Genre = Contemporary Romance, Romantic Comedy, Over 30 Romance
Next Game I Play
LENGTH: 38,000 words, 175 pages
Dating at age 40 is the hardest game Taylor has ever played.
Despite injured Hockey player Maximillian Wade’s charm, masculine appeal, and having an amazing brother engaged to her best friend, Taylor is keeping her distance. Her no-dating-jocks resolution goes double for dating “Wicked Wade” whose womanizing past is a matter of public record.
That decision is ironic given her business provides her with a banquet of dating opportunities on a daily basis. The men who use her high-profile gyms are talented, good-looking, and rich enough to afford her rates. Unfortunately, they also believe they deserve to date whoever they want whenever they want without the commitment.
Taylor sees herself as having been there, done that, and she’s gotten too many consolation gifts to prove temporary relationships aren’t for her. Instead, she thinks pretending to commit to one woman is a romantic ploy famous athletes use to get into a woman’s bed for a short while.
Taylor wants a real home, maybe a family, and someone who’ll cook for her occasionally. Those tiny dreams are all that’s survived her disappointing love life.
Taylor shook her head as she dragged the suitcase belonging to her mature aunt-by-choice up her townhouse’s sidewalk. “You’re my family, Aunt Aggie. Maybe not legally, but unlike the people who share my DNA, I don’t care about legalities. I care that you and Aunt Linda were always there for me. Now I’m here for you. I have a spare room sitting empty. Save your money for a better purpose.”
“Linda’s gone for good now, dear. I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’m going to find someplace where I can age gracefully without inconveniencing anyone. You don’t need some old lady to worry about while you’re running that business of yours.”
As Taylor stopped to unlock her door, she looked her Aunt Linda’s life partner up and down. Her Aunt Aggie—and that’s how she saw her—didn’t have any family still alive. Taylor had family, but she might as well not have had. Who was better off? It was a toss-up.
Her self-centered parents were out traveling and couldn’t be bothered with some sibling’s grieving mate from a forty-three-year relationship. Her mother should have been here to help Aggie, but why would she? No, both her parents had flown here from St. John’s for the funeral, then flown back to their current port of call the same day.
Neither her mother nor her father kept in touch with their siblings. Taylor wasn’t even sure some of them knew she even existed. Her birth had been an accident, and she wasn’t sure why her mother hadn’t simply gotten a quiet abortion. It’s not like they bothered to raise her. Like Jasper and Max’s parents, her parents also preferred to remain as uninvolved as possible.
Her early young life consisted of boarding schools, with a hired nanny for company on the holidays. It had set the tone for her tendency to not connect with anyone. She’d flatly refused to make friends until college when she ended up rooming with friendly, nurturing, optimistic Emma. The two of them later picked up Chloe in a bar where the singing accountant bartender made them strong drinks and later helped them pass their math classes.
Taylor had no regrets that ended up with close friends instead of siblings, which truly Taylor never minded. Chloe and Emma were like sisters in every way that counted. But unfortunately, she possessed a wide assortment of greedy aunts, uncles, and cousins linked to her by DNA.
Those DNA people were the source of her latest dilemma.
Her Aunt Linda’s massive heart attack out of the blue had done the unthinkable. It had left her life partner Aggie homeless because the house they’d shared for forty years had been in Linda’s name only. The two women never come out with the real truth of their living arrangement, much less married as they should have. They were “friends” as far as most knew.
Even through death and beyond, Aggie continued to honor Linda’s silence about the nature of their relationship, which legally gave Taylor’s DNA greedy relatives an ocean view house to sell so they could divide the profits among themselves.
Taylor pushed open the door and pointed down as she looked behind her. “Watch your step coming in. The doorplate is loose. It needs replacing, but I haven’t gotten around to getting it done.”
The HOA she paid monthly required residents to be present during repairs. How was she supposed to do that with the hours she kept? There were about ten things needing attention.
It relieved Taylor that at least her parents weren’t part of Aggie’s hot mess of being kicked out of her house. Both her parents had invested their trust funds wisely over the years, and neither had worked for a living outside brief stints of philanthropy. They’d always had enough ready cash to travel anywhere they wished.
