geez! Do the Avengers know about you and your superhuman eyesight?”

He smiles and reaches out to tug on my messy ponytail. “Was Kelsey a jerk to you when I wasn’t around? Be honest.”

Nathan has black eyes. Not chocolate, not brown. Jet freaking black. And when they zero in on me like this, it feels like I’m suffocating. Like I couldn’t get away from their intensity even if I tried.

I shrug a shoulder and take a drink of my coffee. “She wasn’t the best, but it’s no big deal.”

“What’d she say?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

He inches closer. “Bree.”

“Nathan. See, I can do it too.”

He’s quiet…thoughtful, a mere five inches between our chests. “I’m sorry if she made you feel bad. I didn’t realize she was like that toward you or I would have broken up with her a long time ago.”

A corner of my heart aches. If he cares about me being in his life so much, why isn’t he attracted to me? No. Uh-uh. Not going there. I refuse to be that girl. We’re friends and I’m happy with that. Grateful for it. And maybe one day, life will toss me a man who loves me back as much as I love him. Either way, I’m good right now.

“Well, I didn’t exactly help things. I probably shouldn’t have come over here this early and let myself in.” I take a big bite of my chocolate donut. “I should implement better boundaries.”

“Probably,” he says, sounding gravely serious. But when my eyes jump up to his, Nathan is grinning—right dimple popping and all.

I playfully shove his arm. “What! If that’s the case, maybe I should take away your key to my apartment. Implement some boundaries there.”

He takes the last bite of his donut, grin still in place. “Good luck. I’m never giving it back.” His arm brushes against mine as he passes by me, and I wonder if it would be a breach of these boundaries if I plastered myself to his body like a barnacle.

I think I need this run more than he does, and for completely different reasons.





Sweating and worn out from our run, Bree and I dump ourselves onto the floor in front of my giant white couch. To my left is a floor-to-ceiling three-million-dollar view of the ocean, but to my right is the view I would give my soul to see every day for the rest of my life. Obviously, Bree doesn’t know I feel this way about her.

I knock the back of my knuckle against her knee, right beside the jagged scar that changed the course of her entire life. “What are you doing later? You want to come meet me for lunch at CalFi?”

CalFi is my team’s stadium. It has a recently added training facility where we practice and work out during the week, complete with a cafeteria catered by some of the best chefs in the business. And I, in case you are wondering, am an overeager puppy, begging for Bree to play with me—to always play with me.

She rolls her head so her soft brown eyes lock with mine. Bree is all honey-brown, long, wildly curly hair and a wide, gorgeous mouth with dimples the size of my thumb on either side. She has a Julia Roberts smile—one so unique and stunning that once you’ve seen it, no other smile even comes close. With our heads laid back against the couch, our foreheads almost touch. I want to lean in an extra inch. Two inches. I want to feel her lips.

“I can’t. I have a toddler creative movement class at 11:00 today.”

I frown. “You never teach on Tuesday mornings.”

She shrugs. “Yeah, well, I had to add another class in the mornings twice a week to cover the studio’s rent. My landlord contacted me last month and said property taxes went up again so he had to raise my rent by a couple hundred bucks.”

Bree tries to stand, but I hook the T-back strap of her tank top and tug her back down beside me. It was borderline overly flirtatious, and I instantly know it was a bad move when she looks at me with wide eyes. I quickly continue the conversation to cover my tracks. “You’re already teaching too many classes a week.”

Bree employs one other instructor at her studio who teaches tap and jazz, but really, she needs to add another to help with the load. Her studio runs in more of a non-profit capacity, but her overhead doesn’t reflect it because every studio space in LA is enormously expensive. It’s unfair because there’s a large population of people in this city who are low income and under-resourced whose needs are overlooked. Bree’s desire has always been to provide a place for kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to receive dance instruction, allowing them to attend her studio at minimal cost to their family.

Problem is, the tuition is too low for her current business model. She knows this but feels stuck, and I hate that her chosen solution to the problem is to teach more classes and trade more of herself to cover the deficit instead of accepting my money.

“I teach the normal amount of classes for the average instructor,” she says with a clipped warning tone. Bree’s warning tone, however, sounds as threatening as a cartoon baby bunny. Her eyes are big and sparkly and make me love her more.

I soften my own voice, preparing to go to a place I know is touchy. “I know you can handle it, and I know you’re absolutely tough as nails, but as your friend, I hate having to watch you work through so much pain in your knee. And yes, I know your pain is flaring up because I saw you favoring your right leg during our jog today.” Reflexively, I hold up my hands. “Don’t pinch me, please. I’m only trying to make sure you take care of yourself while you’re out there taking care of everyone else.”

Her eyes dart away. “I’m fine.”

“Are you? You’d tell me if you weren’t fine?”

She narrows her eyes. “You’re being overly dramatic about this, Nathan.”

She says my name in a way that’s meant to cause me pain but instead just makes me want to smile. Bree is one of the strongest human beings I know, but she’s also somehow the softest. She can never fully bring herself to snap at me or anyone else in her life.

“My knee is not going to fall off if I use it too much, and I can push through a little pain. You know I don’t control my rent, so if I want to be able to keep my tuition low for the kids, I have to add an extra class until I can find a different solution. End of story. And—AH!” She holds up her finger to press against my lips when she sees me about to argue. “I won’t take money from you. We’ve been over this a thousand times, and I need to do this on my own.”

My shoulders sink. The only consolation for continuously losing this argument is the fact that her skin is pressed against my mouth right now. I’ll stay silent forever if she will promise to never move. And with her finger pinned over my lips like this, I don’t have to feel guilty about not telling her I’ve been secretly paying part of her studio’s rent for years. (Not true—I still feel guilty about going behind her back.)

Bree’s landlord raised the rent on her once before when she first took over the studio from the old owner. She cried on my couch that night because she wouldn’t be able to afford it anymore (much like what’s happening again) and thought she was going to have to find a cheaper location outside of the city, which would completely negate her purpose of providing a dance studio for the kids in the city.

Let’s just say her landlord had a magical change of heart and called her the next day to say he’d moved things around and didn’t need to raise the rent after all. We can also safely say that if Bree ever finds out I’ve been paying a few hundred dollars toward her rent each month, I will be relieved of my favorite dangly parts. I probably shouldn’t have done it, but I couldn’t bear to watch her lose her dream like that. Not again.

Bree was accepted to the dance program at The Juilliard School just before high school graduation, and I’ve still never seen a person more excited about anything in their life. I was the first person she told. I picked her up and spun her around as we both laughed—internally a little scared about what our separating lives would mean for our friendship. She would be moving to New York, and I would be off to UT on a football scholarship. I wasn’t about to leave town without telling Bree how I felt about her, though, and hopefully making things official between us. We’d only ever been friends, but I was over it and ready to be more.

And then it happened.

She got T-boned by a guy running a stoplight one day after school. Thankfully, the crash did not take her life, but it did take away Bree’s future as a professional ballerina. Her knee was shattered, and I’ll never forget her words over the phone when she called from the hospital sobbing. “It’s all over for me, Nathan. I won’t be able to come back from this.”

The reconstructive surgery was hard on her, but the physical therapy that summer was the most brutal. Her spark was gone, and there was nothing I could do to bring it back for her. I didn’t want to leave her once fall rolled around—it didn’t feel right to go on with my dreams when she was stuck at home without hers. Even more than that, I just wanted to be with her. Football didn’t matter as much to me as she did.

But then, she pulled away. Or more like cut me off. She left me with no choice but to go to UT as planned—and then after I got there, she wouldn’t return any of my calls or texts. It felt like the most painful breakup even though we’d never dated. We went four years without talking, and still to this day I have no idea why she did that. She’s thriving in her new life now, so we don’t revisit the past. I’m too scared to hear the answer to why she cut me out back then.

When I graduated, got signed by the Sharks, and moved to LA, Bree was here too. I believe it was cheesy, old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness fate that brought us back together. I walked into a local coffee shop, the bell chimed over my head, and she looked up from a book, eyes locking with mine from across the room. She was a defibrillator to my chest. Bam. My heart hasn’t beat the same since.

That day, I found my old friend again. The friend I knew before the accident who was so full of life and energy, except even better. She was healthier, she had these incredible, soft, feminine curves that had not been there before, and her knee had healed up enough that she was able to work as an instructor at the studio she now owns. Unfortunately, she had a boyfriend then. Don’t even remember his name, but he was the reason I didn’t ask her out on the spot.

