1) Never underestimate your opponent
2) Avoid personal fouls
3) Score early and often
4) Play or get played
Coach Marcus Leon has always played by the rulesâ¦until he meets Addaline Grace, the seventeen-year-old senior transfer on his Oak Crest High water polo team. Addie changes all the rules, mostly because she doesnât play any games. But as off limits as she is, the more Marcus discovers about Addie, the more he finds himselfâ¦and the more he questions whether Addie might just be worth risking everything for.
For Addie, water polo is anger management. Sheâs driven and focused because it keeps her mind off other thingsâ¦like the fact she destroyed her family. Her game plan is to keep her head down and graduate so she can leave her father and the crappy town he dragged her to in her wake. But when what starts as friendly completion with Marcus turns into more than a game, Addie has to decide if sheâs willing to face down her demonsâ¦and possibly ruin the man she may or may not be falling in love with in the process.
What happens when the only thing you need is the one thing you canât have?
** This is a standalone
ADD TO GOODREADS
I stare Caiden Brenner down over my younger sister Blaireâs shoulder. The beating early September sun in the courtyard of Town Hall is roasting me alive in this monkey suit, but I hardly notice. Iâm too busy trying to get into my soon-to-be brother-in-lawâs head.
âI do,â Blaire answers when the Justice of the Peace asks if she takes Caiden to be her husband.
Iâve decided Caiden isnât the devil incarnateâthat would be my ex-best friend, Nateâbut Iâm still struggling with what Caiden did to my sister four years ago, when he was twenty-five and she was barely seventeen.
But Blaire is shining in a way Iâve never seen her shine, and itâs more than the way she looks todayâtotally gorgeous in her bright blue sundress and black Converse, her long black hair tucked up in a bun on top of her head. Itâs that, each time her eyes connect with Caidenâs, I see the visible change in her. All her sharp edges dull and something peaceful softens her face. Not only does she love him, she trusts him. For Blaire, thatâs huge.
So maybe I need to trust him too.
I glance at Mom and Dad, seated in the short row of chairs under the small gazebo next to Caidenâs mother. Blaire and Caiden insisted on immediate family only at their civil service. Theyâre having a barbeque later at Graffiti Park for a few close friends and extended family.
I turn back in time to hear Caiden echo Blaireâs âI do,â then Blaire spins and look expectantly at me.
âWhat?â I ask.
Her expression turns decidedly more exasperated. âJesus, Marcus.â
My eyes widen when it hits me what sheâs waiting for. I pat my pocket and feel the ring there. I fish it out and hesitate.
Blaireâs glare could melt steel as she holds out her hand for it.
I swallow the acid rising up my throat and slip it into her palm. Sheâs really going through with this. Sheâs marrying the man who went to prison for statutory rape.
Iâve been hard on him. I know that. But all Blaire and I have ever had is each other. Sheâs always had my back, but I let her get hurt twice on my watchâonce by Caiden, and then by Nate. Itâs just been in the last few months that sheâs seemed to find herself again after everything that happened. As much as I wish it were me that brought her back, I know it was Caiden. I need to cut him some slack.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath as they exchanging rings, and when I open them, theyâre kissing.
When he finally lets her go, Blaire turns to me. She gives me a wary once over. âJust so you know, you suck as bro of honor.â
I duck my head and rub the sweat off the back of my neck. âYou should have picked Zoey.â
Her eyes narrow. âI picked you, Marcus. I wanted you.â
Fuck. I really need to get over myself.
Just as Iâm thinking this, Caiden slips to Blaireâs side and holds out his hand to me.
âThanks for your support, Marcus.â
I split a glance between Caidenâs hand and my sister. Her gaze is unwavering, as usual, but under her hard exterior, I see a deep vulnerability in her eyes.
The moment of truth. Either I accept my new brother-in-law into the family, or break my sisterâs heart.