The only thing that ever held them back was Taylor’s twelve-year-old rebellious refusal to return to boarding school. So, they’d pawned their rebellious pre-teen off on Linda, her mother’s oldest sister. And with Linda came her quiet roommate Aggie. Taylor quickly figured out why Aggie slept in the same room with her Aunt Linda, but she was an adult before Linda ever admitted the truth.
Their silence was now costing Aggie more than Linda ever could have imagined it would.
Her parents send money dutifully over the years, and they’d paid for her college tuition, but no one had left Taylor a trust fund. Like her college peers, she’d worked her way through school playing piano in bars and doing an assortment of odd jobs. Chloe had wanted to sing. Taylor learned to play her songs. Emma, who had a pleasant voice, happily went along for the fun of being a performer.
Taylor stopped in the hallway to make sure Aggie got safely inside. She knew her aunt was traumatized still, but she needed to get her settled so she could head to her office.
She’d worked five years after college to put together the money she needed to open her first gym. She’d named it Pink Link Sports when her Aunt Linda got diagnosed with breast cancer and started her treatments.
In the beginning, Taylor focused her clientele recruiting on soccer moms, aspiring starlets, and normal people. With a doctor’s note stating the type of cancer they had, anyone living within fifty miles of her gym could walk through the door and get a year’s membership for free.
Did that cost her profits? Yes. But it also gave her Aunt Linda, who was barely over forty at the time, the motivation to fight the disease trying to ravage her body. Taylor would have paid any amount of money to make sure her only loving family member survived.
In her early thirties, she’d tried to make a new family of her own. Her marriage lasted until her business hit a crisis. Within a month, she found herself divorced from her retired NFL star husband who lost no time finding a wealthy younger woman to warm his bed.
Instead of her husband supporting her during the hard times, Aunt Linda bailed Taylor out when her business failed. She’d paid that loan back a decade ago, and worked hard to make sure her business never failed again.
But how do you pay back someone for the unconditional love they gave you? Taylor decided it was almost impossible. Her current plan was to find her Aunt Aggie a situation that worked in the best way possible, even if it meant selling off one of her gyms. The sacrifice would be worth it to her.
Her Aunt Aggie sighed and closed the front door behind her as she came inside.
Taylor heard the sigh and stopped. “I want you to stay with me until we sort everything out. I can’t lose anyone else in my life, Aunt Aggie. We both need… time,” she said.
When her aunt nodded, she began dragging the suitcase to her largest guest room, which had its own bathroom. It would hopefully give her aunt the feeling of having her own space.
When Aggie followed her into the room, Taylor felt relieved.
“You staying here will make me feel better, and we both know Aunt Linda would have wanted me to do this for you. We’ll make this living situation work however you need it to until you’ve had time to think things through.”
“I’m grateful that you’re willing to take me in—I am. I didn’t mean to sound like I wasn’t, Taylor.”
“No explanations are needed. We’re lucky to have each other,” Taylor said, lifting the suitcase onto the bed. “Now… I’m going to the kitchen I rarely use for its intended purpose and ordering us food while you unpack. Chinese okay?”
“Anything’s fine.” Aggie sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Maybe I can cook for you while I’m staying here. You haven’t married a chef yet, have you?”
I laughed at the question. My Aunt Linda used to be the one who asked it. I’d once joked that I wanted to marry someone who’d cook for me. Aggie and I were both going to miss her.
“I tried to order one just the other day, but apparently, no one delivers chefs. I may have to learn to cook one day.”
“Let’s not get desperate yet. I’m not a chef, but I can make sure you don’t starve while you keep searching.”
“You’re the best,” Taylor said as she walked to the woman she’d forced to be her house guest and hugged her. “We’re going to find a new normal and take life one day at a time.”
“Sounds like a plan, and I know how much you love your plans. Now, scoot, so I can unpack a few things. Chores take more time after you turn seventy. I move like a turtle,” Aggie said.
Which was an Aggie thing to say. They’d been a trio—Aunt Linda, Aunt Aggie, and her. Now they were missing their third person. It was going to take some time to adjust to being without her.