We picked back up with our Tuesday tradition, and I’ve been barrel-rolling into the vast, never-ending hell hole known as the friend zone ever since. I’m afraid I’ll die in this friend zone because she’s constantly reminding me that she’s not interested in anything romantic. Almost every day she says a terrible phrase like:

“Just friends.”

“Practically my brother.”

“Incompatible.”

“Two amigos.”

Anyway, that’s why I did it. I couldn’t bear to stand back and watch her lose something important to her when I could easily fix it this time. So I’ve secretly been paying her rent, and she will be furious if she ever finds out.

I make a mental note to check in later with ol’ Mr. Landlord just as Bree’s finger falls away from my mouth. “Seriously, don’t worry! I’ll figure something out like I always do. But for now, I’ll take some ibuprofen and ice it between classes. I’m okay. I promise.”

Because I’m only her friend, I have no choice but to hold up my hands in surrender. “Okay, I’ll let it go. I won’t ask if I can give you money anymore.”

She tips a cute, snooty chin. “Thank you.”

“Hey, Bree?”

“Yes?” she asks suspiciously.

“Do you want to move in with me?”

She groans loudly and lets her head fall back against the couch cushion. “Nattthaaaannnn. Let it go!”

“Seriously, think about it. We both hate your apartment—”

“You hate my apartment.”

“Because it’s not fit for human habitation! I’m a thousand percent sure there’s mold, the stairs are so sticky but no one knows why, and that SMELL! What even is that?”

She grimaces, knowing exactly what I’m talking about. “Someone suspects it’s a raccoon that got in between the walls and died, but we can’t be certain. Or…” Her eyes dart. “…itmightbeadeadhuman.” She mumbles that last part, and I consider holding her hostage and forcing her to live in my clean, mold-free apartment against her will.

“Best of all, if you lived here, you wouldn’t have to pay any rent, and then you wouldn’t need to make as much from the studio.” It’s a loophole, a way for her to cut costs without accepting a single dime from me.

Bree holds my gaze for so long I think she’s wavering. “No.”

She’s a needle, and I’m a full balloon. “Why? You already practically live here. You even have your own room.”

She holds up a correcting finger. “Guest room! It’s a guest room.”

It’s her room. She makes me call it the guest room, but she has spare clothes in there, some colorful throw pillows she added herself, and several items of makeup in the drawers. She sleeps here at least once a week when we stay up too late watching a movie and she’s too tired to walk home. Yeah, that’s the other thing—her apartment is only five blocks down the street (yes, five blocks makes a huge difference in a big city like LA), so we’re practically already roommates, just separated by hundreds of other roommates. Logic.

“No, and I’m serious—drop it,” she says in a tone that lets me know I’m inching up to pushy-asshole-best-friend territory and I need to cool it.

Some might be tempted to think my full-time job is pro athlete. Wrong. It’s forcing myself to behave inside this grey area with Bree where I’m wild about her on the inside and nothing but a platonic guy-friend on the outside. It’s a cruel form of torture. It’s staring at the sun and not blinking even though it burns like hell.

Oh, and did I mention I accidentally saw her naked a few weeks ago? Yeah, that hasn’t helped. Bree doesn’t know, and I don’t intend on telling her because she’d get super weird about it and avoid me for a whole week. We each have a key to the other’s apartment, so I let myself in like I always do, but this time I had forgotten to tell her I was coming over. She walked out of the bathroom butt naked and then went back in without ever seeing me standing there in the hallway, jaw sweeping the floor. I turned around immediately and left, but that beautiful image is burned—no, something better than burned…engraved, transcribed, memorialized in my memory forever.

“Give me one valid reason why you don’t want to live here, and I’ll let it go for good. Scout’s honor.” I hold up my right hand.

Bree eyes it, tries not to smile, and then folds down my pinky and thumb. “You’re not a Boy Scout so your honor means nothing, but I can’t move in with you because it would be too weird. There, I gave you an answer. Now you have to drop it.” Bree hops up from the floor, and this time I let her go. Her curly ponytail swings behind her, loose wisps clinging to the sweat on her neck as she walks into the kitchen.

I follow behind, not ready to drop the topic of conversation quite yet because I think I finally found the real reason. “Who would it be weird for? You or Martin? Surely he knows he has nothing to worry about between us.” I strongly dislike her boyfriend. He doesn’t deserve her. I mean, I don’t deserve her either, but that’s beside the point. What kind of douchebag would be okay with his girlfriend living in a hazardous building and not offer for her to move in with him?

Bree’s eyes leave mine, her mouth twisting to the side. She’s debating something, and I lift my brows to encourage her. “Bree?”

She spins away, and her wrist full of ever-present, colorful braided bracelets dives into her monstrosity of a purse. “Did I mention I have something for you? It’ll cheer you right up after your breakup with Screechy…I mean Kelsey.” She chuckles to herself over her little quip, and I try not to let her see me smile. I couldn’t care less about my breakup with Kelsey. I’m more concerned about why she’s trying to change the subject right now.

She digs and digs and digs through her bag, and I know what’s coming. Bree has a trinket obsession. If she sees something that reminds her of one of her friends or family members, she buys it and stuffs it in that Mary Poppins satchel to bestow upon us later. I have two whole shelves of items she’s given me over the years. Her sister Lily has three shelves. We made a bet once to see who had more “Breenkets,” as we call them, and I lost. Lily beat me by seven.

Finally, she finds what she’s looking for, and out of her bottomless bag comes a miniature-sized magic eight ball.

Her rainbow nails place it delicately in my upturned palm, and she quietly says, “Number eight. You know, because you’re number eight on the team.” I’ll set it next to my number eight playing card, number eight shot glass, and number eight birthday candle. “Also, Martin and I broke up.”

Wait, huh?

The world stops spinning. Crickets silence. Everyone, everywhere on the planet turns to look at us. I, however, have to try very hard to remain neutral. Somehow I instinctively know that my reaction right now is crucial if I want to keep the status quo of our friendship. Don’t mess things up, Nathan.

“Since when?”

“Last night. We broke up after the game.” Her answer comes out fast. “Well actually, I broke up with him after the game. He was fine with it though. It was pretty much mutual.”

I can’t believe this. “Why didn’t you tell me before now?”

She shrugs, her attention focused on sliding her bracelets up and down her wrist one by one. “Just didn’t think about it.”

“Lie. No one conveniently forgets that they broke up with someone they’ve been dating for six months.”

She grits her teeth and rolls her eyes to me. “Fine! I just didn’t want to, okay? It wasn’t a big deal. Martin and I barely saw each other, and…he was boring. We were boring together. No sparks. I just couldn’t do it anymore.” Bree says all of this looking completely nonchalant, while I have to remind myself to keep breathing—slowly, in and out, like a normal human and not like I’m short-circuiting on the inside.

Because this—right now—is the very first time we’ve both been single at the same time in the last six years. Somehow our relationships have staggered themselves out into an almost humorous cycle.

And now…we’re both single.

At the same time.

And I’ve seen her naked. (That thought has nothing to do with anything, it just pops into my head randomly from time to time.)

If I leaned in right now and kissed her, would she let me? Would she cringe? Or would she melt into me and that would finally be the end of our platonic friendship? These are the questions that keep me awake at night.

I don’t get to find out the answers, though, because Bree suddenly snatches her purse from the counter and throws it over her shoulder. “Okay, well, now you know. So, I’ll see you…sometime,” she says, backing away from me with a curiously flushed face.

I follow her to the door. “Tomorrow,” I say, closing my fingers around the magic eight ball. “I’m picking you up tomorrow for Jamal’s birthday dinner, remember?” My teammates love Bree, call her the Sharks’ little sister. I refuse to ever call her that.

She trips backward over a shoe and catches herself with a hand on the wall, her long honey-brown ponytail whipping her in the face. “Tomorrow? Oh yeah, I forgot. Sounds good!” She’s being so strange. Or…more strange than normal, I should say. “Well…I’ll see you tomorrow then!”

I grin as she tries to leave through the front door, but her purse gets caught on the handle, yanking her back a step. She yelps then frees herself and runs out the door.