I squeeze Caidenâs hand. Hard. âWelcome to the family. Just know this: You mess with Blaire, I will kill you.â
Blaire gives me her signature smirk, then tugs her groom closer and kisses him. âHe messes with me, Iâll kill him.â
Caidenâs face beams as he looks at her. âOf that, I have no doubt.â
âYou two are on grill duty at the reception,â she says, poking me in the chest. âAnd I expect you both to come away un-charred.â
I shake my head. âCanât make any promises, sis.â
âThat was lovely, Blaire,â Mom says, joining our small circle.
I glance around and find Dad already at the door. Social situations are his nightmare. This should be enough to drive him over the edge. But to his credit, he seems sober.
Thereâs an awkward moment where Blaire and our mother negotiate their way around a brief hug, then Mom backs away. âYou said Zoeyâs getting everything ready at the park?â
Blaire nods and pulls her phone out of her bra, glancing at the screen. âShe says theyâre ready anytime we are.â
Mom looks warily toward where Dad is shifting on his feet. âI might need to drop your father off at the house on the way. Heâs not feeling well.â
Of course not. Heâs already had to say hello to Caiden and his family. The thought of having to interact with more people at the reception is probably making him physically ill.
Thereâs a glint of disappointment in Blaireâs eyes, but it passes quickly as she thinks about it and comes to the same conclusion I have. âWeâll see you over there,â she says grasping Caidenâs hand and starting toward the parking lot.
Despite the âno giftsâ decree, a handful of people wait near a pile of wrapped presents on one of the picnic tables under the small shelter when we arrive at Graffiti Park. The shelter has silver and blue streamers twisted around the poles and looped from the eaves, and the five picnic tables underneath are covered in blue paper table clothes with silver balloons tied to the benches. In the center of the middle table is a cake shaped like a penis in between two boobs. Blaireâs best friend Zoeyâs contribution, no doubt.
Blaire leaves Caiden and I in the dust, where weâre carrying the gas grill from the back of my pickup truck across the grass to the shelter, and makes a beeline for Zoey. Her face is something between a scowl and a grin as she surveys the cake. âYou know Iâll never be able to show my future children pictures of my wedding reception now.â
âBut youâll never forget it,â Zoey answers with a self-satisfied grin, wrapping Blaire in a hug. âLove you, girl.â
Next to me, Caidenâs feet stall and I yank the grill out of his hands when I keep walking. When I look back at him, heâs giving Blaire a stunned stare. But then a grin slowly spreads across his face.
âI guess this works,â I say, straightening out the grill next to the edge of the shelter.
His eyes snap to me as if heâs just remembering I exist. âOhâ¦sorry.â
I tug off my jacket. âSo you guys are doing the whole kid thing?â I ask, tucking my tie inside the royal blue shirt I bought to match my sisterâs wedding dress in a show of solidarity.
He glances at Blaire again and bobs a nod. âIt appears that way.â
I crouch down to screw the gas line into the grill. âYou havenât talked about it?â
He shrugs as he pulls open a box of frozen Costco burgers. âNot specifically.â
âKids makes it permanent,â I say in warning.
âOur marriage vows made it permanent,â he counters with more than a little irritation in his tone.
A hand brushes over my back. âHey, good lookinâ.â
I turn at the Texas drawl and find my date, Deanna, standing there in a tiny green dress and killer heels. Sheâs pretty in the Barbie sense: blond and blue with a heart-shaped face, copper skin, and an amazing bodyâlong and lean with curves in all the right places.
I use the word âdateâ loosely. Sheâs the woman who stole my job at Oak Crest High. I know she was teaching in Texas for four years before coming hereâthe reason the school board cited for hiring her over me. Experience. Which means sheâs at least three, maybe four years older than me. But what started as mindless frenemy sex a few weeks back has turned into a regular thing. When she invited herself to my sisterâs wedding, it seemed a little heartless to tell her no.