This was how it had felt when Cloe’s former husband moved her from California to the East Coast with him. She and Emma tried to get together like the three of them used to do, and they kept in touch, but it wasn’t the same. Being in a twosome friendship differed greatly from being in a trio. With a trio, there was always a tie-breaker vote, and two people ganging up on a reluctant one. If there was one bright spot in Taylor’s life right now, it was that she had her best friend’s trio again.
And unlike Chloe’s ex, Jasper wouldn’t deny Chloe anything she needed to be happy, which included her and Emma. Was she envious that Chloe found such a great guy? God, yes. But she was happy for Chloe too, which was far more important. Chloe and Emma were her sisters of the heart. She’d keep making time for them, just like she would her Aunt Aggie. Taylor didn’t take friendship or love or family for granted. In fact, her free time had taken on a whole new meaning with Chloe back. Even Emma was making time for breakfasts, lunches, and even movie nights.
If Aggie wanted to tag along as a fourth, Chloe and Emma would welcome her with open arms, which was one of the many, many things she loved about them.
Her dating life, a non-existent but hopeful thing, would simply go on hold for a bit. She couldn’t see bringing a man home to her townhouse with Aggie in residence.
Maybe the answer wasn’t to sell one of the gyms. Maybe the answer was to sell the townhouse and buy a bigger property—maybe a nice house near water or with a pool—and one that came with a separate mother-in-law suite.
Her aunt-by-choice might decide to stay permanently then. Aunt Aggie could age in place with her until she needed more care than Taylor could give.
Both of them knew that the chances of Taylor ever having a real mother-in-law living with her were lower than zero.
When phone calls hadn’t worked, out of desperation Max had finally conned Chloe into telling him which of Taylor’s gym locations housed her office.
But the last thing he’d expected when he’d finally tracked her down was to have to swim through a sea of sweaty jocks to talk to her.
He’d been following Taylor now for fifteen minutes with no better results than he’d had over the phone. She was walking around the gym floor in a black knee-skimming skirt and a fitted silk blouse the same color as the halter dress she’d worn the night he first met her.
Ignoring him, Taylor checked equipment, wrote down serial numbers, and bent her not-dressed-for-the-gym body at revealing angles that scrambled his brain. And from the dropped free weights and clanging machines around them, he wasn’t the only one affected.
Max frowned at her back. “Why are you shutting me out, Taylor? You’ve already admitted you’ve dated as much as I have. I just managed it in fewer years than you did.”
Treated to a derisive glance followed by a snort, Max sighed. That obviously hadn’t been a good argument.
Taylor’s long tanned legs were eye-catchingly bare, but the odd part of her Business Barbie outfit were her feet slipped into stylish, expensive sneakers. If he searched her office, he bet he would find a pair of killer black high heels tucked somewhere that went a hell of a lot better with her short black skirt.
Wondering how tall those heels would make her made him forget what he’d said when Taylor finally stopped what she was doing and answered him.
Max was getting on her nerves. She glanced briefly at her good-looking stalker before she retrieved the rest of the serial numbers she needed. Taylor could see Max was sulking over her refusal to date him. She didn’t find expecting to always get your way to be an attractive trait in a man, even one that looked as good as Maximilian “Wicked” Wade did.
“I don’t care about the quantity of women you’ve dated, Max. It’s the quality of the way you treated them that bothers me. I’ve learned all the life lessons I intend to learn from dating jocks.”
Max pointed at the men in her gym, momentarily wishing he could join them. Working out at the hotel was not the same as being around other guys in a regular gym. It was one of the things he’d missed most during his recuperation at his brother’s hotel.
“Stop stereotyping all jocks as bad guys, Taylor. I bet there are some good ones out on the floor of this gym right now that you haven’t dated.”
Taylor looked around calmly, taking her time to study the ten or so men working out in the gym. She watched Reston Williams, a very sexy California cowboy, wink at her before heading off to the showers.
“Actually, I only see one or two guys in here right now that I’ve missed going out with,” she said flatly, turning back to her work. “Those exceptions were due to my refusal to date married men, or anyone already in a serious relationship. Now I research any man I’m interested in dating.”
Max nodded. “Okay, I hear you. I have those same rules. I don’t date married women, or those involved in serious relationships. Why is my dating past worse than yours?”
