Main The Wall of Winnipeg and Me
You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me
Most frequently terms
Beautiful story filled with strong headed Male Lead with and even stronger willed Female Lead...Highly recommend
16 November 2020 (16:20)
Lovely book , enjoyed it thoroughly.
08 March 2021 (12:06)
This is my favourite book of Mariana Zapata
13 May 2021 (19:21)
amazing, heart wrenching book ❤️
21 June 2021 (23:21)
this is slowburn book but its such a page turner. I love this book so much :((
22 June 2021 (12:37)
THIS HAS BECOME MY ALL TIME FAVORITE BOOK the development, the banter, the good decisions ughhh I’m in love and Mariana has become one of my fav authors now 1000/10 DEFINITELY WORTH IT
07 July 2021 (09:16)
Mona Ahmed Abdi
This book is AMAZINGGGGGG. If you enjoy slow burn go ahead!
15 July 2021 (22:20)
I usually don't comment on books but I'll make an exemption for this one. I love the characters, their banter, what the main girl is thinking is the funniest part if it. I was addicted like I didn't mind being hungry or doing any other thing. This book is amazinggggggg. Kudos to the author. Highly recommended
30 July 2021 (20:17)
I loved this book so much and have been looking for one similar to it. If anyone has any recommendations I would love to know!
07 August 2021 (22:16)
it´s literally the first time i comment on a book. i read it in one sitting. both characters! the chemistry, the slow burn! its perfect
09 August 2021 (17:40)
Jesus Cuming from the Rear
If you like this book, well, my simple friends, you should read How to Be a Motherfucking Pimp by Dazzle Razzle. That will have you shaving your head and bleaching your pubes.
16 August 2021 (05:48)
UGH ITS SO GOOD, WHAT A BOOK TURNER
18 August 2021 (19:16)
I LOVE this book it so good ❤❤❤
24 August 2021 (22:10)
Honestly I just love this book ...
I definitely recommend it
I definitely recommend it
29 August 2021 (23:29)
Probably the best book I've ever read. Rereading for the ninth time today:))
19 September 2021 (20:14)
This book was amazing, I could not put it down. Their banter throughout was the cutest thing.
20 September 2021 (22:25)
Hands down the most amazing thing I ever read? I usually skimmed sentences but not this one as I was afraid to miss important stuff.thank u author,it was a great read
21 September 2021 (23:25)
It was okay. Another ungrateful, grumpy guy again. Oh well. I did not love this novel as I love Kulti, but y'all should give this a try! ALSO READ KULTI!!!
It was okay. Another ungrateful, grumpy guy again. Oh well. I did not love this novel as I love Kulti, but y'all should give this a try! ALSO READ KULTI!!!
23 September 2021 (14:16)
Am.reading this book.for like 6th or 7th time....am obsessed ???
25 September 2021 (23:54)
This and kulti are literary masterpieces. I'm in love with Mariana zapata's writing.
06 October 2021 (18:12)
Toshko loshoto momche
did you guys come here because of stephs videio? Cuz i hell yeah
09 October 2021 (13:38)
This book makes me laugh so much, highly recomended!!
10 October 2021 (20:46)
Wow no words its amazing go read it
13 October 2021 (08:34)
Will always be the favourite one
Will always be the favourite one
24 October 2021 (16:01)
very slow burn, like so so slow
25 October 2021 (01:58)
I'm happy I discovered this one, it's so good. I love it!!! Mariana Zapata u great!!!
06 November 2021 (07:57)
i loved this book its very good
16 November 2021 (12:14)
Highly recommend, slow burn love it
25 November 2021 (18:26)
Love love love it Iv been reading it for like 8hrs
02 December 2021 (23:22)
The Wall of Winnipeg and Me Mariana Zapata Contents Copyright Dedication 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 Epilogue Acknowledgments About the Author Also by Mariana Zapata The Wall of Winnipeg and Me © 2016 Mariana Zapata All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights. This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2016 Mariana Zapata Book Cover Design by Letitia Hasser, Romantic Book Affairs Interior Formatting by Jeff Senter, Indie Formatting Services In Memory of Alan Chapter One I was going to murder his ass. One day. One day long after I quit, so no one would suspect me. “Aiden,” I grumbled, even though I knew better. Grumbling only got me the look—that infamous, condescending expression that had gotten Aiden into more than one fight in the past. Or so I’d been told. When the edges of his mouth turned down, got tight, and his brown eyes went heavy lidded, all it made me want to do was stick my finger up his nose. It’s what my mom used to do to us when we were little and would pout. The man in question, who was on the verge of either a bloody, imaginary death or a carefully c; rafted one that involved dish soap, his food, and a long period of time, made a noise from behind the bowl of quinoa salad in front of him, which was big enough to feed a family of four. “You heard me. Cancel it,” he repeated as if I’d gone deaf the first time he’d said it. Oh, I’d heard him. Loud and clear. That was why I wanted to kill him. Which basically showed how amazing the human mind was; how you could care about someone but want to slit his or her throat at the same time. Like having a sister who you wanted to punch right in the ovaries. You still loved her, you just wanted to sock her right in the baby-maker to teach her a lesson—not that I knew from experience or anything. The fact that I didn’t immediately respond probably made him add, with that same facial expression aimed right at me, “I don’t care what you have to tell them. Get it done.” Pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose with my left index finger, I lowered my right hand so that the cabinet could hide the middle finger I aimed right at Aiden. If his facial expression wasn’t bad enough, the tone he was using annoyed me even more. It was the voice he used to warn me it was pointless to argue with him; he wasn’t going to change his mind right then, or ever, and I needed to deal with it. I always needed to deal with it. When I’d first started working for the three-time National Football Organization’s Defensive Player of the Year, there had only been a few things I wasn’t a fan of doing; haggling with people, telling them no, and sticking my hand into the garbage disposal because I was both the cook and the cleaning lady of the house. But if there was something I hated doing—and I mean really, really hated doing—it was cancelling on people last minute. It got on my nerves and went against my moral code. I mean, a promise was a promise, wasn’t it? Then again, this wasn’t me letting his fans down, technically. It was Aiden. Freaking Aiden, who was busy inhaling his second lunch of the day without a care in the world, was oblivious to the frustrations he was going to make me face when I called his agent. After all the trouble we’d gone to schedule it, I was going to have to break the news that Aiden wasn’t going to be signing anything at the sporting goods store in San Antonio. Yippee. I sighed, guilt niggling my belly and conscience, and reached down to rub my stiff knee with the hand that wasn’t busy expressing my frustrations. “You already promised them—” “I don’t care, Vanessa.” He shot me that look again. My middle finger twitched. “Have Rob cancel it,” he insisted, as his giant forearm went up so he could shovel what looked like eight ounces of food into his mouth at once. The fork he was holding hovered in the air a moment as he flicked that dark, stubborn gaze to meet mine. “Is that a problem?” Vanessa-this. Vanessa-that. Cancel it. Have Rob cancel it. Boo. As if I loved calling his asshole agent to begin with, much less so he could cancel an appearance two days before it was supposed to take place. He was going to lose his mind, and then direct his frustrations at me as if I had some kind of pull over Aiden “The Wall of Winnipeg” Graves. The truth was, the closest I’d ever come to helping him make any kind of decision had been when I recommended a camera for him to buy, and that was only because he “had better things to do than camera research” and because “that’s what I pay you for.” He had a point of course. Between what he paid me and what Zac chipped in from time to time, I could manage to put a smile on my face—even if it was a forced one—and do what was asked of me. Every once in a while, I even did a little curtsy, which Aiden pretended not to witness. I didn’t think he really appreciated the amount of patience I had exercised when dealing with him for the last two years. Someone else would have already stabbed him in his sleep for sure. At least, when I went through plans for how I’d do it, it was usually in a painless way. Usually. Since he’d ruptured his Achilles tendon barely a month into the season last year, he’d turned into something else. I tried not to blame him; I really did. Missing nearly three months of the entire regular season and being blamed for your team not making it to the post season, or the playoffs, was hard to deal with. On top of that, some people had thought he wasn’t going to make a full comeback after having to take six months off to recover and rehab. The kind of injury he’d sustained was no joke. But this was Aiden. Some athletes took even longer than that amount of time to get back on their feet, if they ever did. He hadn’t. But dealing with him on crutches, driving him to and from rehab and appointments, had taken a toll on my patience more than once. There was only so much cranky little bitch you can handle in a day, even if it was called for. Aiden loved what he did, and I had to imagine he was scared he wouldn’t be able to play again, or that he would come back and not play up to the same level he’d been used to, not that he would ever voice any fears out loud. That was all understandable to me. I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if something happened to my hands and there was a chance I might not ever be able to draw again. Regardless, his crankiness had hit a level not previously documented in the history of the universe. That was saying something, considering I’d grown up with three older sisters who all had periods at the same time. Because of them, most things—most people—didn’t bother me. I knew what it was like to be bullied, and Aiden never crossed the line into being unnecessarily mean. He was just a jackass sometimes. He was lucky I had a tiny, itty, bitty crush on him; otherwise, he would have gotten the shank years ago. Then again, just about everyone with eyes who happened to also like men, had some kind of a thing for Aiden Graves. When he raised his eyebrows and looked at me from beneath those curly black eyelashes, flashing me rich-brown eyes set deep into a face that I’d only seen smile in the presence of dogs, I swallowed and shook my head slowly as I gritted my teeth and took him in. The size of a small building, he should have had these big, uneven features that made him look like a caveman, but of course he didn’t. Apparently, he liked to defy every stereotype he’d ever been assigned in his life. He was smart, fast, coordinated, and—as far as I knew—had never seen a game of hockey. He had only said ‘eh’ in front of me twice, and he didn’t consume animal protein. The man didn’t eat bacon. He was the last person I would ever consider polite, and he never apologized. Ever. Basically, he was an anomaly; a Canadian football-playing, plant-based lifestyle—he didn’t like calling himself a vegan—anomaly that was strangely proportional all over and so handsome I might have thanked God for giving me eyes on a couple of occasions. “Whatever you want, big guy,” I said with a fake smile and a flutter of my eyelashes, even as I still flipped him off. “They’ll get over it,” Aiden said casually, ignoring his nickname, rolling back two immensely muscular shoulders. I swear they were wide enough for a small person to drape across comfortably. “It isn’t a big deal.” It wasn’t a big deal? The promoters wouldn’t feel that way, much less his agent, but then Aiden was used to getting his way. No one ever told him no. They told me no, and then I’d have to figure things out. Despite what some people thought, the defensive end of the Three Hundreds, Dallas’s professional football team, wasn’t really an asshole or hard to work with. For all his faces and grumbling, he never cussed and hardly ever lost his temper without good reason. He was demanding; he knew exactly what he wanted and how he liked every single thing in his life. It was honestly an admirable quality, I thought, but it was my job to make those requests come true, regardless of whether I agreed with his decisions or not. Only for a little bit longer though, I reminded myself. I was so close to quitting, I could feel it. The thought made my soul rejoice a bit. Two months ago, my bank account had finally hit a comfortable number through sheer willpower, penny-pinching, and working long hours when I wasn’t Aiden’s assistant/housekeeper/cook. I’d hit my goal: save up a year’s salary. And I had. Finally. Halle-freaking-lujah. I could practically smell freedom in the air. But the keyword there was ‘practically.’ I just hadn’t gotten around to telling Aiden I was quitting yet. “Why are you making that face?” he asked suddenly. I blinked up at him, caught off guard. I raised my eyebrows, trying to play dumb. “What face?” It didn’t work. With a fork hanging out of his mouth, he narrowed his dark eyes just the slightest bit. “That one.” He gestured toward me with his chin. I shrugged in an ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ expression. “Is there something you want to say?” There were a hundred things I wanted to tell him on a regular basis, but I knew him too well. He didn’t really care if there was something I wanted to say or not. He didn’t care if my opinion was different from his or if I thought he should do something differently. He was just reminding me who the boss was. AKA not me. Asswipe. “Me?” I blinked. “Nope.” He gave me a lazy glare before his eyes lowered to focus on the hand I had hidden on the other side of the kitchen island. “Then quit flipping me off. I’m not changing my mind about the signing,” he said in a deceptively casual voice. I pressed my lips together as I dropped my hand. He was a goddamn witch. I swear on my life, he was a freaking witch. A wizard. An oracle. A person with a third eye. Every single time I had ever flipped him off, he’d been aware of it. I didn’t think I was that obvious about it either. It wasn’t like I gave people the middle finger for fun, but it genuinely bothered me that he was cancelling an appearance without a legitimate reason. Backing out because he changed his mind and didn’t want to take an afternoon off from training, didn’t seem like one. But what did I know? “All right,” I muttered under my breath. Aiden, who I was pretty sure had no idea how old I’d turned this year, much less what month my birthday was, made a face for a split second. Those thick, dark eyebrows knit together and his full mouth pinched back at the corners. Then he shrugged, like he’d suddenly stopped caring about what I’d been doing. What was funny was, if someone had told me five years ago that I’d be doing someone else’s dirty work, I would have laughed. I couldn’t remember ever not having goals or some sort of a plan for the future. I had always wanted something to look forward to, and being my own boss was one of those things I strived for. I’d known since I was sixteen at my first summer job, getting yelled at for not putting enough ice into a medium-sized cup at the movie theater I’d worked at, that I would one day want to work for myself. I didn’t like getting told what to do. I never had. I was stubborn and hardheaded, at least that’s what my foster dad said was my greatest and worst personality trait. I wasn’t shooting for the stars or aiming to become a billionaire. I didn’t want to be a celebrity or anything close to that. I just wanted my own small business doing graphic design work that could pay my bills, keep me fed, and still have a little extra left over for other things. I didn’t want to have to rely on someone else’s charity or whim. I’d had to do that for as long as I could remember, hoping my mom would come home sober, hoping my sisters would make me food when my mom wasn’t around, and then hoping the lady with social services could at least keep me and my little brother together…. Why was I even thinking about that? For the most part, I’d always known what I wanted to do with my life, so I’d naively thought half the battle was in the bag. Making it work should have been easy. What no one tells you is that the road to accomplishing your goals isn’t a straight line; it looks more like a corn maze. You stopped, you went, you backed up, and took a few wrong turns along the way, but the important thing you had to remember was that there was an exit. Somewhere. You just couldn’t give up looking for it, even when you really wanted to. And especially not when it was easier and less scary to go with the flow than actually strike out on your own and make your path. Scooting the stool he was sitting on back, Aiden got to his feet with his empty glass in hand. His Hulk-sized frame seemed to dwarf the not-exactly-small kitchen every time he was in there… which was always. Big surprise. He consumed at least 7,000 calories a day. During the regular football season, he bumped it up to ten thousand. Of course, he was in the kitchen all day. So was I—making his meals. “Did you buy pears?” he asked, already pushing our conversation and the middle finger incident aside as he filled his glass with water from the refrigerator’s filter. I didn’t feel guilty at all about getting caught flipping him off. The first time it had happened, I thought I was going to die of embarrassment and then get fired, but now I knew Aiden. He didn’t care if I did it, or at least that was the impression I got since I still had a job. I’d seen people come up to him and try goading him, calling him all sorts of names and insults that made me reel back. But what did he do when people did that kind of stuff? He didn’t even twitch; he just pretended not to hear them. Honestly, it was a little impressive to have that kind of backbone. I couldn’t keep it together when someone honked at me while I was driving. But as impressive as Aiden was, as much as his perfect butt made women double-take, and as dumb as most people would think I was for resigning from a job with a man who starred in commercials for an athletic apparel company, I still wanted to quit. The urge got stronger and stronger each day. I’d busted my butt. No one else had done the work for me. This was what I wanted, what I had always wanted. I’d kept my eye on the prize for years for the opportunity to be my own boss. Having to call assholes who made it seem like I was an inconvenience, or folding underwear that clung to the most spectacular ass in the country, wasn’t it. Tell him, tell him, tell him right now you’re planning on quitting, my brain egged on almost desperately. But that nagging little voice of indecision and self-doubt that liked to hang out in the space where my non-existent spine should have been, reminded me, What's the rush? * * * The first time I met The Wall of Winnipeg, the second thing he said to me was, “Can you cook?” He hadn’t shaken my hand, asked me to sit down, or anything like that. In retrospect, that should have warned me of how things would be between us. Aiden had asked me my name when he first let me in the front door and led me straight into a beautiful, open kitchen that looked like something straight out of a home renovation show. Then he’d gone straight for questioning my cooking skills. Before that day, his manager had already interviewed me twice. The position was in the income range I’d been aiming for, and that was all that had mattered to me back then. The employment agency I’d signed up with, had already called me into their offices on three separate occasions to make sure I’d be a good fit for ‘a celebrity’ as they called him. A bachelor’s degree, a wide range of jobs I’d worked at that varied from being a divorce lawyer’s secretary for three years while I went to college, summers spent doing photography for anyone who would hire me, a pretty successful side business selling makeup and stuff from a catalog, and excellent references, had gotten me a callback. I was pretty sure that wasn’t what really got me the job though; it was my ignorance when it came to football. If there was a game on TV, chances were I wasn’t paying attention to it. I’d never even seen Aiden Graves before my first day. I didn’t exactly walk around telling people the only games I ever watched were the ones I’d been to in person during high school. So when his manager had mentioned the name of my potential employer, I had stared at him blankly. I would more than likely never know for sure if it was my lack of excitement that scored me the position, but I had a feeling it was. Even after Aiden’s manager offered me the job, I hadn’t bothered looking him up. What was the point? It wasn’t like anything the Internet said about him could change my mind about becoming his assistant. Really, nothing could have. I wasn’t ashamed to say he could have been a serial killer and I would have taken the job if the pay were right. In the end though, I thought it had been a good thing that I hadn’t done a search for him. As I would later learn when I was busy sending out promotional pictures to fans, photographs didn’t do him any justice. At six foot four, just a quarter inch shy of six five, sometimes weighing up to two hundred and eighty pounds in the middle of the off season, and with a presence that made him seem closer to some mythological hero than an average mortal, Aiden was a beast even fully clothed. He didn’t have cosmetic muscles. He was just plain massive. Everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if X-rays showed his bones were more dense than normal. His muscles had been honed and crafted for the specific purpose of as-effectively-as-possible blocking passes and tackling opposing quarterbacks. An extra-extra-large T-shirt that morning of our first meeting didn’t hide the massive bulk of his trapezius, pectorals, deltoids, or much less his biceps and triceps. The guy was ripped. His thighs strained the seams of the sweat pants he’d been wearing. I remembered noticing his fists reminded me of bricks and the wrists that held them to the rest of his body were bigger than I’d ever seen. Then there was the face I would be looking at for the next chunk of my life. Where his features might have been bluntly shaped like so many big guys were, Aiden was handsome in a way that wasn’t aesthetically beautiful. His cheeks were lean, the bones above them high, and his jaw lantern shaped. The deep set of his eyes highlighted thick, black brows. Short, trimmed facial hair which always resembled a five o’clock shadow even after he’d immediately shaved, covered the lower half of his face. A white scar along his hairline, from his temple to below his ear, was the only thing the short bristles couldn’t hide. Then there was that mouth that would have seemed pouty on any another man who might have been smaller and who didn’t glare half as much as he did. He was brown haired and olive skinned. A hint of a thin, gold chain had peeked out from the collar of his shirt, but I’d been so distracted by everything else that was Aiden Graves, it wasn’t until months later that I learned it was a medallion of St. Luke he never went anywhere without. Just his size alone had been intimidating enough for me initially. His piercing brown-eyed gaze only added to the massive amount of intimidation he seemed to bleed out of his pores. Regardless of that though, my first thought had been: Holy shit. Then I had shoved it away because I couldn’t be thinking things like that about my brand new boss. That day of our first meeting, all I had managed to do was nod at him. I’d gone in convinced I’d do whatever was needed to keep the job. His manager and the agency had made sure during the interview process that I knew cooking was part of the job requirement, which wasn’t a big deal. When I was a kid, I’d learned the hard way that if I wanted to eat, I was going to have to do something about it because my older sisters weren’t going to trouble themselves, and I never knew what kind of mood my mom would be in. During college, I’d mastered the art of cooking on a contraband hotplate in my dorm room. Aiden had simply stared at me in response before laying the bomb on me that no one had prepared me for. “I don’t eat any animal products. Will that be a problem?” Did I know how to make anything without eggs, meat, or cheese in it? Not that I could think of. No one had even mentioned that stipulation beforehand—and ignorantly, it wasn’t like he looked like most vegans I’d met in my life—but there was no way in hell I was going back to working three jobs if I absolutely didn’t have to. So, I’d bullshitted. “No, sir.” He’d stood there in the kitchen, looking down at me in my navy khakis, cap-sleeved, white, eyelet blouse, and brown heels. I’d been so nervous I even had my hands clasped in front of me. The agency had suggested business casual attire for the job, and that’s what I’d gone with. “Are you sure?” he’d asked. I had nodded, already planning to search for recipes on my phone. His eyes had narrowed a bit, but he didn’t call me out on what was obviously a lie, and that was more than I could have hoped for. “I don’t enjoy cooking or going out to eat. I usually eat four times a day and have two big smoothies, too. You’ll be in charge of meals, and I’ll handle anything I eat between,” he said as he crossed his arms over what seemed like a three-foot-wide chest. “The desktop computer upstairs has all of my passwords saved. Read and respond to all my emails; my PO Box needs to be checked a few times a week, and you’re in charge of that too. The key is in the drawer by the refrigerator. I’ll write down the post office