She wraps her arms around my neck and sort of hangs off me. âHow was the ceremony?â
I glance at Caiden, where heâs firing up the grill. âIt was good.â
Deanna smiles at Caiden and holds out her hand. âIâm sure it was ten yards of romantic. Congratulation.â
He shakes her outstretched hand. âThank you.â
I watch her walk over to Blaire and introduce herself. Maybe thatâs something I should have done, but I feel like this thing is already taking on a life of its own, and her getting all chummy with my sister makes me a little nervous. I busy myself getting everything ready then take up my position next to my new brother-in-law when he starts throwing burgers on the grill.
âListen, Marcus,â he says, tearing open a package of hot dogs. âI get that Iâve never been your favorite person and I can respect your reasons for that, but I need you to understand that Blaire is my life. Iâve given up everything for her and Iâd do it all again if it meant the same result.â
âYou can prove it by not fucking this up,â I say with a wave of the barbeque tongs between where Blaire is hugging some Berkeley friends who have just arrived and him.
âI canât predict the future better than anyone else,â he answers, his eyes raising from the grill to his new bride, âbut I can swear to you Iâm going to do everything in my power not to.â
We cook and, at Zoeyâs direction, people start filing past for burgers and dogs. Once most everyone is served, Caiden grabs a burger off the grill for Blaire and brings it to her. They sit across the picnic table from each other, and even though theyâre talking to other people, their eyes keep straying to each otherâs.
Deanna and Zoey seem to hit it off and are deep in conversation about shoes when I slip away from the shelter. On autopilot, my legs start up the hill toward the playground where Blaire, Nate, and I used to spend all our time as kids.
As I walk, I loosen my tie and flick open the top button. Near the top of the hill is a bench nestled into the shade of some big oaks. Nate and I carved it up pretty good back in the day. Which makes me wonder about him.
We havenât spoken since I decked him after he cheated on Blaire. Itâs been four years. He came back to town to live with his parents after we graduated college, and since itâs a small place, I saw him here and there, but itâs been a while. With any luck, heâs moved on.
I start toward the bench, but then see itâs occupied. A woman is laying on her back, her knees bent and her head propped on a backpack with a book in her hand.
I shove my hands in my pockets and look farther up the hill, toward the playground. There are a few benches up there, but theyâre occupied by parents supervising their kids on the massive wooden play structure. The only free bench is facing into the afternoon sun, about twenty feet across the open, grassy area from the one the woman is occupying. I head over to it and plunk down on the end. I glare through the blinding sun at the woman on my bench before leaning onto my elbows and resting my face in my hands.
If youâd asked me five years ago where I thought Iâd be right now, it wouldnât have been here, coaching girls water polo at my old high school and working at the local gym. This is so not where I saw my life going. After living large for four years of high school and four more at college, I guess I started to feel charmed. But thereâs nothing charming about crashing on a friendâs couch for the last six months because itâs all I can afford. Iâve only been out of UCLA for a year and I feel like Iâve already hit a total dead end, but Iâve got no one but myself to blame for that.
As the sun dips behind the tops of the trees surrounding the bench across the way, I sit up straight and look at the woman who stole it. Thereâs a second I wonder if sheâs homeless, because her wardrobe has a definite secondhand vibeâa faded army-green tank with pale pink stripes under a baggy red cardigan, tattered jeans which are probably too short because theyâre rolled halfway up her shins, and plaid Vans with no socks.
She rolls her head my direction and catches me staring.
I divert my eyes, but then blow out a disgusted laugh. I never would have done that back in college. Sheâs hot. I can see that from here. A hot girl makes eye contact, I would have held her gaze. I would have sent the message loud and clear with my eyes that I was interested.
When I glance up, sheâs gone back to her book. I shove up off the bench and cram my hands into my pockets as I amble slowly toward her.