With a sigh, I look down at my newest Breenket. “Well, magic eight ball, what do you think? Should I tell my best friend I love her?”

I turn the ball over, and the message reads: Reply hazy, try again.





The next day during practice, it’s clear that Bree’s singledom announcement has taken up all the available space in my head. I can’t focus on drills. I screw up too many passes. Jamal—the top running back on our team—has started calling me butterfingers, and it’s catching on like wildfire. Everyone thinks it’s hilarious because I’m never like this. Coach is concerned and thinks I have the flu. He sends for a team physician to check my temperature on the sidelines in front of everyone. I feel like an idiot.

“I just have something on my mind,” I tell Jamal later when practice is over and he’s badgering me with questions about why my game was so off today.

He grunts a laugh as he finishes buttoning his shirt. I’m already dressed and sitting on the bench in the middle of the locker room, waiting to go into the media room to answer questions with the press about our upcoming game.

“Does it have anything to do with you breaking up with Kelsey?”

My head flies up. “How’d you know about that? I only broke up with her yesterday morning.”

His patronizing smile says, You’re an idiot. “She announced it on her Instagram last night, along with a link to a gossip article on In Touch Magazine’s website.”

“Dammit.” I should have known better than to date her. Kelsey is a model who at first seemed nice but then, after closer examination, turned out to be a spotlight hunter. Though, honestly, I can’t say I really care when a woman only wants to date me for the attention it brings her. I only date other women because Bree is always dating other men. But currently she’s not…and since I can’t seem to find a woman even remotely as amazing as Bree, I feel like it’s time I quit looking anywhere else.

Plus, I’m sick of my girlfriends being rude to Bree. It’s like watching someone try to swat a butterfly—cruel and depressing. Suddenly, I’m worried about that article for other reasons. Kelsey can talk shit about me all day, but if she even mentioned Bree’s name once, I’ll have my lawyers all over her faster than she can blink.

“Did you read the article?” I ask Jamal as he preens in the mirror.

He lets out a guttural laugh that tells me I’m not going to like his answer. “Oh yeah I did. And you’re going to hate it.”

My back goes straight. “Does it mention Bree?”

Jamal takes one look at my ready-to-fight demeanor and shakes his head. “No, but you’re pathetic, you know that? Look at you, ready to ruin someone to avenge the woman you’ve never even kissed. Dude, you need to get a grip. Either go after Bree, or be done with her. Clearly you’ve got some pent-up frustration that’s starting to affect your game, and that can’t happen right now, because…playoffs, bro. PLAYOFFS.” He’s shaking his fists in a desperate attempt to make me understand. As if I didn’t already know the playoffs are important.

I ignore Jamal. “Just to be clear, though, the article doesn’t mention Bree?”

He gives me a flat look. “No. Your object of desire is safe from slander. You, however…” He laughs like friends do when they see a booger stuck to the side of your face but don’t intend to tell you it’s there.

Again, I ignore him. “I couldn’t care less about the article, then.” My image has never been important to me. All I care about is playing a good game. “Besides, we only dated for a few months. I doubt she could come up with that much dirt on me.” Mostly because I’m boring. I don’t party. I don’t drink during the season. I go to bed early and wake up early.

Jamal looks like he’s about to burst from jubilant anticipation. His smile is grinchy, his eyebrows are lifted, and now maybe I’m a little nervous about what Kelsey said. He claps me on the back on his way out of the locker room. “Come find me when you’re ready to read it, okay? I don’t want to miss seeing your face when you do.”

As Jamal is leaving, another one of my teammates walks through the locker room and heads for the shower while laughing at whatever he’s looking at on his phone.

“What’s up, Price?” I ask with a head nod even though he’s not looking at me.

He laughs bigger and passes by me. “Not you apparently!”

I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but something tells me I’m not going to like it when I find out.





“OH MY GOSH, I’m drooling. Imani, grab me a mop so I can clean up this puddle.”

“Shhhhh, she’s gonna hear us. Keep it down, you dodo!”

“I don’t care if she hears, she needs to know it’s unbelievable she’s not jumping that piece of—”

I clear my throat and fold my arms, tapping my foot like I remember my mom doing—although I refuse to think of myself as these girls’ mom because I’m absolutely not old enough. I’m more like their big sister. Yeah, their super cool big sister who they’d be lucky to hang out with!

“Hand it over,” I say, hand outstretched toward the group of sixteen-year-old ballet students hovering ominously around a phone. And yeah, now I feel like their mom.

“See, Hannah, you and your big mouth went and did it.” Imani rises from their little huddle in the corner of the studio where they were waiting for class to begin and pads gracefully across the hardwood floor to me.

The pink and blue bejeweled phone case lands in my palm, and I look down to find a photo of Nathan in a sexy ad of some sort, wearing nothing but his uniform pants and a really awesome pair of black cleats. His abs are rippling under the studio lighting, and there’s more than a little sheen reflecting off his taut skin from all the oil that’s been rubbed on him. I’m not even sure what they are selling here, but I’m willing to spend all my savings on it.

I swipe out of the photo even though I want to copy and paste the URL and text it to myself. “First of all, you girls shouldn’t be looking at this. He’s almost twice your age!”

“So! Sexiness knows no age.” Sierra—also sixteen—is the one to shout that little gem.

“Believe me, it does. Just ask the law.” They all roll their eyes. Sixteen-year-olds are terrifying. “And second of all, this is 100% photoshopped. He doesn’t look like this in real life.” He looks better.

Hannah points aggressively at me. “Bite your tongue! He’s the hottest man in the world and everyone knows it. And we want to know how you can be best friends with that god among men and not hit it.”

I wrinkle my nose. “Ew, don’t say hit it. Where did you learn to talk like that?”

“You’re avoiding the question,” says Hannah. She’s the ringleader of sassiness in this class.

I cross the floor of the long slender studio to reach the sound system in the back corner. Remote in hand, I rise onto my toes and spin around to face the little fresh-faced jury now lined up by the floor-to-ceiling mirror, arms folded. These tiny babies mean business.

“I’m not avoiding the question. I’m just not dignifying it with an answer! Plus, it’s an inappropriate class conversation. My business with my friend is my own, not yours.” I want to boop each of them on the nose to drive the point home.

“But you love him, right?” asks Imani.

I put my hands on my hips. Ugh, more mom posing. “If I answer you, can we start class?”

“Yes,” the Spice Girls of ballet answer in unison.

“Then no, I do not love him, Sam I am. I do not love him in a car, I do not love him in a bar. I do not love him with a hat, I do not love him with a cat,” I chirp adorably while twirling and whimsically conveying this lie in a way I hope they’ll understand.

Their frowns are deep. They think I’m so uncool.

There is no way I’m giving these girls what they want: the truth. Telling them how I actually feel about Nathan would be like throwing thousands of Pixy Stix into a room of toddlers. They’d go nuts and I’d never have peace again. There’s also the very real possibility that they would find a way to contact him and tell him everything I say. Better to lie and pretend I don’t care about Nathan in that way.

“That’s so boring!” one of the girls moans. “What’s the point of even having a hot best friend if you’re not going to bang him?”

“OKAY EVERYONE GET INTO POSITION!” I yell and clap my hands together like a Parisian instructor whose only goal in life is to drive her students to the brink of death. Which is sort of what I plan to do today.

Just because this is an inexpensive ballet class, doesn’t mean they get a cheap education. I instruct these girls with the same precision and expectations I received in my fancy-shmancy-pricey-dicey studio growing up. I cringe thinking back to how my parents and I had to work our butts off to afford that place. Yes, you heard me correctly, my parents AND I had to work for it. Neither of my parents ever had jobs that paid particularly well, and because they were also taking care of my grandmother who fought an aggressive form of cancer for most of my childhood, my dad worked two jobs to make ends meet. Money was tight at all times.

My sister and I both worked during high school in order to pay for our cars, insurance, fun stuff like movie tickets, and even part of my ballet tuition. I wish a studio like the one I own now had existed near me when I was younger for many reasons.

1) We operate on income-based tuition. That means if your parents make less, your tuition is less and we make sure you can afford to come to ballet. Because dance shouldn’t be available only to the wealthy. It should be something for everyone to enjoy. It shouldn’t be a burden.