Taylor shook her head at his arrogance and went back to her task. “I never said your past was worse than mine. Not wanting to date you is not the same as passing judgment on anything you’ve done or not done, Max.”
His glare was wasted on Taylor’s back, but Max let it linger on the woman anyway. “If you weren’t passing judgment, we’d be together already.”
“No, we wouldn’t. My refusal to date you is about me. It’s also about my goals for love next time around. I appreciate the physical appeal of athletic men as much as any woman, but it was a jock who married me for my money and left me when I had none. I want a more well-rounded man in my life with a stable career.” Taylor shrugged her shoulders, remembering the hurt she had worked to put behind her. “That’s just how it is with me, Max. It was my bias long before I knew you existed.”
Max grinned at her answer, but his amusement was wasted on Taylor because she still wasn’t looking at him. “I’m sorry. I thought I’d made it clear that I’m not interested in your money. I’m interested in your other assets.”
Taylor stopped what she was doing to turn and study Max’s face. Hadn’t anything she had said in the last ten minutes gotten through his thick skull?
“Even beyond my current aversion to jocks, I’m simply not interested in dating another high profile, publically famous womanizer. The press instantly reduced my relationship with my husband to being another random casualty on his impressive sexual conquest list. I don’t intend to become some hot guy’s cast-off ever again.”
“Glad to hear you think I’m hot. But how are we going to find out what kind of relationship we’ll have if you never actually date me?” Max teased.
“Being hot is a positive for you, Max. Acting stupid goes on the negative list. Even you have to know that what I just described has happened to every woman you’ve dated. They had to live down not being good enough for Wicked Wade to keep them.”
Frustrated that she had a point, but still determined to make his case, Max ran a hair through his freshly cut hair. “You’re assuming the worst of me without even knowing if everything you’ve read is true or not.”
As much as he enjoyed debating with her, the truth was Max liked Taylor’s honesty and found it refreshing. If he upset her, there was no doubt in his mind the woman glaring at him would tell him. He certainly wouldn’t have to read about his dating oversights in print first.
“You’re not listening, Max. I hate cheaters. Any wish a guy has for an ‘open relationship’ is a total deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think I should have to share a man’s attention with all the other women he decides to date. No woman should have to share. Dating and relationships are about loyalty for me. Physical fidelity should be a damn given when you’re sharing a bed with someone.”
Max put his hands in his pockets, trying to look as if their discussion was casual, but it didn’t feel that way to him. It felt like they were laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding. It felt like Taylor was laying bare her soul by sharing all her fears. He hadn’t expected anything less.
“Where you’re concerned, I don’t want to share either, Taylor. And I can’t remember ever being jealous of having a woman’s complete attention before I met you. You’re the only woman I’ve kissed in months. You’re the only woman I want to kiss.”
“No. You’re just challenged because I keep turning you down. I know it probably doesn’t happen often, but that’s what going on here. Go ask out one of your hockey groupies if you crave adoration. Don’t you think I know how it worked for you in the past? Wicked Wade, the hot hockey star, probably slept with a different woman after every game. I’m sure you were envied by every guy you knew.”
Rolling her eyes at the injured look she got in response, Taylor picked up her clipboard and walked back to her office. It didn’t surprise her when Max followed, but it did surprise her when a fully dressed, cologne-wafting Reston Williams also stuck his head in the door.
“You seem highly irritated today, Legs. This guy bugging you?” Reston asked.
Taylor looked at Reston’s stance and snorted at the pose. His pose looked like his cologne ads with his massive arms crossed and his chin lowered so much that the brim of his battered tan Stetson nearly covered his eyes. The man actually was a real cowboy, complete with a working horse ranch, but he was also a former football player. His endorsement contract kept him coming back to her gym so he could keep his aging body in prime condition.
She and Reston went back a long way. Taylor shook her head. Great, now two posturing males crowded her office. How much worse could the day get?
“Hi, Reston. Selling that stuff doesn’t mean you need to put half a bottle of it on after your shower.”
“I’m obligated to advertise it and you’re avoiding my question, Legs. Talk to me. I’d be more than happy to extract this guy for you.”