She lowers her book and sits up when she sees me, combing a hand through her thick strawberry blond corkscrew curls, and it strikes me that she looks vaguely familiar. Her face is thin and, at the bottom of a smallish nose that curls up slightly at the end are a pair of full, pink lips that tend to curl down. Thereâs the faintest hint of freckles smattering her cheeks and nose, and itâs kind of a turn-on that sheâs comfortable enough in her own skin not to hide them behind layers of makeup. But itâs her charcoal gray eyes that snag all my attention. Theyâre large and round, but not innocent.
âNice day,â I say, looking toward the shelter down the hill, wracking my brain trying to place how I know this woman. Maybe from the gym?
She closes her book and nods.
âMind if Iâ¦?â I gesture at the now vacant end of the bench.
She gives me another wary nod.
I lower myself onto the spot her feet just occupied, and now Iâve got nothing else to say. I should have stayed on my own fucking bench. I give her a second to bail me out, and when she doesnât, I gesture to the book. âGood book?â
She lifts the book and shows me the cover. The Metamorphosis. âItâs okay.â
I pull it from her hand and read the description on the back cover. âPretty dark.â
She almost shrugs, more with her face than her body. âI found a list of the twenty-five most controversial books of all time. Making my way through the ones that interest me.â In the corner of my eye, I see her wave her hand at the book Iâm thumbing through. âThatâs number ten.â
I look up at her. âWhat are numbers one through nine?â
âLolita is number one. Iâd already read that, though, as well as number two, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, number four, The Grapes of Wrath, and number nine, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.â
âSo, what new books have you picked up because of the list?â I lift The Metamorphosis. âOther than this?â
She looks at the book in my hand rather than me as she ticks off on her fingers. âI skipped American Psycho, which is number three, but Iâve read the rest: And Tango Makes Three, Uncle Tomâs Cabin, The Tropic of Cancer, and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdieâ¦which I have to say was pretty dry.â
âThatâs a pretty impressive reading list.â I set the book down on the bench between us. âSo, youâre not a Rushdie fan. What did you think of the others?â
âAnd Tango Makes Three was cute. Uncle Tomâs Cabin was depressing, and The Tropic of Cancer wasâ¦â She trails off and gives me that face shrug again. But this time sheâs blushing through her freckles.
Itâs been a while since I read it, but my recollection is itâs full of graphic sex. Sheâs embarrassed to talk to me about it, and for some reason that sends a rush through insides that settles in my groin. My gaze trials over the lines of her face, down her long neck, then trickles over her body. Sheâs on the tall side and athletic, with breasts that are a perfect handful, a flat stomach, and long, toned legs that Iâd suddenly kill to have wrapped around my head.
âAnd whatâs the verdict on this one?â I ask, handing back The Metamorphosis.
A shadow passes over her face as she looks at the cover. âItâsâ¦thought provoking.â
âWhat thoughts is it provoking?â I ask, laying the innuendo on thick and hoping Iâm not the only one feeling the attraction.
The thought passes through the back of my mind that hitting on another woman while my date is just down the hill is a pretty skanky thing to do, but thereâs something compelling about this girl. The idea that I might never see her again tugs hard at my gut. I canât let this chance to find out who she is slip by.
âHave you read it?â she asks.
I lean in and shake my head. âShould I?â
âItâs a little out there,â she says with an unsure squint.
âWhy donât you save me the trouble and give me the SparkNotes,â I say, looping my arm behind her and resting it on the back of the bench.
She gives me a curious look, and I feel her body tense under my arm.
I give her my best cocky smile and arch an eyebrow. I intentionally let my fingers brush her shoulder and am rewarded with a shudder. âUnless youâd prefer I leave?â
A sly smile curves her pink lips as she lowers her lashes, and the rush in my groin intensifies.
âThe SparkNotesâ¦â she says, picking up the book between us. I take the opportunity to slide closer. âThis guy Gregor wakes up one day to find heâs a giant bugâ¦which I get is a little weird, and thereâs no explanation as to why, but the upshot is that everyone is pretty grossed out by him and all his family seems to care about is that he canât do his job anymore, so he canât contribute to the finances. He can only speak bug, so because they canât understand him, they assume he canât understand them when they say they wish heâd just go away. But he canât leave because he has nowhere to go, and also because his father threw an apple at him and injured him pretty badly, so he hides in his room and eventually just dies.â
âSeriously?â When I take the book back and turn it over to read the jacket copy again, I notice it came from the county library.