it’s at and box number later. When I come back, you can go make a copy of my house key. My social sites need to be updated daily; I don’t care what you post as long as you use some common sense.” He’d definitely made sure to meet my eyes when he added that, but I hadn’t taken it personally. “Laundry, scheduling…” he went off to include more tasks that I filed into the mental vault. “I have a roommate. We talked about it, and if you’re up for the task, he might want you to make him food too sometimes. He’ll pay you extra if you decide to do it.” Extra money? I never said no to extra money. Unless it required a blowjob. “Do you have any questions?” my new boss had asked. All I had managed to do was shake my head. Everything he said was common for the position I was taking, and I might have been too busy gaping at him to say much else. I’d never seen a pro football player in person, though I’d been friends with someone back in college who played for our school. Back then, I hadn’t thought people could be built on such a large scale, and I might have been trying to figure out how much Aiden had to eat to get in the amount of calories he needed in his diet. His brown gaze had swept over my face and shoulders before returning to my eyes. That hard, unrelenting face stared right at me. “You don’t talk much, do you?” I smiled at him, a little one, and lifted a shoulder. I wasn’t a big talker, but nobody could say I was shy or quiet either. Plus, I didn’t want to mess this up until I figured out what he wanted and needed from me as an assistant. Looking back on it, I wasn’t sure if that was the greatest first impression, but tough shit. It wasn’t like I could take it back and do it over again. All Aiden, my new boss at the time did, was tip his chin down in what I’d later find out was his form of a nod. “Good.” * * * Not much had changed over the last two years. Our work relationship had progressed past me calling Aiden “sir”, and using more than two words at a time when I talked to him. I knew everything I could about Aiden, considering how pulling personal information out of him was like yanking teeth. I could tell you how old he was, how much money he had in his bank account, what spices made him cringe, and what brand of underwear he preferred. I knew his favorite meals, what size shoe he wore, what colors he refused to wear, and even what kind of porn he watched. I knew the first thing he wanted when he had more time on his hands was a dog—not a family. He wanted a dog. But that was all something a stalker could learn, or someone really observant. He held on to the details of his life with both of his dinner-plate-sized hands. I had a feeling the number of things I didn’t know about him could keep me busy for the rest of my life, if I were to try to pry them out of him. I’d tried being friendly once I realized he wasn’t going to go Incredible Hulk on me for asking questions, but it had all been in vain. For the last two years, my smiles were never returned, my every single “How are you?” went unanswered, and other than that infamous look that made my imaginary hackles rise, there was that tone, that almost smug tone, he took sometimes that just asked for an ass whooping… from someone much bigger than me. Our boss and employee roles became more and more pronounced each day. I cared about him as much as I could care for someone who I saw a minimum of five days a week, who I basically took care of for a living, but who treated me like the friend of a pesky little sister he would rather not have. For two years, it had been fine doing duties I wasn’t a huge fan of, but the cooking, the e-mails, and all things related to his fans were my favorite things about being his assistant. And that was half the reason why I kept talking myself out of putting in my notice. Because I’d check his Facebook account or go on his Twitter and see something one of his fans posted that made me laugh. I’d gotten to know some of them over the years through online interactions, and it was easy to remember that working for him wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t the worst job in the world—not even close to it. My pay was more than fair, my hours pretty good too… and in the words of almost every woman who had ever found out who I worked for, I “had the sexiest boss in the entire world.” So there was that. If I was stuck looking at someone, it might as well be someone with a body and a face that put the models I put on other people’s book covers to shame. But there were things in life you couldn’t do unless you stepped out of your comfort zone and took a risk, and working for myself was one of them. That was why I hadn’t actually gone through with it and told Aiden “Sayonara, big boy” on the eighty different occasions my brain had told me to. I was nervous. Quitting a well-paying job—a steady one at least while Aiden had a career—was scary. But that excuse was getting older and older. Aiden and I weren’t BFFs, much less confidants. Then again, why would we be? This was a man who didn’t have more than possibly three people he spent time with when he managed to tear himself away from training and games. Vacations? He didn’t take them. I didn’t even think he knew what they were. He didn’t have pictures of family or friends anywhere in the house. His entire life revolved around football. It was the center of his universe. In the grand scheme of Aiden Graves’s life, I was no one really. We just sort of put up with each other. Obviously. He needed an assistant, and I needed a job. He told me what he wanted done, and I did it, regardless of whether I agreed with it or not. Every once in a while, I tried futilely to change his mind, but in the back of my head, I never forgot how pointless my opinion was to him. You could only try for so long to be friendly with someone, and have them shut you down with their indifference, before you gave up. This was a job, nothing more and nothing less. It was why I had worked so hard to get to the point where I could be my own boss, so that I could deal with people who appreciated my hard work. Yet here I was, doing the things that drove me nuts and putting my dreams off for another day, and another day, and another day… What the hell was I doing? “The only person you’re screwing over is yourself,” Diana had told me the last time we’d talked. She’d asked if I’d finally told Aiden I was quitting, and I’d told her the truth: no. Guilt had pounded my belly at her comment. The only person I was hurting was myself. I knew I needed to tell Aiden. No one was going to do it for me; I was well aware of that. But… Okay, there was no ‘but.’ What if I crashed and burned once I was on my own? I had planned it out and built up my business so that wouldn’t be the case, I reminded myself as I sat there watching Aiden eat. I knew what I was doing. I had money squirreled away. I was good at what I did, and I loved doing it. I’d be fine. I’d be fine. What was I waiting for? Every time I’d thought about telling Aiden before, it just hadn’t seemed like the perfect moment. He had just gotten cleared to start practicing again after his injury, and it didn’t feel right laying that on him then. I felt like I’d be abandoning him when he’d barely gotten back on his feet once more. Then, we’d immediately left for Colorado for him to train in peace and quiet. On another occasion, it hadn’t been a Friday. Or he’d had a bad day. Or… whatever. There was always something. Always. I wasn’t staying on because I was in love with him or anything like that. Maybe at some point, right after I’d begun working for him, I might have had a giant crush on him, but his cool attitude had never let my heart get any crazier than that. It wasn’t like I’d ever had any expectations of Aiden suddenly looking at me and thinking I was the most amazing person in his life. I didn’t have time for that unrealistic crap. If anything, my goal had always been to do what I needed to do for him, and maybe make the man who never smiled, smile. I’d only succeeded at one of those things. Over the years, my attraction to him had dwindled so that the only thing I really mooned over—correction: appreciated in a healthy, normal way—was his work ethic. And his face. And his body. But there were plenty of guys with amazing bodies and faces in the world. I should know. I looked at models almost every day. And none of those physical traits helped me in any way. Hot guys weren’t going to make my dreams come true. I swallowed and clenched my fingers. Do it, my brain said. What was the worst that would happen? I’d have to find another job if my customer base dried up? How horrifying. I wouldn’t know what would happen until I tried. Life was a risk. This was what I’d always wanted. So I took a breath, carefully watched the man who had been my boss for two years, and I said it. “Aiden, I have something I need to talk to you about.” Because really, what was he going to do? Tell me I couldn’t quit? Chapter Two “You can’t.” “I am,” I insisted calmly as I watched the man on my laptop screen. “Aiden told me to let you know.” Trevor gave me a look that said he didn’t even remotely believe me, and I found myself not really giving much of a crap what he thought. While it took a lot for me to dislike someone, Aiden’s manager was one of those people I avoided like the plague whenever possible. Something about him just made me want to abort mission each time we had to interact. At one point, I really tried figuring out what it was about him I didn’t like, and it always came back to the same reasons: he was snobby, but mainly he just gave off massive amounts of asshole-ish vibes. Leaning forward, Trevor planted his elbows on what I could assume was his desk. He tented his hands and hid his mouth behind them. He exhaled. Then he inhaled. Maybe, just maybe, he was thinking about all the times he’d been a jerk to me and was regretting it; like all the times he’d chewed me out or yelled at me because Aiden wanted something done that frustrated him. That had been pretty much every week since I’d gotten hired. But knowing him, that wasn’t the case. To regret something would mean you would have had to care about it at some point to begin with, and Trevor... the only thing he cared about was his paycheck. His body language, and the way he’d spoken to me even back when he’d first interviewed me, made it abundantly clear I didn’t rank very high on his list of priorities. Me quitting was going to make his life slightly more difficult for a little while, and that he wasn’t a fan of. Apparently, he was bothered a lot more than Aiden had been the night before when I sucked it up and told him the deep, dark secret I’d been withholding. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me” —in hindsight, that had been pretty suck-up of me to say; he hadn’t actually done anything besides pay me, but oh well— “but I’d like for you to find someone to replace me.” While I’d always known and accepted that we weren’t friends, I guess a small part of me had been foolish enough to think I meant just a little, tiny, microscopic something to him. I’d done a lot for Aiden over the course of the time we’d worked together. I knew I would more than likely miss the familiarity of working for him at least a little bit. Wouldn’t he feel the same way? That answer to that had been a big, fat nope. Aiden hadn’t even bothered looking at me after my admission. Instead, his attention had been focused on his bowl when he replied easily, “Let Trevor know.” And that was that. Two years. I’d given him two years of my life. Hours and hours. Months at a time away from my loved ones. I’d cared for him on the rare occasions he got sick. I was the one who had stayed with him at the hospital after his injury. I was the person who had picked him up after his surgery, and read up on inflammation and what I could feed him, that would help him heal faster. When he lost a game, I always tried to make his favorite breakfast the next morning. I’d bought him a birthday present that I may or may not have left on his bed, because I didn’t want to make it awkward. You didn’t remember someone’s birthday and not get him a gift, even if he never thanked you. What had he given me? On my last birthday, I spent it in the rain at a park in Colorado because he’d been filming a commercial, and wanted me to tag along. I’d eaten dinner by myself in my hotel room. What did I expect from him now? There had been no begging me to stay—not that I would anyway—or even an “I’m sorry to hear that,” which I’d heard when I’d left every other job before this one. Nothing. He’d given me nothing. Not even a damn shrug. It had stung more than it should have. A lot more. On the other hand, I recognized that we weren’t soul mates, but it became even more apparent after that. It was with that thought, that slight amount of bitterness in my throat at being so dispensable, that I swallowed and focused on my video chat. “Vanessa, think about what you’re doing,” the manager argued through the camera. “I have. Look, I’m not even giving you a two-week notice. Just find someone sooner than later. I’ll train them, and then I’m out.” Trevor tipped his chin up and just stared forward at and through the computer’s camera, the hard glint of the hair product he used catching in the sunlight in his office. “Is this an April fools’ joke?” “It’s June,” I said carefully. Idiot. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” His forehead furrowed at the same time his shoulders tensed, as if what I said was finally really sinking in. One eye peeked at me from over his fingers. “Do you want more money?” he had the nerve to ask. Of course I wanted more money. Who didn’t? I just didn’t want it from Aiden. “No.” “Tell me what you need.” “Nothing.” “I’m trying to work with you here.” “There’s nothing to work with. There isn’t anything you can offer me that will get me to stay.” That was how dead set I was on not getting wrangled back in to the world of The Wall of Winnipeg. Trevor got paid for making things happen, and I knew if I gave him an inch, he would attempt to take a mile. It would probably be easier for him to convince me to stay instead of finding someone else. But I knew his tricks, and I wasn’t going to fall for his shit. Picking up the glass of water sitting on the kitchen counter next to my tablet, I took a sip and studied him over the top of it. I could do this, damn it. I would do it. I wasn’t going to keep my job just because he was giving me the closest thing to puppy eyes pure evil was capable of. “What can I do to get you to stay?” Trevor finally asked as he dropped his hands away from his face. “Nothing.” If a slight bit of loyalty to Aiden and genuine worry had gotten me to stay since I realized I could afford to quit, the night before had cemented me leaving. I didn’t want to waste any more time than I already had. Another pained expression took over Trevor’s features. When we’d first met two years ago, he’d only had a couple of gray hairs scattered throughout his head. Now there were more than a couple, and it suddenly made so much sense. If I considered myself a fairy godmother, Trevor must have been seen as a god; a god who needed to make miracles happen out of the most dire of places. And I wasn’t helping by quitting on who I was sure was one of the most difficult of his clients. “Did he say something?” he asked suddenly. “Do something?” I shook my head, not fooled at all by his act. He didn’t care. Before I’d asked him to call me—and he’d insisted we do a video chat instead—I had asked myself whether to tell him why I was quitting or not. It didn’t even take a second to decide. Nah, he didn’t need to know. “There are other things in my life I want to pursue. That’s all.” “You know he’s stressed out about coming back after surgery. If he’s a little on edge, it’s normal. Ignore him,” Trevor added. Normal? There were different standards for what ‘normal’ could be considered when dealing with professional athletes, especially athletes like Aiden who breathed and lived for his sport. He took everything personally. He wasn’t some burnout who played because he didn’t have anything else to do, and wanted to make money. Maybe I understood that better than Trevor. Plus, if either one of us had more firsthand experience with the way Aiden had been since his Achilles tendon rupture, it was me. I’d witnessed it all up close and personal; I also knew how he usually got right before training camp started, and that was right around the corner too, adding on to the things he worried about. Trevor had worked for him longer, but he lived in New York and only visited a few times a year. Aiden only talked to him directly on the phone once a month, if that, since I was his scapegoat. “I’m sure there’s at least a hundred other people who would love to work for Aiden. I really don’t think you will have a problem finding someone to replace me. Everything will be fine,” I told him smoothly. Was there at least a thousand other people in the world who would love to work for Aiden Graves? Yes. Minimum. Would Trevor have a problem finding a new assistant for Aiden? No. The issue would be finding someone to stay who could deal with the long hours and his prickly personality. “This isn’t going to be easy,” Trevor had said to me after the workforce agency had sent me his way. “Athletes are demanding. It’s basically part of the job requirement. Will you be able to handle it?” Back then, I’d been working three jobs, sharing a tiny house with Diana and Rodrigo, and unable to sleep some nights because all I could dream about was the massive student loan debt I was swimming in. I would have done just about anything to get out of that situation, even if it meant dealing with someone who may or may not be a psycho by the way others portrayed him. While Trevor hadn’t been lying—Aiden wasn’t that bad once you figured out what made him tick—at least he’d given me a warning of what I’d be facing. A demanding, cranky, perfectionist, workaholic, arrogant, aloof, clean freak of a boss. No biggie. Aiden Graves needed an assistant, and I had been lucky enough to get the job. At that point, I had a plan that worried me to death, and student loans that were giving me an ulcer. I’d thought it over a million times and concluded that working for him, while keeping my own business on the side and trying to grow it at the same time was the best way to move forward in my life, at least for a little while. The rest was history. Saving money and working seventy hours a week had all finally paid off. I saved enough to keep me afloat in case my business slowed down, and I had my goals to guide me. When things were tough, it was my aspirations and the hope they brought me, that kept me going. So even on the days when Aiden had me standing behind him, envisioning myself stabbing him in the back because he wanted me to do something ridiculous, like rewash his sheets because I’d left them in the washer for too long, I always did what he needed. All I had to do was remember my student loans and my plans, and I persevered. Until now. “You’re killing me, Vanessa. You’re fucking killing me here,” Trevor literally moaned. Moaned. He usually just bitched and complained. “It’ll be fine. He doesn’t care that I’m leaving. He probably won’t even notice,” I said, trying to be as understanding as I could and at the same time, not really giving much of a crap that he was sweating bullets. The grimace on his face quickly dropped, a total act, and got replaced by a glare, making him look more like the manager I’d been forced to get to know, than the one who was attempting to backtrack and be nice after so long. He sniped, “I highly doubt that.” I understood why I was a good fit for Aiden. I was pretty patient, and I didn’t hold his callus, picky nature against him. I knew how to handle crazy in all its forms thanks to my family, but maybe I’d just been expecting so much worse from him, and he’d never gone straight into anger-management zone. He was way too controlled for that. Realistically though, especially after yesterday, I wasn’t going to hold my breath. Maybe I’d feel worse about quitting if Aiden was my friend or if Trevor had actually been nice to me, but neither one of them would remember me two months from now. I knew who cared about me and who meant something to me, and neither one of them were on my list… and sure, that made me feel a little bad. But survival of the fittest and all that crap, right? Both Aiden and Trevor would dump me like a hot potato if our roles were reversed. I’d let my misguided sense of loyalty, paranoia, and self-doubt keep me shackled to my not-so-bad cell. All Aiden needed was someone who could do what he wanted. Cook, clean, wash, fold, answer e-mails, call Trevor or Rob when he wanted things out of my jurisdiction, and post things on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Then there were the things I had to do when he traveled. It wasn’t anything crazy. Anyone with a little bit of patience could do it. But from the look Trevor pierced me with, he didn’t feel the same way. Mostly, I thought he was just being lazy. He blew out a breath, and started massaging his temples as the chat buffered and his image blurred for a moment. “Are you positive you want to do this? I can talk to him about reducing your hours…” His voice carried over the speaker even as the screen froze. I only just barely managed not to ask him to let me think about it. “No.” I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to half-ass this opportunity in my life to go solo. I didn’t want to invite failure in the door by being hesitant. “Vanessa…” he groaned. “You’re really doing this?” This was exactly what I’d been working toward from the moment I finished school with my undergrad in graphic design. Graduating had been an uphill battle that sometimes felt like plain torture, and I’d done terrible, awful things to get my schooling done. It was why I had worked multiple jobs at once, why I now technically only had two, and why I had been sleeping four hours a night for the last four years and lived off the bare minimum. I took almost any and every job that hit my inbox and jobs that didn’t: book covers, web banners, posters, bookmarks, business cards, postcards, logos, T-shirt designs, commissioned pieces, tattoo designs. Everything. “I’m positive.” I had to fight the urge to smile at how confident and determined I sounded even though I definitely didn’t feel that way. Back at massaging his temples, Trevor sighed. “If that’s how you’re going to be, I’ll start looking for a replacement.” I nodded and let a sense of hesitant victory tickle my throat. I wasn’t going to let that smart-ass comment at the beginning bother me. This was exactly how I was going to be. He waved a hand in front of the screen. “I’ll let you know once I find someone.” Without another comment, he logged off the chat like a rude jerk. He reminded me of someone else I knew with his lack of manners. If it wasn’t for Zac and some of the other Three Hundreds he’d introduced me to over the years, I would have figured everyone in their industry was self-absorbed. But no, it was only a few people, specifically the ones I had to surround myself with. Go figure. It wasn’t going to be my problem anymore though, was it? “Vanessa!” a familiar voice bellowed from somewhere upstairs. “Yes?” I yelled back, exiting the app on my tablet, and wondering if he’d overheard my conversation with Trevor or not. I mean, he was the one who told me to call him in the first place, wasn’t he? “Did you wash the sheets?” Aiden hollered from where I could only assume was his bedroom. I washed his sheets Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and I had every week since getting hired. For someone who worked out almost every day of his life, and sweating had become as natural as breathing, he was religious about having ultra-clean sheets. I learned from the very beginning how important it was that his damn sheets were clean, so I never missed doing them. Ever. “Yes.” “Today?” “Yes.” Why the hell was he asking? I always… oh. I always left a piece of the chocolate peppermint patties he liked on his pillow—because it made me laugh—and I hadn’t put one on there this afternoon. The store had been out of them. I guess I couldn’t blame him for being uncertain, but I could blame myself for spoiling him. He’d never acknowledged my little gift, or told me to stop leaving them, so I hadn’t figured he cared. Now I knew better. Aiden didn’t immediately respond, and I could already envision him humming to himself with uncertainty before sniffing the sheets to make sure I was telling the truth. When there wasn’t a response, I figured he confirmed I wasn’t lying. But then he started yelling again. “Did you pick up my clothes from the dry cleaner?” “Yes. They’re in your closet already.” I didn’t flinch, roll my eyes, or have an annoyed tone. I had the self-control of a samurai sometimes. A samurai who wanted to go ronin. I’d barely managed to put my tablet back into my purse when he hollered again. “Where are my orange runners?” That time, I couldn’t help but cross my eyes. Dealing with him reminded me of being a little kid and asking my mom to help me find something after I’d looked about a total of five seconds. They were where he’d left them. “In your bathroom.” I could hear movement upstairs. Zac hadn’t made his way back to Dallas yet, so it could only be the big guy looking for his tennis shoes, or when his Canadianisms kicked in—runners. I rarely ever touched his shoes if I didn’t have to. It wasn’t as if his feet smelled—strangely, they didn’t—but they did get sweaty, and I mean, really sweaty. He’d been training so hard the last two months, the sweat had reached an all-time high. My fingers tried not to go anywhere near them if it could be avoided. I was in the middle of looking through a cookbook trying to decide what to make for dinner, when the thunder that followed a two-hundred–and-eighty-pound man jogging down the stairs started. Seriously, every time he came down the stairs any faster than a slow poke, the walls trembled. I wasn’t sure how the stairs survived. Whatever kind of materials the builder used on them, it had to be good stuff. I didn’t need to turn around to know he’d made his way into the kitchen. The refrigerator door opened and closed, followed by the sound of him munching on something. “Pick up some more sunblock for me. I’m almost out,” he said in a distracted tone. I’d already ordered him some days ago, but I didn’t see the point in telling him it was cheaper to order it than to buy it at the store. “You got it, big guy. I’m taking two of your shorts to the seamstress later. I noticed when I was washing them that the hems were loose.” Considering he got half of his clothes specially made because ‘size behemoth’ wasn’t widely carried, I was a little unimpressed those same shorts already needed to get patched. Juggling the pear he was eating and two apples in his other hand, he tipped his chin up. “I’m running some drills tonight. Anything I need to know before I leave?” Fiddling with the leg of my glasses, I tried to think about what I had planned on telling him. “There’s a few envelopes I left on your desk this morning. I’m not sure if you saw them already or not, but they look important.” That big handsome face went thoughtful for a second before he nodded. “Did Rob cancel the signing?” I almost winced from thinking of the conversation with his agent, another asshole I wasn’t fond of. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if his mom wasn’t fond of him either. Rob was that much of a dick. “I told him to, but he never called back to tell me if he did or not. I’ll find out.” He nodded again, crouching that massive six-foot-four frame to pick up his duffel bag. “Make sure you do that.” He paused. “Leslie’s birthday is this month. Send a card and a gift card over, would you?” “Your wish is my command.” In the entire time I’d worked for him, Leslie was the only person who got a gift from him. I couldn’t even be remotely jealous that I didn’t get at least a verbal “happy birthday” on mine. Not even Zac received anything, and I’d know, because if he did, I’d be the one buying the present. “Oh, I made those granola bars that you like in case you want to take some with you,” I added, pointing at the plastic container I’d left by the fridge. He headed to where I’d indicated, opening the container and pulling out two wax-paper-wrapped bars before shoving all his snacks into his duffel bag. “Come by the gym tomorrow with the camera and my breakfast. I’m going in early and staying until lunch. ” “Sure.” I had to make a mental note to set my alarm for half an hour earlier than usual. Most days when he was in Dallas during the offseason, Aiden did cardio at his house, had breakfast, and then left to do his weightlifting and other kinds of workouts with whatever trainer he’d deemed to honor with his presence. Some days, he woke up earlier and went straight to the gym. The facility was located on the opposite side of town, so I’d either have to make him breakfast at my house and go straight there, or wake up even earlier to drop by his house, which was out of the way, and then head over there. No thanks. I barely survived on my usual four to five hours of sleep most nights. I wasn’t about to lose what little I had left. I stepped back from the counter and grabbed the gallon of water I’d refilled earlier, holding it out for him, locking my gaze on his thick neck before forcing myself to look him in the eye. “By the way, I talked to Trevor about me leaving, and he said he’d start looking for someone else.” Those dark orbs met mine for a second, only just a split second, cool and distant like always, before he looked away. “Okay.” He took the jug from me as he threw his bag over his shoulder. Just as he reached the door that connected the garage with the kitchen, I called out, “Bye.” He didn’t say anything as he closed the door behind him, but I thought he might have wiggled a finger or two. I was probably imagining it. Who was I kidding? Of course I was imagining it. I was just being an idiot for even thinking there was a possibility he’d done otherwise. While I wasn’t the bubbliest person in the world, Aiden had me beat by a landslide. With a resigned sigh, I shook my head at myself, and started making my way around the kitchen when my personal cell phone started ringing. Taking a quick peek at the screen, I hit the answer button. “Herro,” I said, slipping the phone between my ear and my shoulder. “Vanny, I don’t have time to talk. I have an appointment in a minute,” the bright voice on the other line explained quickly. “I just wanted to tell you Rodrigo saw Susie.” Silence hung between Diana and me on the phone. Two moments, three moments, four moments. Heavy and unnatural. Then again, that was what Susie did best—messed things up. I wanted to ask if she was sure it was Susie that her brother, Rodrigo, had seen, but I didn’t. If Rodrigo thought he saw her, then he had. She didn’t have the kind of face that was easy to mistake, even after so many years. I cleared my throat, telling myself I didn’t need to count to ten, or even five. “Where?” My voice came out in a slight croak. “In El Paso yesterday. He was visiting his in-laws this weekend with Louie and Josh, and said he saw her at the grocery store by the old neighborhood.” One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Nope. That wasn’t enough. I had to start counting all over again, all the way to ten the second time. A thousand different thoughts went through my head at the mention of Susie’s name, and they were all pretty terrible. Each and every single one of them. It didn’t take a genius to know what she was doing in the old neighborhood. Only one person who we both knew still lived there. I could still remember our old stomping ground so clearly. It was where Diana and I had met. Back when I lived with my mom, Diana’s family had lived next door to us. They’d had the pretty house—the freshly painted blue one with white trim and a nice lawn—the dad who played with his kids outside, and the mom who kissed boo-boos. The Casillas were the family I had always wanted when I’d been a kid, when things had been at their worst, and the only thing I found consolation in was my notebook, not the mess within the walls of my house. Diana had been my best friend for as long as I could remember. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d eaten over at their house with my little brother until Mom had lost custody of us. Diana had always done what my own family didn’t, and that was watch out for me. She was the one who had found me—Stop it. Stop it. It wasn’t worth the energy it took to think about things in the past I was over. It really wasn’t. “Huh. I had no idea she was back.” My voice sounded just as robotic aloud as it sounded in my head. “I just talked to my mom a week ago and she didn’t say anything.” Diana knew I was referring to my real mom, the person who had actually given birth to me and my four other siblings, not my foster mom of four years who I still kept in touch with. At the mention of my birth mom, Diana made a small noise I almost missed. I knew she didn’t understand why I bothered trying to have a relationship with her. Honestly, half the time I regretted it, but that was one of those rare things I never told the person I was closest to in the world because I knew what she would say and I didn’t want to hear it. “I figured you would want to know in case you were planning on visiting,” she finally said in kind of a mutter. I didn’t visit El Paso often, but she was right. I definitely wouldn’t want to go now that I knew who was there. “I really have to go in a sec, Vanny,” my best friend quickly added before I could say anything. “But did you tell Miranda you’re leaving?” The ‘Miranda’ went in one ear and out the other. I’d been calling him that for so long, it sounded so natural it didn’t even register. “I just told him yesterday.” “And?” She couldn’t just let me sulk in my reality. “Nothing.” There was no point in lying or making something up that would make me seem more important to Aiden than I was. While I didn’t tell anyone a whole lot about him because of the non-disclosure agreement I signed when I first started working for him, Diana knew enough to get why his name was saved on my personal phone under Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. “Oh,” was her disappointed response. Yeah. I thought so too. “He’ll miss you once you’re gone. Don’t worry about it.” I highly doubted that. “Okay, I gotta go, my client is here. Call me later, Van-Van. I get off work at nine.” “I will. Love you.” “Love you, too. Oh! And think about letting me dye your hair once you’re out of there,” she added before hanging up on me. Diana’s comment made me smile and kept me smiling as I headed into Aiden’s office to tackle his inbox. Talking to Di always put me in a good mood. The fact she was one of the most easygoing people I’d ever met, had also soothed my soul more often than not. She never gave me shit for how much I worked because she worked a lot too. But I told her the same thing my foster dad had told me when I was seventeen, and I told him I wanted to pursue my artwork: “Do what you need to do to be happy, Vané. Nobody else is going to watch out for you but you.” It was the same belief I held onto when I first told my foster parents I wanted to go to school a thousand miles away, and what I told myself when I didn’t get a scholarship and my financial aid was merely a drop in the bucket to go to said school. I was going to do what I needed to do, even if I had to leave my brother— with his blessing—in the process. I’d told him the same thing when he was offered a scholarship for a college right after I moved back to Texas to be closer to him. Sometimes it was easier to tell other people what they should do than to actually practice what you preached. That had been the real root of my problem. I was scared. Scared that my clients were going to disappear and my work would dry up. Scared that one day I’d wake up and have absolutely no inspiration any more when I had my photo-editing program open. I was worried that what I’d worked so hard for would crash and burn and everything would go to hell. Because I knew firsthand that life could be taking you in one direction, and the next moment, you’d be going in a completely different one. Because that was the way surprises worked—they didn’t tend to pencil themselves in to your schedule and let you know they were visiting ahead of time. Chapter Three This place smells like armpits, I thought as I made my way past the cardio equipment at the facility where Aiden had been training at since we’d gotten back from Colorado. Located in the business warehouse district on the outskirts of Dallas, the facility had the equipment necessary for all levels of weightlifting, plyometric exercises, calisthenics, strongman, and powerlifting. The building itself was new, nondescript, and easy to miss unless you knew what you were looking for. It had only been open about three years, and the owner had spared no expense on any square inch of the gym. The facility boasted that it trained some of the most elite athletes in the world in a wide range of sports, but I only paid attention to one of them. Aiden’s schedule had been as consistent as it could be in the two years I’d been with him, considering everything that had happened in the last ten months. After football season ended, and after he’d been cleared to train this year, Aiden headed to a small town in Colorado where he rented a house from some ex-football star for two months. There, he trained with his high school football coach. I’d never outright asked him why he chose there of all places to spend his time, but from everything I knew about him, I figured he enjoyed the time away from the spotlight. As one of the best players in the NFO, there was always someone around him, asking for something, telling him something, and Aiden wasn’t exactly the outgoing, friendly type. He was a loner who happened to be so good at his sport there wasn’t a way around the spotlight he’d been thrust upon from the moment he’d been drafted. At least, that was what I’d learned from the countless articles I’d read before sharing on his social pages and the hundreds of interviews I’d sat through with him. It was just something he put up with on his road to being the best—because that’s what fans, and even people who weren’t fans, referred to him as. With a work ethic like his, it wasn’t a surprise. After his seclusion in the middle of nowhere—I’d gone with him twice because apparently he couldn’t live without a chef and housekeeper—he, we, flew back to Dallas, and his high school coach went back to Winnipeg. Aiden then worked on other aspects of his role with another trainer until the Three Hundreds called him in for team camp in July. In a couple of weeks, official practices would begin and the insanity that surrounded an NFO season with one of the highest