2) My studio focuses not only on technique and practice, but on the whole person. I care about these girls. I care if they’re eating. I care if they have clothes for school in the fall. I care if they are fighting with a friend and need a hug or a ride to class that day. I care more about what their eyes are telling me than the turnout of their feet. Because as I have learned firsthand, ballet can slip from your grasp in a blink, but your soul is with you forever. I’m finally taking my mom’s advice and implementing it in my students’ dance education.

But don’t get me wrong, I also care about the turnout of their toes, and right now as we practice, I give them the kind of instruction they can be proud of. When they graduate from high school, I want them to feel like they received all the training they needed to go on to dance in a company or apply to Juilliard. During this one-hour class, I give these girls my all, and I expect the same in return from them.

However, some sacrifices have to be made in order to provide lower tuition. As far as ballet studios go, this one is miniscule. It’s a mouse hole—a mouse hole situated in the upstairs portion of a pizza parlor where it has thrived for ten years. I took it over from the old owner, Ms. Katie, four years ago, and I’ve never looked back. This is my slice of heaven. It smells like yeast and pepperonis and sounds like classical music and laughter.

After class is over, I take up my usual position in front of the exit in the four-foot-wide hallway that extends the length of the studio. It’s lined with dance bags, water bottles, and shoes, bookended by one single-stall bathroom on one side and my punctuation mark of an office on the opposite end.

The girls line up with their bags slung over their shoulders and go out the door one by one, pausing to listen to the inspirational message I tell them every time they leave. They want to pluck their ears off from having to hear it so often, but I will wax every hair from my body before I stop telling them, because I know they need to hear it. I hold out the basket of homemade oatmeal protein cookies I make each week for my classes.

“Imani, I’m proud of you. You’re beautiful and worthy just the way you are. Take a cookie.” She does and rolls her eyes with a grin. “Sierra, I’m proud of you. You’re beautiful and worthy just the way you are. Take a cookie.” She sticks her tongue out and wrinkles her nose. I stick mine out in return.

I go down the line of all eight dancers, looking in each of their eyes, noting if there’s anything that seems off, making sure they look not too skinny, like they’ve been sleeping, like they are not losing their soul to dance like I wish my teachers would have done for me. Because here’s the thing about dancers at this level: they will do anything to succeed, which usually translates to working themselves so hard their feet bleed, starving themselves so their bodies have leaner lines, constantly striving for perfection and spending more time dancing than living. That was me at one point, and I’m so thankful it’s not me anymore. Now, I eat when I’m hungry, and I live life outside of dance.

That car accident saved my life, because if I had gone on to Juilliard with the unhealthy mentality toward my body and workaholic lifestyle I had at the time, I’m not sure what would have happened to me. Now, I will make sure my dancers feel seen, and loved, and dammit, FED!

Hannah is the last student in the line, and as she gets ready to take a cookie, my overprotective-teacher radar starts blaring because her eyes are cast down. Usually she makes a face at me like the other girls on her way out the door. I pull the basket of cookies away at the last second before her young-adult hand can grab one.

“Ah-ah-ah,” I say like I’m reprimanding a puppy that’s too cute to actually scold. I hold the basket far away. “No cookie for you unless you tell me what’s up with the darty eyes.”

Oooo, I forgot I was dealing with the worst kind of teenager, though—a level-four teen, aka a driving teen who now thinks she’s a grown-ass adult.

She folds her arms. “Fine. I’m not hungry anyway.” Her eyeballs cut purposely away from me, but I can still see something lurking.

Well, unlucky for her, I never fully grew up.

With her gaze turned away from me, I’m able to easily pluck the same little bejeweled cell phone that had Nathan’s glorious picture on it from her hand. I hold it behind my back and convey with my eyes that she’s never getting it back if she doesn’t comply. She gasps indignantly, and I mimic it like an annoying parrot, widening my eyes mockingly.

“Oh, did you want this? Tell me what’s wrong and I’ll give it back.”

“You can’t take my phone! This isn’t school.”

“Uh—I think I just did.” I’m ruthless, but I don’t care if she’s mad, because now I’m convinced something is going on that she’s not telling me about, and I care too much about her to let it slide.

“Miss B!” She groans. “I need to go! My shift starts in forty-five minutes, and I need to go home to change. Please can I have my phone back?”

I make a thinking face. “Ummm…no. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Her slender shoulders slump as best as a perfectly refined ballerina’s body will allow. “You’re really not going to let me have it back?” I smile pleasantly and shake my head. She rolls her eyes. “Fine. My dad lost his job again. He said the company had to make budget cuts. I—I know my tuition is already low, but I still might have to quit coming. I can’t work any more hours and still keep up my grades.”

I extend the pink and blue jeweled phone back to her. “Thank you. Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

She gives me a death glare. “It was an invasion of privacy.”

“Sure, sure, I see where you’re coming from, but…I don’t care.” I grin and hand her a cookie. She smiles weakly, and I know I’m forgiven. “Forget about tuition until your dad gets back on his feet.”

She looks stunned. “Are you serious? Miss B, I can’t—”

“Of course you can! Now, quit worrying—it’ll give you ulcers.” I turn around to flick off the studio lights and pick up my duffle bag. “I want to see you in class on Thursday.”

Once we’re out the door, I lock up, and we both walk down the extremely steep and narrow stairs that lead to the parking lot. The smell of pizza dough punches me in the stomach, and I want to chuck these healthy cookies across the building and devour a supreme stuffed-crust pizza instead. You’d think after six years of smelling this haunting yeasty aroma, I’d be used to it, maybe even sick of it. Nope.

Hannah turns to me after we make it to the bottom of the stairs. She opens her mouth, but no words come out. I do see tears clinging to her long lashes though. She slowly lets her breath out and then nods. “Thanks, Miss B. I’ll be here.”

And that’s all I want. Well, that and more money to rain down like manna from heaven somehow. I’m not sure how I’ll make it work without Hannah’s tuition and an already tight budget, but I refuse to turn away a girl who needs help.

The memory of an Instagram post I saw earlier this week suddenly pops into my mind. It was from The Good Factory saying that one of their incredible spaces is going to become available next month, and they are currently taking applications. I’ve dreamed of securing a place in The Good Factory ever since I learned about it a few years ago. It’s a giant old renovated—you guessed it—factory that was endowed in some rich benefactor’s will with the specific purpose of offering free rental spaces for non-profit organizations. The only overhead costs organizations are required to cover are for any adjustments they need to make to the space (which for me would be adding mirrors and a ballet barre). There are only fifteen gigantic spaces available for use in the factory and they are ALWAYS occupied, because, duh, who wouldn’t want to be in there?

Each space is lined with gorgeous windows, hardwood floors, and expansive exposed brick walls. I bet there’s not a hint of a yeast scent anywhere in that building. I want to apply, because with the free rent, I would officially be able to convert my studio to a non-profit and lower tuition prices to nearly free. But even as I think of applying, I roll my eyes. There’s no way I’d get selected among the hundreds of other applicants. I’ve learned by now not to count too much on something in the future that’s completely out of my hands. Best to make do with the resources I have available to me now.

I watch Hannah walk to her car and wait until she’s safely inside to go to my own. I toss my bag on the opposite seat that’s already piled high with sweaters and water bottles then check my phone. I’m not surprised to see a new voicemail from Nathan because we have become very good at a voicemail-and-text friendship. We tend to call and leave meaningless voicemails for no reason. Like cell phone pen pals.

“Hey, is it true that some caterpillars are poisonous? Somehow one made its way into my truck and then disappeared when I looked away. Now I’m wondering if I should buy a new vehicle and just give him this one? What do you think?”

I immediately call him back and leave a message when he doesn’t answer. “I haven’t had time to Google it yet, but better safe than sorry. Can you get a flashy sports car this time? Also, I’m really craving a cherry slushie. Does that mean I have a vitamin deficiency? That’s all. K, bye.”

After I hang up, I peruse the internet, trying to find that photo the girls were staring at before class.





I hear a loud knock on my apartment door followed by Nathan’s voice. “Bree! You here?”

“Be out in a second!” I yell from my bathroom where I’ve just finished applying my face mask.

It’s only 5:30 PM. He’s a little early to pick me up for Jamal’s party, and I’m still in my strappy black leotard with my herringbone textured leggings overtop, but more importantly, bright green goo is currently hardening on my skin. I should probably worry about what Nathan will think of me in this thing, but honestly, he’s seen me in worse. And this is one of the perks of never anticipating a relationship with your best friend—you can look like dump and still hang out!