âSeriously,â she answers, earnestly.
I lift my eyes to hers. âSo a happy ending, then,â I say, my voice full of sarcasm.
âYeah, right.â Her eyes lower to the book in my hand. âI donât really understand why itâs the tenth most controversial book of all time, but itâs a pretty true testament to human nature. Gregor is messed up, so instead of trying to help him, people just wish heâd go away.â
Thereâs no mistaking the mix of disdain and sadness in her tone. I only realize how intently Iâm staring at her when she turns her face away. Does she feel that people wish sheâd go away? And, if so, who is making her feel that way and why? Is she âmessed up?â
The overpowering need to know sweeps through me in a rush that forces a shuddering breath from my lungs.
âSo, whatâs next on the list?â I ask, handing the book back.
âBrave New World,â she answers, her eyes lifting to mine again.
I cuff a laugh. âThat one I have read. Another uplifting story.â
âSo I hear.â She glances down the hill in the direction I came from. âSo, whatâs going on down there, anyway? Someoneâs birthday?â
My gaze follows hers. âMy sisterâs wedding reception.â
âIn a public park?â she asks, her eyebrows raising in surprise.
I nod. âGraffiti Park is special. We spent a lot of time here as kids.â
âGraffiti Park? Thatâs really the name of this place?â she asks, looking around.
âI have no clue what the real name is. Thatâs just what weâve always called it.â My thumb brushes over where Nate carved my name into the back of bench weâre sitting on at least ten years ago.
She squints toward the shelter below and shades her eyes from the last of the afternoon sun. âI donât see a bride.â
I point to Blaire. âThe one in the bright blue dress.â
âThat sort of flies in the face of tradition, doesnât it?â she asks, still watching.
âThatâs my sister. Sheâs never cared much about social conventions. If you search YouTube for her valedictory graduation speech from Oak Crest High four years ago, youâll see what I mean.â
Her eyes snap to mine, wide and curious, and her gaze knocks the wind out of me. âWhat did she say?â
âShe basically told the whole world off. But that was because her now husband,â I say with a jut of my chin at the gathering below, âhad just been arrested for statutory rape.â
Her eyes widen even more. âOh my God!â
âSheâs always insisted they were in love, and the age difference shouldnât matter. It was her giant âfuck youâ to society.â
Her head cocks to the side as she watches the party below. âI like her already.â She turns back to me. âWonât they miss you?â
I press myself against her shoulder. âIâm disturbing you?â
A sardonic smile ghosts over her features as she lifts the book. âI was in the middle of reading the thoughts of a dying giant bug-person and not thinking that was at all weird, so Iâm obviously already very disturbed.â
I canât stop staring, because sheâs suddenly stunningly beautiful. Her eyes flash, looking momentarily more black then gray, and thereâs a long, deep dimple in her right cheek, which is the only one I can see because of the angle of her head. Iâm dying to know if thereâs a matching one on the other side.
The smile fades under my scrutiny and when she drops her gaze to the book between us, a cascade of strawberry corkscrews hide her face. âSorry. Stupid joke.â
âNo!â Damn. A little too eager there, tiger. I work to lower my voice. âI mean, it wasnât stupid. It was funny.â
I just forgot to laugh because your smile knocked me senseless for a sec.
She lifts a knee to her chest, hooking the heel of her sneaker on the edge of the bench. Her knee pokes through the long crosswise tear in her jeans. âItâs okay, my sense of humorâs pretty dry. Not too many people get me.â
âYour sense of humor is refreshing,â I say. âAnd as for people getting you, most people donât pay enough attention to anyone but themselves to âgetâ much of anything.â
I look down the hill at Deannaâs voice. Sheâs at the shelter waving her hands over her head to get my attention. Thereâs a sudden cramp in my stomach at the thought of her coming up here.