caliber players in the organization would start all over again. But this time, I wouldn’t be part of it. I wouldn’t have to wake up at four o’clock in the morning, or have to drive around like a crazy person doing the hundreds of things that seemed to pop up when he was busy. This August, instead of dealing with planning meals around two-a-day practices and preseason games, I’d be in my apartment, waking up whenever the hell I wanted, and not having to cater to anyone else’s needs but mine. But that was a party I could throw in the near future, when I wasn’t busy looking for Aiden while my hands were full. Past the cardio machines and through two swinging double doors was the main part of the training ground. At a cavernous, ten-thousand-square-foot size, red-and-black décor swam in front of my eyes. Half of the floor looked like turf and the other half had lightly cushioned black flooring for a weight training section. Scattered around the building at six o’clock in the morning, were only about ten other people. Half of them looked like football players and the other half looked like some other sort of athlete. I just had to look for the largest one of them all, and it only took a second to spot the big head on the turf section by one of the eleven-hundred-pound tires. Yeah, 1100-pound tires. And I thought I was badass when I managed to carry all of my grocery bags to my apartment in one trip. A few feet away, a familiar-looking man stood by watching The Wall of Winnipeg. Finding a spot out of the way but still close enough to take a decent picture, I sat cross-legged at the edge of the mats perpendicular to Aiden and his current trainer, pulling out the DSLR camera I’d suggested he should buy specifically for this purpose a year ago. One of my duties was to update his social media pages and engage his fans; his sponsors and fans enjoyed seeing live shots of him working out. No one paid me any attention as I settled in; they were all too busy to look around. With the equipment out of the bag, I waited for the perfect shot. Through the lens, Aiden’s features were smaller; his muscles seemed not as detailed as they were when you saw them in person. He’d been cutting his calories for the last two weeks, aiming to drop ten pounds before the start of the season. The striations on his shoulders popped as he maneuvered around the massive tractor tire, squatting in front of it, making the full muscles of his hamstrings look even more impressive than they usually did. I could even see the cleft that formed along the back of his thigh from how developed his hammies were. Then there were those biceps and triceps that some people seemed to think had gotten the size they were due to steroids, when I knew firsthand that Aiden’s body was fueled by massive amounts of a plant-based diet. He didn’t even like taking over-the-counter medications. The last time he’d gotten sick, the stubborn-ass had even refused to take the antibiotics the doctor had prescribed. I hadn’t even bothered to fill the painkiller prescription he’d been given after his surgery, which might have been why he’d been so grumpy for so long. I wouldn’t even get started on his aversion to sodium laurel sulfates, preservatives, or parabens. Steroids? Give me a break. I snapped a few pictures, trying to get a really good one. His female fans always went nuts over the shots that showcased the power contained within that great body. And when he had tight compression shorts on while he was bent over? “BAM. I’M PREGNANT,” one of his fans had written last week when I posted a picture of Aiden doing squats. I’d almost spat water out of my mouth. His e-mail inbox got flooded after those kinds of posts went up. What the fans wanted, they got, and Aiden was all for it. Luckily for him, between semesters, I’d taken a photography class at the local community college in hopes of snagging a few gigs during the summer doing wedding photography. The tire started its path to getting flipped. Aiden’s face contorted as sweat poured down his temples and over the thick, two-inch scar that slashed white vertically along his hairline before melting into the beard that had grown in overnight. I’d overheard people talk about his scar when they didn’t know I was listening. They thought he’d gotten it during a drunken night in college. I knew better. Through the lens, Aiden grimaced and his trainer urged him on from his spot right beside him. I snapped more pictures, suppressing a sleepy yawn. “Hey, you,” a voice whispered a little too closely into my ear from behind. I froze up. I didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. There was only one person in the group of people that circled Aiden’s life that made my creeper-radar go off. And this will hopefully be one of the last few times you see him, I told myself when I had the urge to flinch. There was also the fact my gut said that making my dislike of him known would just make this situation worse, and it wasn’t like I would tell Aiden his teammate gave me the heebie-jeebies. If I hadn’t told Zac who was my friend that Christian made me feel uncomfortable, I sure as hell wouldn’t tell the person who wasn’t. But it was the truth. I minded my own business when I showed up to anything Three Hundreds related and tried to be nice or at least polite to the people who were kind to me. Trevor had drilled it into my head when he’d interviewed me that I wasn’t to be seen or heard. The attention always had to be on the big guy and not some crazy-ass assistant, and I was totally fine with that. Plastering a tight, forced smile on my mouth, even though I wasn’t facing him, I kept the camera where it was, ready for action. “Hi, Christian. How are you?” I asked in a friendly voice that I really had to dig in there for, easily ignoring the good-looking features that disguised a man who had gotten suspended a few games last season for getting into a fight at a club. I thought that said a lot about him to begin with, because who did something that stupid anyway? He made millions a year. Only a total idiot would jeopardize a good thing. “Great now that you’re here,” Creeper Christian said. I almost groaned. It wasn’t like I’d known he was training at the same place Aiden was. I doubted Aiden even knew or cared. “Taking pictures of Graves?” he asked, taking a seat on the floor next to me. I brought the viewfinder eyepiece to my eye, hoping he’d realize I was too busy to talk. “Yep.” Who else would I be taking pictures of? I snapped a couple other shots as Aiden managed to flip the tire again and resuming that wide-legged, squatted position after each time. “How you been? How long has it been since I’ve seen you?” “Good.” Was it bitchy to be so vague? Yes, but I couldn’t find it in me to be more than cordial to him after what he’d done. Plus, he knew damn well how long Aiden had been out of the season. He was the team’s star player. Someone from the team had been constantly in contact with him since his injury. There was no way Christian wouldn’t have kept up with Aiden’s progress. It seemed like every time I flipped through The Sports Channel, some anchor or another was making a prediction about Aiden’s future. The heat of his side seared into my shoulder. “Graves sure got back on his feet real quick.” Through the lens though, I found Aiden glowering over in my direction, his trainer a few feet away jotting down something on the clipboard he’d been holding. I was torn between waving and getting up, but Aiden beat me to decision making by saying loudly, “You can leave now.” You can—? Lowering the camera to my lap, I stared over at him, pressing my glasses a little closer to my face with my index finger. I’d heard wrong, hadn’t I? “What did you say?” I called out the question slowly so he could hear me. He didn’t even blink as he repeated himself. “You can leave now.” You can leave now. I gawked. My heart gave a vicious thump. My inhale was sharp. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. “Kill them with kindness,” Diana’s mom would say when I’d tell her about my sisters picking on me. I hadn’t necessarily taken her words into account when dealing with my family, but they had made sense to me once I was old enough to have to put up with other people’s bullshit. Being the kind of person who smiled at someone who was being a jackass usually pissed off the assholes a lot more than being rude in return did. In some cases though, people might also think you had brain damage when you did it, but it was a risk I was willing to take. But in this case, in that moment, forcing myself not to obviously flip Aiden off was a lot harder than normal. It was one thing for him to ignore me when I tried to be playful with him, or when I said “good-bye” or “good morning,” but for him to act that way with me in front of other people? I mean, he wasn’t exactly a teddy bear on the best of days, but he usually wasn’t a model for Asswipe & Fitch. At least, not when we were around other people, which was rare. One, two, three, four, five. I had this. I raised my eyebrows and beamed over at him like nothing was wrong, even though I was pretty much seething on the inside, and wondering how to give him diarrhea. “What the fuck is his deal?” Christian muttered under his breath as I settled the camera back into its case, and then into my bag. I couldn’t decide whether to leave as quickly as possible or stay where I was because he was out of his damn mind if he thought I was going to do his bidding when he talked like that to me. The reminder that I didn’t need to take his crap anymore hit me right between the eyebrows, and my shoulder blades. I could take him being aloof and cold. I could handle him not giving a single crap about me personally, but embarrassing me in front of other people? There was only so much you could forgive and ignore. One, two, three, four, five, six. “Is he always like that?” Christian’s voice jump-started me out of my thoughts. I shrugged a shoulder, conscious not to put my foot in my mouth in front of someone who was practically a stranger even though said man wasn’t exactly on my list of people I would pull out of a burning building at the minute. “He’s a good boss,” I let the bland, forced compliment out, getting to my feet. “I don’t take it personally.” Usually. “I need to get going anyway. See you,” I said as I slipped the strap of my bag over my shoulder and picked up the insulated bag with the big guy’s food inside. “I’m sure I’ll see you soon,” he noted, his tone just a little too bright, too fake. I nodded before noticing Aiden taking a knee on the turf, staring over with a perfectly impassive expression on his face. Fighting the uneasy feeling I got from him practically telling me to scram, I went to stand on the other side of the tire. He was sweaty, his T-shirt clinging to the muscles of his pectorals like a second, paler skin. His face was tight, almost bored—so basically the norm. I tried to steady my words and heart. Confusion, anger, and, honestly, a little hurt soured my stomach as I watched him. “Is there something wrong?” I asked slowly, steadily as I tapped my fingers along the stitching of the bag with his camera and my things inside. “No,” he answered sharply, like he would have if I’d asked him if he wanted something with fennel for dinner. I cleared my throat and rubbed the side of my hand against the seam of my pants, warily, counting to three that time. “Are you sure?” “Why would anything be wrong?” Because you’re being a massive douche bag, I thought. But before I could make up something else, he kept going. “I don’t pay you to sit around and talk.” Oh no. He leaned his entire upper body forward to rest against the length of his leg in a deep stretch. “Did you bring my breakfast?” I tried to be patient. I really did. For the most part, I had patience on lockdown. There was no sense of “this is mine” when you had three older sisters who didn’t respect anyone’s boundaries, and one little brother. Needless to say, I didn’t get my feelings hurt particularly easily, and I didn’t hold 99 percent of things against my brothers or sisters when they said something they wouldn’t mean later on. But that was the problem, Aiden wasn’t my brother. He wasn’t even my friend. I could take a lot, but I wasn’t obligated to take anything from him. In that moment, I realized how over this shit I was. I was done. Done. Maybe I was scared as hell of quitting, but I would rather take a gamble on myself than stay there and get insulted by someone who wasn’t any better than me. Calmly, calmly, calmly, despite the angry ringing in my ears, I made myself focus on his question and answered, my voice stony, “Yes.” I held up the bag he clearly would have seen when I walked up to him. He grunted. As much as I could respect Aiden for being so determined, focused, and logical, sometimes… It grated on me just how blind he was to everything else in his life. In all the time I’d worked for him, he still couldn’t grace me with more than an occasional “thank you” or “good lunch.” Sure, I