Welcome to the bright side, friends!

I leave the bathroom and head toward the kitchen where I see Nathan rummaging through my fridge. He’s bent over when I walk in, and my stomach does a flip at the sight.

“Apples are in the bottom drawer,” I say, forcing my gaze away from his derriere, because, umm hello, friends don’t ogle friends’ butts. Even when those butts look amazing in a pair of tight, grey chino pants.

“Ah—thank you.” He stands up and shuts the fridge with his spoils in hand. When he turns to face me, the apple is already between his teeth and he freezes mid-crispy-bite. His eyes widen and his smile grows on either side of the red forbidden fruit.

“What?” I ask, leaning back against the counter like everything is perfectly normal. “Do I have something on my face?”

He lets out a guttural laugh, and the sound is so him it stirs me in ways a woman with her face painted like a frog shouldn’t be feeling. In fact, I shouldn’t be thinking sexy thoughts toward Nathan ever, but it’s just…it’s DIFFICULT, okay? I’m a woman with very opinionated ovaries, and let me tell you, they’re real hussies. Currently, as Nathan rips the bite off that apple and tilts his head at me with a playful smile, they are down there waxing poetic about how his soft, white tee fits him so well it looks like a deity plucked him up by his feet and dipped him headfirst into a sensual cotton pond. In conclusion, I am deceased at the sight of him.

“Should I be worried about whatever is happening here?” He wiggles his big man fingers across the front of his face.

“Only because when I wash it off, I’ll be so devastatingly gorgeous you might die on the spot.”

It’s a joke, clearly a 100% facetious statement, but Nathan swallows his bite of apple, and then his eyes do a very odd thing: they tiptoe down my body.

It only happens that one time and his gaze doesn’t take the same path back up, but part of me wonders…no! No wondering! Shut up down there, you little instigators.

I register the wink of desire running through me and do the same thing I’ve always done over the last six years, what every good co-ed best friend dynamic has perfected. I dart around the kitchen like I have something very important to do, pretending like it never happened. At all costs, I NEVER acknowledge the feeling of desire.

I turn toward the counter at my back and find a cherry slushie in a Styrofoam cup. I gasp like it’s a goblet full of stolen jewels. “YOU BROUGHT ME A SLUSHIE!?” I have to say this in a way that projects my voice and conveys excitement without cracking the mask on my face. It’s an important skill to master in life.

I hear him chuckle and bite into the apple again. “You said you were craving one, right?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t mean for you to go get me one,” I say before putting the straw in my mouth and taking a long sip until my brain freezes deliciously.

Nathan is staring at me before looking grumpy and shooting his gaze down to his phone. “It’s really not a big deal.” He thumbs his screen then sets his phone down on the counter with a loud thud. “I’m so sick of this thing,” he says, dashing an anxious hand through his hair. “I feel like it goes off nonstop. I can never get a break.”

He leaves my little galley kitchen to move into the living room and plops down on my couch. I can’t help but chuckle at the sight of him, limbs completely sprawled out and hanging off every surface of my teeny-weeny furniture. He looks like he just climbed down the beanstalk and decided to nap on Baby Bear’s couch. His dark eyes close, and I sense how tired he is. Just looking at him and knowing the kind of schedule he has to keep makes me exhausted to my bones. I want to wrap him up in my bright yellow throw blanket, feed him soup, and make him watch cartoons all day.

“We could stay in and watch a movie, you know. I’m sure Jamal will understand if we miss his dinner.”

Nathan doesn’t open his eyes. “Nah, I want to go. It’s important to him that I be there.”

I sigh, knowing Nathan is as immovable on his reluctance to pass anything up in favor of resting as I am about taking money from him. I imagine a girlfriend would probably climb right on top of him and pin him down, giving him no choice but to stay in for the night.

But I’m not his girlfriend.

I shake myself from that fantasy. “Okay, well I need to go wash this goop off my face and then we can—”

I’m interrupted by the sound of Nathan’s phone buzzing on the kitchen counter. I look over my shoulder, but he holds up his hand, signaling for me to leave it be. “Shhh, no one move and maybe they’ll think I’m not home.”

“I can answer it and pretend they have the wrong number.”

“No one believed your French last time.”

That’s true. Tim, Nathan’s manager, made me hand Nathan the phone right away.

Nathan grabs the lime green pillow resting under his head and pulls it up to bury his face in. There’s an odd sense of satisfaction that hums through me because I get to see him like this, because he only lets his guard down with me. “I’m sure it’s just Nicole or Tim wanting another piece of my soul.”

The phone stops ringing.

“Someone is dramatic tonight.”

Nathan peeks over the pillow and lifts a brow. “I’m dramatic every night.”

His eyes shut again, and I let myself have one last good long look at him. He’s lying on top of a pile of clean clothes that have lived in that spot for a week. There are nail polishes scattered all over my coffee table and bills open on the floor. The funny thing is, Nathan is the physical manifestation of order and tidiness, but he’s never once tried to clean up my space. (And thank goodness because I know under the pile of leggings in the corner of my room is an open magazine with a red pen lying underneath, and if he ever moved that pile, I’d have no idea where the red pen is when I need it!) He’s never made a negative remark about how I like to live messy or suggested order in my life. He just lies down on top of my clothes.

I mentally grab myself by the ponytail and pry myself away from Nathan to rinse the cracking mask off of my face. I change into some cute and casual partygoing jeans and a t-shirt, and just as I’m exiting my room, I hear a loud series of quick buzzes erupt from Nathan’s phone in the kitchen. It’s a new voicemail alert. I’m down my short hallway and almost to the living room when Nathan yells, “Hey Siri, play that voicemail.”

I love technology. Giving us these little servants.

The next voice I hear, though, stops me dead in my tracks.

It’s my landlord.





“Hello, Mr. Donelson, this is Vance Herbert…”

I turn around and make eye contact with Nathan, who’s now sitting up stiff as a board on the couch. We both stare at each other for exactly one second, and then we simultaneously bolt for the kitchen. I was closer, though, so I’m the one to get to the phone first.

I pick it up and make a break for my bedroom. Nathan is right on my heels and trying to catch my arms, but I zigzag and evade his grip. Quick, someone put me in the NFL. We sound like a pack of elephants stampeding the apartment building, all while Vance’s voice continues on in a soft, monotone cadence. “I just wanted to let you know that all of the paperwork has been finalized—”

“BREE! GIVE ME THAT PHONE!”

“Not a chance!”

I make it into my bedroom and try to slam the door in his face, but his big hand catches it and thrusts it back open. I lunge to jump over my bed, hoping to make it to my bathroom where I can lock the door. But Nathan grabs my hips mid-jump and hauls me down onto my bed. I grew up with an older sister, though, so I’m practically CIA level when it comes to protecting my stuff.

I shove the phone down into my bra—the one place I know Nathan will never go.

Just as he flips me over so my shoulders hit the mattress and he’s hovering over me, arms pinning me in on either side, we hear the final words from Vance. “…and you are the official owner of the building. I had my realtor pass the keys along to yours and will be calling Ms. Camden to let her know I’ve sold the building and she’ll have a new landlord from now on—but as discussed, I will not mention your name. If you or your realtor could call me back and let me know which name and contact you would like me to give her, I’d much appreciate it. Have a nice day.”

The room goes eerily silent, except for the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. I’m looking down at where his cell phone is silhouetted under my sports bra, and when I lift my gaze, Nathan’s black eyes are staring at me. He looks like a man who just lost everything in a bad hand of poker.

“You…?”

He doesn’t need me to finish my sentence. “Yes.”

Neither of us make an effort to move, and for a moment the shock of it all leaves me frozen. My eyes trace the line from Nathan’s shoulder down his bicep, to his elbow, over his tan forearm dusted lightly with hair, and to his hand pressed into my comforter.

“You bought the whole building?”

He sighs. “Yes.”

“Wh—why?”

The look on his face says he does not want to answer. “Because I’ve been wanting to invest in real estate?”

“Nathan.”

He swallows, and I watch his Adam’s apple go up and down. I can feel his body heat all around me. “Because he kept changing the terms of the lease agreement and it was just easier to buy it outright than negotiate again. The guy is sleazy.”