âLooks like you have to go.â Iâd swear a catch a hint of disappointment in her tone.
âLooks like.â I stand and shove my hands into my pockets. âMy name is Marcus, by the way.â
She smiles and something roguish flashes in her eyes. âI know.â
Fuck. I do know her. Everything felt so relaxed and comfortable between us. I hate that I might have just fucked that up. Before it gets totally awkward, I blurt, âIâd be up for maybe getting a burger at Sam Hill sometime, if youâre into that.â
She nods, but that wary glint is back in her eyes. âYeahâ¦sure.â
I fish my phone from my pocket. âCan I get your number?â
She reels it off and I type it in. âGirl who stole my bench,â is say with a cocky grin as I type it in to contacts. I turn my amusement on her. âOr is there something else I should call you?â
He gives me a questioning tip of her head. âAddie.â
I know that name. Someone I went to high school with, maybe? My brain chugs harder trying to put the pieces together as I type it in. âGot it,â I say, holding up my phone. âIâll give you a call.â
She squints at me. âOkay.â
I start backing down the path. âEnjoy my bench,â I say with a wink.
She lifts the book in a wave. âSee you Monday, Coach.â
Suddenly I see her face under a navy blue swim cap with the Oak Crest Cougar on the side. The jolt of electric panic almost knocks my legs out from under me and I stumble, just catching myself before I go down.
Because sheâs on my fucking team.
I ran tryouts Wednesday and Thursday. Practices just started yesterday. Iâm still trying to get the new girlsâ names. She said Addie, but my roster says Addaline, I think. All I can remember for sure is sheâs a senior transfer and mostly keeps to herself.
âFuck me,â I mutter, then hear myself. I hold up a hand. âI meanâ¦â I trail off in a cringe. âSorry for the language.â Because Iâm not supposed to swear in front of a fucking student.
But fuck. My mind reels, replaying everything I said and did and trying to figure out how to backpedal out of this. âSo, weâll talk about aâ¦team dinnerâ¦for bonding and whateverâ¦at practice on Monday.â
Just shoot me now.
She tips her head and bites her lips, fighting a smile. âSounds good, Coach.â
After what feels like a small eternity, I shake myself loose from her gaze and start down the hill without saying anything else. I can only dig myself deeper at this point. But the whole way, all I can think about is that, as shitty as my life is at the moment, it might have just gotten shittier.
A poem by Blaire Leon
If sex is dirty, why would I do it with someone I love?
If sex is dirty, then didnât we all come from the dirt?
What if I like the dirt?
What if I want to get dirty?
What if I want to roll in the mud until Iâm so fucking filthy that Iâll never be clean again?
When twenty-five-year-old graduate assistant Caiden Brenner asked Blaire Leon how old she was, she said she was a senior. He chose to believe she meant in college. They connect over Lord Byronâs Don Juan and, as their conversations become increasingly thicker with sexual innuendo, Caiden finds himself obsessing over a totally off-limits undergrad whoâs bold, beautiful, brilliant, and one of the most passionate poets heâs ever met.
But it turns out Blaire hasn't been totally honest. She's the seventeen-year-old valedictorian of her high school class, taking courses at Sierra State while awaiting her acceptance to Stanford.
Will Caiden get too deeply into Blaire to back away before he finds out the truth? Or will their connection be enough to seduce him into risking his entire future on Jail Bait?
About the Author:
Mia Storm is a hopeless romantic who is always searching for her happy ending. Sometimes sheâs forced to make one up. When that happens, sheâs thrilled to be able to share those stories with her readers. She lives in California and spends much of her time in the sun with a book in one hand and a mug of black coffee in the other, or hiking the trails in Yosemite. Connect with her online at MiaStormAuthor.blogspot.com , on Twitter at @MiaStormAuthor, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MiaStormAuthor.
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