knew that you shouldn’t expect someone’s gratitude for doing things just because it was good manners, but still. I could count the number of times he’d smiled at me or asked me how I was doing on one hand. One freaking hand. I was a person who filled a role, but I could have been any person filling this role and it wouldn’t have mattered. I did a good job, hardly ever complained, and always did what needed to be accomplished even if I didn’t want to do it. I tried to be nice to him, to mess with him even though he definitely didn’t care for it, because what was life if you took it too seriously? But he’d pretty much just told me to “shoo” in front of other people. “Is that all?” Aiden’s rough voice snapped me out of my thoughts. “I have a workout I need to finish.” It was an oddly relieving sensation that pierced through my chest right then. I felt… like I could breathe. Standing there, I felt right. “Yeah, that’s all, boss.” I swallowed, forced a smile on my face, and walked out of there with my head held high, thinking, I’m done. I’m so done. What was wrong with him? I’d been around Aiden dozens of times when he was having a bad day. Bad days with Aiden Graves were nothing new or anything to particularly hold on to. Even practices with the Three Hundreds were serious business for him. Every mistake he made was like a strike against his soul that he dwelled on. He’d said so in interviews plenty of times in the past, how he lay in bed going over plays until he went to sleep. He was cranky on days that the sun was out and he was cranky on cloudy days too. I could handle grouchy men who preferred their own company. Usually he just glared and maybe snarled a bit. No big deal. He didn’t throw things or yell. But acting like an asshole with me in public? Saying that kind of stuff? That was new even for him, and that was probably why I was handling it so badly. Sometimes the worst things you could ever hear were wrapped in sweet tones and calm voices. I walked out of the facility distracted. I even drove my car muttering to myself under my breath. Twenty minutes later, I pulled into Aiden’s subdivision and parked on the street like usual. When I opened the front door, I realized something was wrong when the alarm system wasn’t beeping. The alarm wasn’t beeping. “Zac?” I yelled, reaching into my purse for my pepper spray at the same time I made my way through the kitchen, toward the door that led into the garage, to see if there was a car in there. I didn’t make it that far. Sitting on the onyx countertop right next to the refrigerator were dangling long legs stuffed into brown leather cowboy boots. I didn’t need to look at the upper body above them. I knew what I would see: a threadbare T-shirt, a narrow, handsome face, and light-brown hair hidden beneath that black Stetson he’d owned for years. Zachary James Travis was draped across the counter with a bag of chips in his lap. At six foot three, Zac was the second string quarterback of the Dallas Three Hundreds. Plagued by one injury after another, Austin, Texas’s once-upon-a-time star had stumbled through the last six years of his career. Or so the sports analysts said. But that wasn’t how I knew Zac. With a twang in his accent, clothes that told everyone the only thing he worried about was them being clean and comfortable, and a smile that made most women swoon, he was my buddy. My confidant where his roommate was not. And I hadn’t seen him in almost three months since he’d left to go back home for part of the offseason. In that instant though, I didn’t miss him that much. “You almost got sprayed in the face! I thought you were coming next week.” I panted with my hand on my chest, the other hand clutching my pepper spray. Dropping his boot-clad feet to the floor, I finally let my eyes go up to find that he was standing there with his arms open, smiling wide. He was fresh faced, tanner than usual, and, eyeing his middle section, maybe a little thicker. “I missed ya too, darlin’.” Temporarily pushing aside the veil Aiden’s crappy mood had put over my head, I couldn’t help but smile. “What are you doing here?” “I figured it wasn’t gonna kill me to come back a little early,” he explained as he rounded the kitchen island and came to stand in front of me, pretty much towering over my five-foot-seven frame. Before either one of us could say another word, his arms were around me. I hugged him back. “The only person that might be getting killed soon is you-know-who. I’ve almost poisoned him a few times these last couple of months.” I took a sniff of him and almost laughed at the scent of Old Spice he insisted on wearing. “Is he still alive?” he drawled the question lazily but seriously. Thinking about his comment at the facility had me scowling into his shirt. “Barely.” Pulling back, the smile Zac had on his face withered, his eyes narrowing as he studied my features. “You look like hell, sugar. You’re not sleepin’?” he asked as he kept eyeballing what I was sure were the circles under my eyes. I shrugged beneath his palms. What was the point in lying? “Not enough.” He knew better than to give me shit; instead, he simply shook his head. For a second, I thought about how Aiden would react to the four or five hours I usually squeezed in. He was even more religious about getting anywhere from eight to ten hours of snooze time daily. That was also part of the reason why he didn’t have any friends. Thinking about Aiden reminded me of the conversations I’d had recently and how I hadn’t talked to Zac in two weeks. “I finally told Aiden,” I blurted out. His thin mouth fell open, those milky-blue eyes going wide “You did?” Zac had known what my plans were. Soon after we started getting to know each other, he’d seen me working on my tablet while I was having lunch one afternoon, and asked me what I was doing. So I’d told him. He’d simply grinned at me back then and replied, “No shit, Van. You got a website or somethin’?” Since then, I’d redone the logo for his personal website—after I’d insisted how much of a good idea they were for branding himself—and done various banners for his media pages. As a result, he’d gotten me more work through a couple of the other players on the team. I threw my hands up and put a smile on my face at the same time I wiggled my fingers. “I did it. I told him,” I practically sang. “What he say?” the most unapologetically nosey man I’d ever known asked. I fought and lost the urge to grimace at the memory of how much Aiden hadn’t said. “Nothing. He just told me to let Trevor know.” One of Zac’s light-brown eyebrows twitched. “Huh.” I ignored it. It didn’t matter if Zac thought the same thing I did: What a dick thing to do. “Yay,” I muttered, still giving him spirit fingers because even memories of Aiden weren’t going to rain on my parade of quitting soon. He eyed me speculatively for a moment before the emotion was wiped off, and he slapped me on the shoulder hard enough to make me go Oof. “It’s about damn time.” I rubbed my arm. “I know. I’m relieved I finally sucked it up. But between you and me, I still want to hurl when I think about it.” He watched my hand for a second before making his way back around the island. With his back to me, he said, “Aww, you’ll be fine. I’m gonna miss the hell out of your meatloaf when you’re gone, but not all of us get to do what we love for a livin’. I’m glad you finally get to join the club, darlin’.” Some days, I didn’t completely understand why I wasn’t madly in love with Zac. He was a little full of himself, but he was a pro football player, so it wasn’t exactly a surprising trait. Plus, he was tall, and I loved tall guys. In the end though, all I felt and had ever felt toward Zac was friendship. The fact that I’d gone out to buy him hemorrhoid cream a couple of times probably helped solidify the lines in our friend zone. “I’ll make you meatloaf anytime you want,” I told him. “You said it.” Zac grabbed a banana from the metal tree next to the fridge. “I’m so damn happy to hear you did it.” I shrugged, happy but still a tiny bit nervous about the situation despite knowing it was mostly unreasonable. “Me too.” For a second, I thought about telling him how Aiden had been acting an hour ago, but what was the point? They had polar-opposite personalities as it was, and I knew they got fed up with each other at times. Really, when I thought about it, I wondered how or why they still lived together. They didn’t spend much time together or go out and do stuff that friends did. But with one guy who felt so uncertain with his position on the team that he didn’t want to buy a house, and another who wasn’t even an American resident, I guess they both found themselves in weird situations. “How much longer are you—?” Zac started to ask just as his phone rang. With a wink, he pulled it out of his pocket and said, “Gimme a sec it’s—damn, it’s Trevor.” Ugh. He and Aiden had the same manager; it was how they ended up living together. “He knows?” he asked, pointing down at the illuminated screen of his phone. I scrunched up my nose. “He hung up on me.” That earned me a laugh. “Lemme see what he wants. Then you can tell me what he said.” I nodded again and watched as he answered the call and headed toward the living room. Setting my bag on the counter, I started cleaning up the kitchen, remembering at the last minute that it was trash day. Pulling the bag out, I put another one in there and then headed into the garage to grab the city-issued can. I slapped the button to open the garage door. I held my breath before opening the bin lid, throwing the bag in, and then dragging the can down the driveway toward the curb. Just as I was setting it in place, a woman ran by across the street in a steady pace, heading in the direction of where one of the subdivision’s walking trails started. Something, which was as close to jealousy as I thought I could get, panged through my stomach. I eyed my knee and flexed it a little, knowing I could jog if I wanted to, but most of the time I was too tired. Years of physical therapy had done a lot and I knew my knee would ache less if I actually exercised regularly, but I just didn’t have the time… and when I did have the time, I spent it doing other things. What a bunch of excuses, weren’t they? I wanted all these things out of my life… I had finally put in my notice to quit and everything seemed to be going okay. Or at least, things could have been a lot worse than they were. Maybe it was time to start working on other things I wanted to do. I’d been so focused on building up my business the last few years that I’d put off doing a hundred other things I could remember wanting to do when I was a kid. Screw it. I only had this one life to live, and I didn’t really want to sit back and not accomplish the things I wanted. It was time, damn it. Chapter Four The thing with having a terrible day is that a lot of times, you don’t know it’s going to be a bad one until it’s too late; it isn’t until your clothes are on, you’ve eaten breakfast, and you’re out of the house, so it’s too late to go back to request a sick day… and bam! The signs stare you right in the eye, and you know your day has instantly gone into the shitter. I woke up that morning at five o’clock, slightly earlier than usual because it was going to be a busy day of running around, to the smell of my coffee machine going, and my alarm clock blaring the most obnoxious tone in its programming. I showered, slipped a thick headband on to keep the hair out of my face, and threw on a pair of slim, red, cropped pants, a short-sleeved blouse, flats, and my glasses. My two cell phones, tablet, and laptop were all sitting together on the counter in the kitchen. I grabbed my things, poured a travel mug with coffee, and hauled ass out of my apartment when the sky was still sleepier than it was awake. I managed to make it all the way to the parking lot when things started to go wrong. I had a freaking flat. My apartment complex was too cheap for working outside lights, so it took me three times as long to change the tire than it would have usually taken me, and I stained my pants in the process. I was running late, so I didn’t go back to change. Luckily, the rest of the drive went by fine. There wasn’t a single light on at any of the other houses surrounding my boss’s, so my usual spot in front of the 4000-square-foot home was empty. I went inside through the front door, disarmed the security panel, and headed straight to the kitchen just as the pipes began humming with use upstairs. I put on the apron hanging from a hook in the corner of the kitchen because one stain was enough for only having been up two hours. I pulled fruit out of the freezer, the kale and carrots I’d washed and prepped the day before out of the fridge, measured a cup of pumpkin seeds out of a glass container on the counter, and dumped it all into the five-hundred-dollar blender on the countertop. On the mornings when he didn’t leave the house to go to training first thing, he had a big smoothie, worked out a little at home, and