I blink a hundred times. “Wait…why did you say the lease agreement, and not your lease agreement?”

The fact that he takes several seconds to respond almost tells me everything I need to know before he even speaks. “Because technically for the last four years…it’s been our lease agreement.”

The reality of it crashes into me and I shoot out from under him to pace the room. “NATHAN! Have you been paying part of my rent all this time?!”

He swivels his legs so he’s sitting on the edge of the bed, hands clasped between his knees in front of him, watching me walk back and forth. “Yes. I have.”

I groan/whimper as dollar signs suddenly start rotating through my vision like a slot machine. Nathan has been helping me financially for FOUR YEARS when I have explicitly told him I don’t want any of his money! This is one of my rules for being friends with him: No accepting monetary gifts. These rules are important to me because they help me keep our friendship in the right box. If I start letting him help financially, if I move in with him, if I attend fancy events and partake in all the perks girlfriends get, I’ll get confused!

He might think it’s nothing because he doesn’t have feelings for me, but I will 100% get things mixed up in my head, and it will crush me when he never wants to be more than friends. Maybe I’m silly, but I’d prefer to not have my heart stuffed into a trash compactor if I can avoid it.

“So the first time…all those years ago when Vance told me he was going to raise the rent and then had a sudden change of heart…that was you? You called him and negotiated to pay the part of my rent I couldn’t afford?”

Nathan’s long lashes blink his answer in morse code. “Bree…”

I whip around to him so hard I’m sure I’ll have a crick in my neck tomorrow. “What? Do you want to apologize now that you got caught? Now that you’re in trouble?”

“No.”

“No?!” Somehow that answer is even more infuriating.

“I can’t apologize because I’m not sorry that I did it.” He’s so calm and collected. Mr. Cool Cucumber here to throw on his sunglasses and show us all up.

I, in comparison, feel like Ms. Erratic Woman Who Stuck Her Finger In a Light Socket. “How can you not be sorry? You went behind my back! You lied to me all these years. Oh gosh, I’m thousands of dollars in your debt!” My hands press into my cheeks.

“You owe me nothing. Not a single dime. You’re not in my debt because I don’t need anything from you.”

“Yes, I do owe you!” My voice is screeching. “How can you not see that this is horribly uncomfortable for me, Nathan? I told you I didn’t want to take your money, and I meant it.”

Part of his cool and collected facade is cracking. He stands quickly. “Why? I’ve never understood! It makes no sense to me. You are my best friend, so why can’t I help you when you need money? I have more than I know what to do with!”

“Because you won’t always be here for me, Nathan!” Okay, whoa, that was way too loud. My statement cuts through the air like a foghorn in a bar fight. People are poised with chairs over their heads, ready to crack them down on their fellow outlaws and all blinking at me.

“Why the hell would you think that?”

“Because it’s true.” I can’t meet his eyes while I say this. “We’re just friends. What happens when I start relying on you financially and then one day you get married and your wife suddenly doesn’t like it that you’re paying for another woman’s rent and all the other things you’d pay for if I let you?”

He shifts from one foot to the other. “I…I wouldn’t marry someone who would be like that. I’ll find someone who’s comfortable with our friendship the way it is.”

I laugh a short, sad laugh. “There is not a single woman who would ever be okay with it, Nathan! It’s an inevitable fact that we have to face. One day we will not be able to be so close anymore. You will fall in love and marry a kickass woman who wants you all to herself—as she should—and you will want to give her your whole heart too. That is why I cannot rely on you financially.” There’s an uncomfortable twisting in my chest. It’s only half of the truth, but it’s all I can reveal.

I stare at him, hoping he will finally get it through his beautiful, benevolent head that I can’t let him be my sugar daddy.

Finally, after a long, thoughtful pause, he says, “How come you’re not also falling in love and getting married in this scenario?” His tone is nothing but playful. “Seems unfair that I get to find my fairytale love and you’ll be over there penniless and lonely.”

I growl and shake my fists in the air. “I’M PAYING YOU BACK!” I punctuate it with an indignant stomp. Ceiling drywall dust flits through the air like snow.

He shakes his head. “No you’re not. I won’t let you.”

“Yes. I. Am.” I blink furiously at him. “I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I will find a way to pay you back. And I expect a normal lease agreement to be settled between us! No deals!”

“Can you stop yelling? Your whole ceiling is about to cave in. And seriously, Bree, that smell is getting worse. It might be more than one dead raccoon.”

He’s lost all reason! Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs! I’m over here telling him our friendship has a ticking clock on it and negotiating a fair rent, while he’s in la-la land talking about raccoons.

“You will not distract me.” I jab a finger right in the center of his taut chest. “It’s time for you to promise me you will stop meddling in my financial affairs. Promise me right now or I’m not going with you to Jamal’s party tonight.” I cross my arms and jut my hip out. There. I’m in charge of this show, buddy.

A dangerous glint slowly enters Nathan’s eyes as he steps closer, forcing me to press my finger harder into his chest. “Sorry, but no.” He steps a little closer. “Do you know what it’s like to see your best friend care for every single person under the sun but herself? I watch you pour everything into those girls and their families, going above and beyond to not only give them incredible dance instruction but also make them feel loved in the process. And for some reason, you think that same kindness shouldn’t be extended toward yourself.”

His smile turns defiant now.

“Well, tough, friend. I have millions of dollars and I will spoil you with them if I want. You’re going to have to throw me off a bridge if you don’t want me meddling in your life, because that’s what friends do. So get used to it. Oh, and you’re getting a good deal on your damn rent from now on. So are the people in the pizza parlor below the studio.”

I gasp. “Not fair! You don’t get to go all soft-squishy-teddy-bear Nathan on me!”

“I just did. And if it helps you sleep at night, pretend I only did all of this as charity for your girls. It had nothing to do with you.”

“That’s it. I’m not going with you tonight. End of story. You need to be taught a lesson.” I fold my arms. I am a solid, immovable stone. I will not be swayed!

Nathan’s laugh is the last thing I hear before I’m scooped up and tossed over his shoulder, butt aimed up toward the sky.





“NATHAN! Put me down!” I screech as he carries me out of my room.

“There is nothing wrong with getting a little help in life. Friends help each other get ahead. In fact, I think my next project will be getting you out of this dump.” He knocks a knuckle on the wall and paint chips fall.

“Don’t you dare buy my apartment building and renovate it!”

“I might. I’ve got money to blow, baby.”

Who is this man?!

“You’re unhinged!” I yell at his butt.

“Yep. Feels good too. Now, come on, yell at me some more in the truck. I really don’t want to go to the party tonight without you, and I know you don’t want to miss it.”

I kick and flail. “No way! I’m not going with you. We’re fighting! You don’t get to get your way right now, you big brute!” He gives my behind a single gentle pat after I say the word brute, which makes me gasp with outrage and also want to die laughing. UGHHHH I hate Nathan. Why can’t we just fight like normal people?

“You can’t touch my butt! That’s against the rules,” I say as he walks me back toward the front door, stopping to turn out lights as he goes. My hair dangles in the air below me like a weeping willow.

“I never did see a list written out anywhere.”

“I’ll make you one and laminate it! Why are you acting so weird tonight anyway?” It’s freaking me out. Something about Nathan feels different. He’s always been playful with me, but now he’s… I refuse to let my brain finish that thought.

“I think I’m acting normal.”

“No, you’re not, and I’m not going with you to the party! PUT ME DOWN! Wait, can you grab my tennis shoes? They’re down there beside the couch. And don’t forget my sweater!”

With me still draped over his shoulder, Nathan sumo squats and retrieves my shoes before turning out the final light, picking up my sweater, and taking us into the hallway. He swings me around so he can lock the door behind us, and I find myself face to face with my sweet elderly neighbor Dorthea. Her curlers are in her hair for the night, and her eyes are as wide as saucers.

I smile like everything is normal. “Hey, Mrs. Dorthea. Did you get that stack of coupons I slipped under your door this morning?”

Mrs. Dorthea is a widow, and I know she struggles financially. Since I also fall in the category of struggling financially, the most I can do is clip coupons for her and share my leftovers. More than once, however, she’s thanked me for the hundred-dollar bill she found in her mailbox even though I never gave her one. I thought maybe her memory was just beginning to slip, but now I see the truth. Nathan. I need a paper bag to breathe into. In how many other areas of my life has this man secretly Mother Teresa-ed me?