Another time, Taylor knew she would have openly laughed at Reston’s unusual show of concern, but the last thing she needed right then was to referee a pissing contest between two jocks. One overblown male ego was bad enough to deal with.
“Max is a friend, Tex. You can head on back to your horse ranch now. I’m doing just fine here.” The quip back was natural to her. So was using the nickname she’d given him back when they were dating. Then she got an idea. “Hey Reston, I’ve got a question for you. Are you still labeled a womanizer by the media? Tell me the truth. You know it won’t change anything I think about you.”
Taylor smirked at Max who grunted at Reston and glared. When she saw Max sizing Reston up as a challenger for her attention, she shook her head again. Why were the men with an abundance of testosterone the ones she craved? She’d never resented her chemical dependence more. You would think at forty her body would be way more discerning.
When Reston grinned wickedly over Max’s perusal, Taylor felt an urge to kick him. She rolled her eyes as he rubbed a hand over a chiseled jaw already rough with an evening beard. Even mild stubble was an indulgence on a man who shaved twice a day. He once told her he would never agree to another endorsement contract that required his face to be smooth all the time.
“Well, if by that term I would never use to describe myself, you mean that I like women and date a lot—then yeah, I guess you could say that I’m still considered one. But Taylor—Sugar—you know I’d give up all the others for you. You kiss like an angel, and you’re the hardest working woman I’ve ever met. Hell, I’m turning forty-five in a few months. I’d gladly settle down if you agreed to marry me.”
Taylor rolled her eyes again at Reston’s half-ass proposal and shook her head, which was pretty much what she had done every other time he had made the same unappealing offer. She wasn’t willing to become the prize female that the California cowboy could put out on display like he did one of his mares.
Reston’s lack of romance was only one of the many reasons she’d stopped dating him.
“Sorry about your luck, Tex. That matrimonial dream is never happening with me. But thanks for the compliment. I’m sure when the urge to settle down takes more solid root, you’ll find someone even more perfect, not to mention lots younger. Didn’t I read your last girlfriend was a scant twenty-two? That’s almost half my age.”
Reston chuckled as he rubbed his jaw. “I’m finding youth in women to be highly overrated. There’s nothing better than being with a woman who knows what she wants. Since I’m gentleman enough not to discuss your finer attributes in front of a glaring stranger, we’d better change the subject. What’s with you and the little dude here?”
Taylor fought her amusement as Reston swung a knowing grin to the now seething Max, whose face was turning red. Reston’s cologne-selling grin wasn’t going over so well with Wicked Wade.
“Are you dating this kid, Legs? When we broke up, you said you were giving up jocks forever. Wasn’t your last guy some kind of insurance broker or something?”
Max met Reston’s gaze and fought the urge to walk over to him. “Who are you calling little?”
Being called a kid hadn’t stung much, even though Max didn’t consider forty all that much older than thirty-one. But he was damn glad this guy thought Max looked like a jock. Sometimes lately, he sure didn’t feel like one.
All the same, his mood darkened when the man laughed again. It was obvious there was a lot of history between the bragging cowboy and Taylor.
“Compared to the men Taylor is used to—yeah boy, you’re little. Want to come out to the gym floor and meet some of Taylor’s former guys? There’s a bunch of them in here right now, though I think I was the last jock she dated.”
Taylor glared at both of them. She hated being the bone they were fighting over. “Reston, that’s enough. Leave Max alone. He’s not interested in my dating past. Lay off or I’ll cancel your membership.”
Reston looked at Max but spoke to Taylor. “The guy looks pretty interested to me. In fact, he looks like he’d like to kick my ass six ways from Sunday just because you and I are being friendly.”
Turning, Max gave Taylor a disbelieving stare, finally broken by a strange sound erupting from him. It was a cross between a snort and a huff, and reminded him way too much of his older brother, Jasper.
It also didn’t help his frame of mind that Taylor rolled her eyes at him when she heard it. He decided not to let her condescending habits get to him.
“I am so not like this guy,” Max said firmly.
Taylor chuckled. “Yes, Maximillian—you are exactly like him. You’re just a different generation.”