afterward had a ‘normal’ breakfast. As if a sixty-four-ounce beverage could be considered a snack. When I was done blending the ingredients, I poured the mixture into four big glasses and placed Aiden’s portion in front of his favorite spot on the kitchen island. Two apples out of the fridge later, I set it all right next to the glasses of smoothie. Like clockwork, the sound of thunder on the steps warned me The Wall of Winnipeg was on his way down. We had this routine set up that didn’t require words to get through it. The second sign I’d been given that today wasn’t going to be my day was the scowl Aiden had on his face, but my attention had been too focused on washing the blender to notice it. “Good morning,” I said without glancing up. Nothing. I still hadn’t been able to give up greeting him even though I knew he wouldn’t respond; my manners wouldn’t let me. So I went on like always, washing dirty dishes as the man sitting on the stool in front of me drank his breakfast. Then, once he was ready, he finally cracked the silence with a low, sleep-stained and hoarse-voiced, “What’s the plan for today?” “You have a radio interview at nine.” He grunted his acknowledgment. “Today is the day the Channel 2 news people are coming by.” Another grunt, but that one was especially unenthusiastic. I didn’t blame him; at the same time, I didn’t understand why his manager had even gotten him that kind of publicity with the local news. It was one thing for him to get through an interview in a hotel room in the pressroom after a game, or in the locker room, but one at his house? I’d spent the day before dusting the hell out of the living room and kitchen in preparation for it. “Then you have that luncheon the senior center you donated money to invited you to. Last month, you had me confirm with them.” I kind of eyed him after I said it, half expecting him to say he’d changed his mind and wasn’t going. He didn’t. He nodded that tiny baby nod that could have been easy to miss. “Did you want me to go with you?” I asked just to be sure. Most of the time, I accompanied him anywhere he went in Dallas, but if I could get out of it, I would. “Yes,” he grumbled his sleepy reply. Damn. “All right. We should get going by eight just to be on the safe side.” He lifted a couple of fingers in acknowledgment or agreement, whatever. Five chugs of smoothie later, he got up and handed over the empty glasses. “I’ll be in the gym. Get me fifteen minutes before we need to leave so I can shower.” “You got it, boss.” * * * “Vanessa!” I peeked my head into the green room Aiden was waiting in until his radio interview, and hit send on the message I’d been sending my little brother, before slipping my personal phone into the back pocket of my jeans. “Yes, sir?” I called out. “I want more water,” he replied. He sat on the edge of the couch, busy doing whatever it was he did on his phone. It wasn’t like he responded to any fan mail unless I insisted, and he didn’t pay his own bills, or do his own posts on his social media websites. That was my job. What exactly he did was beyond me. I didn’t care enough to snoop. “Okay, I’ll be back,” I replied, trying to remember where I’d seen the break room. It took me a lot longer than I expected to find the vending machines because, of course, no radio station employee happened to be roaming the hallways in my time of need. But I bought two bottles with the cash I had on hand, and found my way back to the green room. “Did you go all the way to Fiji to get the water?” Aiden asked abruptly when I entered. Umm. What? I frowned and then blinked. I focused in on my boss and the fact there were two women sitting on the couch perpendicular to him now, catching a glimpse of boobs in a low-cut blouse, and too much makeup. I wasn’t worried about them. The only thing I was paying attention to was my boss. My temporary boss. My temporary boss, I reminded myself. “Is something wrong?” I made myself ask carefully as I stood there, staring him right in the eye even as the two women seemed to squirm in their seats, like when you’re a kid and your friend’s parents scold them right in front of you; it was that awkward. He watched me right back, his answer more of a pop than a statement. “No.” No. Why did I bother asking stupid questions? Really. For a moment, I thought about keeping my mouth closed, but this moody crap was getting old real quick. His usual grumpiness was one thing, but this was a total other. The fact he was being an asshole again in public hummed a quiet song that was too easy to ignore and push away before mulling over because I didn’t know the women in the room, and I would never see them again. What he’d said in front of Christian had been a different story. Picking at the material covering my headband, I glared at that whiskered face and that whiskered face alone. “I know it’s not my position to say anything, but if there’s something you want to talk about…” My voice was rough, anger tinting each syllable. His sole focus was on me. The big guy straightened his spine and set his phone on top of one of his thighs. He wore his usual baggy shorts and T-shirt. “You’re right. I don’t pay you for your opinion.” One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. I balled up the sensation burning my esophagus and willed myself to keep it together. I knew what it was like to be picked on. I knew what it was like to be treated like crap by the people you were supposed to care about. I wasn’t going to cry over Aiden. I didn’t cry over people who didn’t deserve my tears, and Aiden—especially not fucking Aiden—wouldn’t be the person to break me. Not now, not ever. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. He was right. I was his PA, and that was what he paid me for no matter how hard I grit my teeth. I was leaving soon. He wouldn’t be my business any longer. Biting the inside of my cheek, I made myself let the moment go even though I would later on look back on it, and realize it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. In a calm, even voice, I set the bottles of water on the table, maybe slightly breathing like a dragon. “Do you need anything else right now?” “No,” the rude bastard muttered. I smiled at him even though I was positive my nostrils were flaring, and kept right on ignoring the women who had gotten to their feet. I didn’t need to ask to know that they had invited themselves in, and were now regretting that decision. Good. “I’ll be out here then.” I got out of there and leaned my back against the wall right next to the door, my fists clenching at my sides. A second later, the two strangers who had magically appeared, were out of the room, two dark heads pressed together as they walked down the hall and out of sight. It wasn’t the first time women had tried to approach Aiden and gotten shut down immediately; either way, it wasn’t like I even cared. I was too pissed off to give a crap about anything other than the asswipe in the green room. What the hell was his deal? I hadn’t told him about the multiple e-mails he’d gotten from angry fans in San Antonio over the cancelled signing—he wouldn’t have given a crap about them either way. Trevor and Rob hadn’t been blowing up my phone or his about anything lately. He didn’t seem to be having any issues with his tendon either. What was it then? He had everything and anything he wanted. What the hell could possibly be wrong in his nearly perfect little world? This was the last year of his contract and he’d been putting off talking about what he wanted to do after it was over, but he had options. Probably too many options, if that was possible. Getting bent out of shape over that didn’t make sense, at least this early. Aiden focused on the now. I could see him worrying about the future once the season was at least halfway over. So what else could it be? “Hi, miss,” a voice called out from down the hallway with a wave. “We’re ready for Mr. Graves,” the radio station employee said. I forced a smile on my face and nodded. “Okay.” I dropped the smile before peeking into the room and giving Miranda a flat, expressionless look, as everything in me raged at the sight of his face. “They’re ready for you.” * * * After the interview, the ride back to Aiden’s place had been quiet and tense. As soon as we arrived, he disappeared into his gym without a single word. I raged to myself as I swept and mopped the living room and kitchen floor again, angrily, in anticipation of the camera crew coming. I knew what Aiden had done hadn’t been the floor’s fault, but it was the only thing I had around that I could take my frustrations out on. I had just started working on the hallway that led from the front of the house to the half bathroom and the gym when I overheard Aiden. “I’m about sick and tired of hearing what you think is best for me. I know what’s best for me,” Aiden’s familiar voice spat. Uhh, what? “No, you listen to me. Maybe I’ll re-sign with them, maybe I won’t, but don’t make promises I have no intention of keeping,” Aiden kept going with venom in every vowel. Was he contemplating leaving Dallas? “Don’t glorify what you’ve done. I have what I have because of my hard work, no one else’s,” Aiden added after a brief pause. Who was he talking to? Trevor? Rob? “I don’t care,” Aiden growled a moment later. The silence after that was heavy, almost ominous and extremely alarming. “All I’m asking is for you to do what’s best for me. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You work for me, not the team.” Well, someone wasn’t just being bitchy to me today. That should have made me feel better, but it didn’t. “I don’t need to remember anything,” Aiden said carefully, his tone controlled and cool. “Don’t open your mouth; it’s that easy. Don’t promise them anything. Don’t even talk to them. I’m telling you to listen to what I want. That’s what I pay you to do, isn’t it?” Then, just like that, it was over. I must have stood completely still for at least five minutes, listening, but there was nothing else said. I stayed rooted in place, breathing as quietly as possible until I figured enough time had passed to not make a suspicious sound. “Slackin’ on the job?” Zac asked, his head hanging over from the top of stair rail. I froze. What if Aiden thought I might have overheard his conversation? Damn it. I coughed and smiled innocently up. “You’re barely waking up?” I tried to play it cool. “It’s my day off,” he explained as he jogged down the steps. “Hasn’t every day been your day off?” I teased, not waiting for him to answer. “Ask me what time I woke up this morning,” I said, putting my chin on the top of the Swiffer handle. “I don’t wanna know, darlin’.” He patted my shoulder as he walked by me into the kitchen. “I don’t wanna know.” I snorted and pushed the dusting device around the hardwood floor as the sounds of Zac messing around in the kitchen kept me company while I thought about Aiden’s conversation. He had never said anything about leaving the team, and I guess I hadn’t assumed he would. From the digits in his bank account—at least the account I had access to—his contract extension a few years ago had been more than lucrative. Plus, he’d only improved. He was the face of the Three Hundreds. They would give him anything he asked for, but who the hell actually knew what that was? I sure didn’t. Aiden should be singing praises for the Three Hundreds all day every day for what they’d given him in exchange for his skills. “The house is lookin’ good, Cinderella,” Zac snorted as he held a bowl to his chest and snuck by me before I could whack him with the handle. He dashed through the doorway that led into the living room. The television was turned on a moment later. Before I knew it, Aiden was in his bedroom getting dressed in something other than workout clothes for the first time in months, and a Channel 2 news truck was parking on the curb across the street. With a quick glance around, I made sure the house looked even more spot-free than usual. By the time the doorbell started ringing, Zac was zooming up the stairs with a panicked expression on his face. “I don’t live here,” he muttered on his journey just as I reached the door and opened it. A man in a suit and two cameramen stood on the other side. “Hi, come in,” I said, waving them forward. “Aiden will be down in a second. Would you like something to drink?” All three of them glanced around carefully as I showed them into the living room where a producer and Trevor had already agreed would be the best place to film. I caught the camera guy looking at the walls when Aiden jogged down the steps. I’d never lived through an earthquake, but I was sure him on the steps might register on the Richter scale. He filled the entrance to the living room—his shoulders and arms looking spectacular in the white polo shirt he’d somehow squeezed into, and the khaki pants he had to get specially made for his oversized thighs. I edged my way out of the corner of the living room, not necessarily wanting to but knowing I needed to. Just because I was pissed off