“Well, yes, honey, I did…but…” She’s at a loss for words since I’m casually thrown over Nathan’s shoulder like this is a normal way for a woman to be carried around in the twenty-first century. Some part of me says I should be appalled to be hauled around by a man like this, but I can’t hear her because the larger part of me is too busy yelling, YES! Carry me back to your cave and make sweet, sweet love to me!

Suddenly, I’m swung around the opposite way, and now my butt is aimed at my poor sweet neighbor.

“Hi, Mrs. Dorthea. Looking pretty as always. Do you have everything you need tonight?” Nathan asks—with a big charming smile, I’m sure. I bet all those pearly whites are completely dazzling her.

Yep. He totally smiled, because now Mrs. Dorthea is tripping all over her words trying to thank him for his compliment, assuring him she’s as blessed as the Pope and congratulating him on another win this past weekend. I roll my eyes.

I’m then carried down three flights of disgusting stairs. I can hear Nathan’s shoes peeling off the sticky floor with every step. Yuck. You’d think this apartment would come with super low rent for how disgusting this building is, but NOPE. That’s LA for you. I pay way too much to live in a building that smells like armpit.

Before we make it to the lobby, I decide if Nathan can touch my butt, I can touch his. I scrunch my nose then move my finger and thumb toward his butt cheek with the intent to pinch the daylights out of him so he’ll put me down. The first attempt, however, is unsuccessful. He only laughs and flexes his rock solid glute, making it so there’s no padding I can grab to inflict damage.

“Do less squats,” I tell him with a put-out tone and fold my arms, resigned to drape over him like a coat until he puts me down, wondering where I went so wrong in our fight tonight.

We make it to the truck and Nathan plops me into the front seat, shuts the door, and then gives me a Stay look through the window. I search my pockets and find a used gum wrapper to toss on the floorboard of his truck out of spite.

Nathan slides into the driver’s side of his blacked-out truck—the windows so dark no one ever knows who’s in here, which is lots of fun—and gives me a look that says, Alright, let me have it. So I do the opposite because I’m in a mood to make him pay for his good deeds. I raise my brows in a sassy mocking expression then pull out my phone and settle into my seat to ignore him for the entire drive.

He groans. “The silent treatment? Oh come on! Anything but that.” I don’t answer, just turn my gaze out the window like I can’t be bothered by his distraction. “Fine. Make me pay. I deserve it.” He leans over the center console and retrieves the gum wrapper. It goes in the tiny trash can he keeps in his driver’s side door.

I’ll be honest, though, it’s tough to feel justified making a man pay for being too kind. I know it was underhanded and manipulative and deceptive, but dammit it was so sweet I could cry. It’s so Nathan that the only thing he’s guilty of is having too big of a heart. I wish he would stop making me love him more. It’s annoying.

After scrolling through Twitter for a few minutes and trying to block out Nathan’s ridiculous attempts to draw me in by rapping to 90s hip hop songs about big booties, I come across a retweeted article with Nathan’s face on it. Now, I’ve been friends with him long enough to know not to read any of the tabloids about him, but this one stands out for reasons I can’t ignore.

“OH MY GOSH, I’LL MURDER HER!” I yell so loud I’m surprised Nathan’s windows don’t shatter.

“Who?!” he asks frantically while pulling his truck into the parking lot of the restaurant where we’re meeting up with the guys.

I blink down at the article. “Kelsey! Your horrible ex! She wrote an article about you…and…” I look up at him. “Have you not seen it?”

“Oh.” He’s not concerned. “I heard something about it, but I haven’t cared enough to check. I figured Tim would call me if it was that bad.”

“Okay, well I guess you don’t care that she’s deemed you the lousiest lover in LA, then?”

“What?”

That got his attention.

Nathan takes the phone from my hand, his eyes scan down the article, and then he relaxes and tosses the phone back into my lap. “Eh, not so bad. Ready to go in?”

My mouth falls open and I peer down at the article that would have me burying myself alive. “Not so bad? Nathan, she shamed you for…” I let that sentence die off because Nathan and I have NEVER talked openly about our sex lives before. We treat the topic like it’s a building on fire and give it a wide berth. Instead, I let my eyes drop to the forbidden area of his jeans and hope this conveys the words I’m too embarrassed to say. “Not being able to…well, you read it, so you know.”

He’s trying not to smile. “It’s not a big deal.” He reaches into the back seat and a crisp, white dress shirt materializes. He shrugs it on and buttons it up. Not a care in the world.

I don’t understand his nonchalance right now.

“How are you not upset? I’m practically shaking with rage! I want to go put red ants in her underwear drawer! Put hot sauce in her coffee creamer! Duct-tape her car doors shut!”

“Ooo, how devious. Do the feds know about you?”

I lightly smack his shoulder. “Don’t laugh! This is serious.” For some reason, I’m blinking back tears right now. “She—she publicly shamed you for having erectile dysfunction, Nathan. That’s a horrible thing to do! And humiliating. And you’re the nicest guy in the whole world! And I HATE HER!”

Nathan barks out a laugh and his head tilts up to heaven like he’s praying for wisdom. His big hand rakes through his hair then he turns his eyes on me again. “Bree, thank you for your concern, but I don’t have erectile dysfunction. She blew the story out of proportion and was just trying to dig at me for not having sex with her…and probably for choosing you over her the day we broke up. But the joke is on her because, as you’ve pointed out, it’s very insensitive to shame anyone for the condition.” He gestures toward my phone. “Just look at the comments at the end of that article. She’s getting terrible backlash, and men are saying they feel better knowing an athlete struggles with the same condition they have.” He shrugs again. “All in all, not a terrible outcome.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he’s so noble. But my brain stopped listening after one very important key statement.

“Wait. Go back. Did you say for not…” Again I’m at a loss for words.

Nathan Donelson did not sleep with the underwear model he dated for two months? My brain is not computing. It’s going to shut down, and fumes are about to puff out of my ears.

“You never had sex with her? Why?” I ask this question even though I shouldn’t. But I need to know, because Nathan is…Nathan! Just look at him. He oozes sexuality, and every woman in the world wants him. Even Mrs. Dorthea probably has the hots for him!

His face is frighteningly serious. We’re not joking around anymore. “Because I’m celibate.”

“What!” I accidentally yell this so loud a woman walking beside the truck turns to try to peer through the darkened window. Scram, lady. I look back at Nathan and whisper, “You’re a virgin?”

“No.” His smirk is a little too indulgent if you ask me. “I guess I should say I’ve been celibate lately.”

I shake my head, thinking of all the nights I wanted to cry myself to sleep thinking of him holding another woman in his arms. Holding Kelsey. Turns out, he wasn’t. “I don’t understand…she was there the morning I brought coffee over.”

“You’re at my house a lot in the mornings too. That doesn’t mean we’ve done anything physical.”

I suddenly can’t swallow. Or feel my toes. What’s happening?! Why am I reacting this way? It changes nothing really—except I feel like everything I knew has changed tonight. My foundation is shaking.

Nathan sees my wide eyes and rumbles out a short chuckle. “Why are you making this such a big deal?”

“Because,” I say emphatically like that’s enough of an answer. “You could have anyone you wanted at the snap of your fingers. Why would you be celibate?” I NEED TO KNOW! There’s something he’s still not telling me, and it’s bothering me. I didn’t think he and I had any secrets, but now I’m learning he has two big ones! How many more are there?

His dark eyes stare back at me. “Not anyone I want.”

My heart races up my throat. Those words mixed with the night and the fact that he bought my studio and we spend nearly every day together…it all suddenly holds so much implication, and…could this be it?! Could he mean—

He chuckles, a familiar playfulness washing over him again, and all hopeful thoughts halt. As they should.

“Look at your face,” he says through a soft laugh. “You were so terrified there for a minute. Bree, don’t worry. I’m only celibate during the season because it helps my game.”

His game? He’s celibate for the sake of football? Oh. Right. That’s more realistic and yet another reason to remind myself not to think of Nathan as anything other than a friend. That’s all we’ll ever be, and that has to be enough for me. It has to! I need to sit my sad little heart down and give it a stern talking to.

I let the air out of my lungs in one big rush, pretending I’m relieved so I can maintain the status quo. “Oh! Oh my gosh! Yes. That makes perfect sense. I’ve read studies about that too! I was worried there for a minute that you meant…” It feels too uncomfortable to say it out loud, also maybe a little pathetic. “Never mind. Let’s just go inside.”

“Okay.” He smiles inquisitively. I’m afraid my face is showing emotions it shouldn’t. “Are you alright?” he asks after he’s purchased a parking ticket (he refuses to use the valet because he says it only draws more attention to him) and we’re walking toward the restaurant.

“Of course! I just—” I need a change of subject. So I come to a stop and Nathan does too. I wait until he turns to look at me. “Listen, I still hate that you went behind my back and paid my rent, but…completely off the record…” I smile. “Thank you for caring about me that much. You’re…the best of friends.”

He nods once, not looking as happy as I would have anticipated. “Anything for you, friend.”

We stare at each other for a few beats.

“But I will pay you back,” I say, breaking first.

He groans loudly and walks away.





The moment the restaurant doors open, several heads turn and do a double take. I feel like it would be easier if I just ran in front of Nathan with a megaphone and yelled, Attention everyone! No, your eyes are not deceiving you. This truly is the great Nathan Donelson in the flesh!

One head leans toward another. The restaurant is a giant cocktail of whispers and stares. Women are salivating now. We’re going to need a mop on aisle two. They know him, they want him, and they will do anything to get him.

I do what I always do in situations like this and take two big steps away from him so I don’t get in the way of his bachelor availability. But Nathan grasps my elbow lightly and tugs me close to his side. I look up at him with a scowl because my body is getting far too excited about our proximity right now. He knows not to do this, and yet here he is, breaking another rule tonight. His face is chiseled stone as he stares straight ahead, ignoring my glare.

The hostess finally notices us and rushes to her little podium. Her eyes rake over Nathan’s body, and the sheer want displayed in her dilated pupils is uncomfortable for everyone. Get in line, lady. I sigh then inwardly growl as my jealousy rises up and tells me to pick apart this woman’s looks to find a flaw that will make me feel better about myself. Not cool, Bree. If Nathan wants this beautiful woman, that’s his prerogative.

“Mr. Donelson, you can follow me. Your party is right this way.” But maybe I can be a little annoyed that she’s practically purring?

He nods and gives her that polite smile that makes women drop like flies. But then he presses his hand to my low back and pulls me with him. It’s a possessive touch that he never uses. My skin boils, but I tell it to slow itself to a simmer because it doesn’t mean anything. Based on the pace he’s moving at, his hand is only pressing into me like this because he’s trying to get me to move faster to get us away from all these prying eyes and not-so-subtle whispers. Maybe we should have called ahead and come in the back entrance?

I nearly trip over my tennis shoes as I try to keep pace with him. Also, tennis shoes?!

“Nathan!” I hiss as we walk not so discreetly through the upscale restaurant—I’m assuming this hostess was told to parade Nathan through the belly of the beast so everyone knows he was here—toward a hallway that leads to a VIP lounge. “Why did you have to kidnap me dressed like this? You should have told me to change! I thought we were going to a burger place or something.” Which, I now realize, was a silly thought. The Sharks are officially in the playoffs, and Nathan and Jamal’s celebrity status has skyrocketed. They have to be careful where they go right now, and I’m assuming most burger places wouldn’t have a VIP lounge to give them privacy.

Nathan’s brows dip and he scans his eyes over me as we walk. He takes in my yellow scrunchie, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. logo t-shirt, scuffed-up sneakers, and ankle-cropped jeans. He smiles. “You look great as always.”

“No, I don’t,” I say, accidentally bumping into the back of his bicep when I look behind me at the women in tiny dresses lining the bar we just passed. “I look like your teenaged little sister who you just picked up from school.”

His hand presses firmer into my back so I don’t trip again. “I don’t think you’re getting glares from those women because they assume you’re my little sister.”

I would refute that comment, but in the next moment we are swept inside the lounge. We’re the only ones back here, so I’m assuming all the other celebrities decided to have their chefs cook for them at home tonight.

A velvet rope gets clasped behind us. We’re led to a private little nook with drapes hanging around it for added privacy. Good thing, too, because a small crowd was beginning to form behind us, poised to receive autographs and photos the moment Nathan sits down.

“Here you are,” says the woman I’m definitely not letting myself be jealous of. She gives a pretty little wink and walks off, cute hips swaying. It’s not until I turn back to Nathan and see him staring at me and holding back a smile that I realize I was shooting laser beams at the hostess the whole time.

“If looks could kill,” he says, giving in to his quiet grin.

I open my mouth to defend myself, but we get interrupted.

“Bree Cheese!” says Jamal Mericks, emerging from the draped nook wearing an incredible suit. I get tugged away from Nathan and wrapped up in an enormous, expensive-cologne-filled hug. “Quit hogging her, man. It’s my birthday.”

“Yeah, Nathan, quit being so stingy,” I say sarcastically while digging around in my purse to find Jamal’s present.

He rubs his hands together, and the gold watch on his wrist twinkles. “Oooo am I getting a Breenket?! Please say I am. It’s been too long since you gave me that cat figurine.” It was in honor of the time Jamal and I went to a cat cafe together to overcome his fear of felines. Unfortunately, the scratch he got from that particularly crabby tabby got super infected, and now he won’t even go in the same room as a cat. Anyway, I got him the cat figurine so he can have one kitty that will never scratch him.

“Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”

He grimaces, looking at Nathan. “She doesn’t have a real cat stuffed in that bag, does she?”

“Wouldn’t tell you if she did,” says Nathan, earning ten brownie points from me.

Jamal sighs, shuts his eyes, and cups his hands in front of him. “Trusting you with my life.”

So here’s the story: Jamal likes to make sure he looks good at all times, so he slips off to look in the bathroom mirror a lot when we’re out at a bar. Last time, while he was gone asking the mirror who was the fairest of them all, he missed a Nicole Kidman sighting. Nicole is Jamal’s lifelong crush, and he was devastated to learn he’d missed his chance at seeing her in person. (It’s important to note that this was the offseason and we were all several drinks in, and also that Nicole Kidman’s friend called her Sally.)

I place a compact mirror in Jamal’s hands. “So you never have to miss Nicole again!”

He squints an eye open and laughs, opening the little black circular mirror to peer at himself. “The perfect Breenket. Nathan, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m officially stealing Bree as my best friend.” He slips it into his pocket and wraps an arm around my shoulder at the same time that I put mine around his waist. Jamal turns me away from Nathan before I can get a look at his expression. I don’t know why I want to see it. It’s not like he’d be jealous.

But I do hear Nathan mumble, “Over my dead body.” So that’s sort of gratifying.

He parts the drapes, and all of my favorite guys in the world are already seated around a giant table. I’m once again struck by how wild it is that my best friend is the quarterback of the Sharks. These are Nathan’s teammates, some of the sweetest men I’ve ever met.

Jamal Mericks is the starting running back, Derek Pender plays tight end, Jayon Price (we just call him Price) plays wide receiver, and Lawrence Hill plays left tackle. These men could all squash me between their thumb and forefinger, but they are all softies who honest-to-goodness treat me like their queen. They would carry me around on a chair lifted above their shoulders if I let them. I have no idea why—probably because I’m that girl who doesn’t have an ounce of threat in my five-foot-four body. To these guys (Nathan included), I’m just Bree Cheese, the fun-loving, curly-haired girl everyone loves with the dance studio above the pizza parlor.

“Bree!” All the guys cheer when they see me, and I give them a funny little curtsy. Next thing I know, these rowdy boys have all lifted and shifted me around the table to where I’m sandwiched in the middle of everyone. I look like a baby sitting between four bouncers. This is always how it goes. They’re always very respectful, but they do like to move me around like I’m a hot potato.

“No ladies tonight?” I ask with a chuckle as everyone takes a turn kissing my cheek and then plopping a round of shots down in front of me. Jamal’s arm goes behind me on the bench, and I can’t help but notice Nathan’s quiet grin as he watches from across the table.

“Nah—no one can compare to you. It’s just us tonight,” says Jamal with a smile nearly as devastating as Nathan’s. Such flirts. “Also, Dad won’t let us have more than one drink because of the playoffs. You good to party enough for all of us?”

The team r