When both men glowered at her reference to their respective ages, Taylor had had enough.
“Now, if you both will kindly exit my office, I’d like to get back to work. Max, I’m not going out with you, but I will see you Thursday evening. Emma and I are definitely coming to sing for Chloe’s second set.”
Reston turned to grin at Max. “Ah, hell, boy. We’re both being dismissed. That’s not a good sign. You might want to cut your losses and find another filly.”
Max glared when the man tipped his Stetson to him before he walked off.
Max waited until he thought the cowboy guy was completely out of earshot before continuing his argument. “Now that we’re alone again, I want to go back to the jock question. No, let’s be more specific. What was your problem with Mr. Wish-I-Was-A-Real-Cowboy when you dated him?”
Max stood there watching Taylor ignore him again, with no visible remorse whatsoever for doing so. Walking around her desk, she sat down in her office chair and starting removing her sneakers.
He walked around the side to get a better view of what she was doing and snorted when he saw he’d been right.
Opening the bottom drawer of her massive desk, Taylor pulled out a pair of jet black four inch skyscraper stilettos and casually slipped them on. When she stood and straightened her clothes, Max’s gaze traveled up her legs to the skirt and back to the floor.
Red painted toes peeked out of the ends of the shoes.
What the hell had he asked her?
Oh yeah—he’d asked why wasn’t she still dating the bragging cowboy.
“Time for you to leave too, Max. I have work to finish before a meeting,” she said.
“Okay—look. Maybe your dating past is none of my business since we’re not sleeping together yet, but at least answer this for me. Do the men in your life always leave when you dismiss them? And if so, what kind of wimps have you been dating up to now? I’m not that easily discouraged.”
Taylor gave Max the look she usually reserved for her ex-husband. “Well, I have had to call the cops once or twice on a guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. In your case, I would just call your brother… or Sam.”
“Sam?” Max was surprised to hear the name rolling so easily off Taylor’s tongue. “He uses the gym at the hotel.”
“I am not discussing how I know Sam because it’s none of your business.”
Taylor bit her lip at the flash of pain in Max’s eyes, but wasn’t about to admit Sam had sought her out to talk about her resistance to dating the younger man. Wicked Wad’s ego was already large enough. He didn’t need to know both his brother and Sam thought he was the best thing since sliced bread.
“My question about Sam is rude—I get that—but I need to hear you’re not dating him. That’s all I really care about where he’s concerned.” The rough order barely made it out of his tight throat.
Surely Sam wouldn’t try to date Taylor behind his back? Not when he knew Max was interested in her. Sam was not that kind of man.
“My relationship with Sam, or any other man, is absolutely none of your business. You can ask Sam about how I know him, but I really wish you wouldn’t. I’m usually more discreet about dropping names.” Taylor sighed at Max’s frown and nod. “Damn it. If you must know, Sam and I had a simple lunch to talk about something. It wasn’t a date.”
Max moved closer until he was a couple of feet away. He was now officially desperate to believe he meant something more to her than every other male in the jock harem Taylor’s business supplied her with daily.
And God help him, he wanted to be more important to her than someone like Sam. It was too late to play it cool. All he could do was try to recover the play.
“You are an enigmatic woman, Taylor Baird. If you kiss me once like you really mean it, I’ll try to forget how much your potential dating makes me jealous.”
Taylor snorted. “Emotional blackmail is like pouring gasoline on a burning fire where I’m concerned. I doubt you ever worried about a woman’s dating habits before. I, on the hand, do care about such things.”
“Ask me anything. I promise I will tell you the truth,” Max vowed.
“A simple Internet search pulled up way more than I ever wanted to know. You seduced two different nurses while you were in the hospital recuperating from your accident. Then, not too much later, you did the same thing to that journalist friend of Ryan Carmichael’s. Your dating resume is not exactly filled with high recommendations.”
“The nurses were nice women, and I didn’t sleep with either of them. I don’t know how that could even count as dating in anyone’s eyes. The journalist was someone I thought was a real friend, but instead she used my accident to advance her career. Yes, I had a brief intimate relationship with her, but I wasn’t exactly on my best game physically, if you know what I mean. If you want to hear the real story of my life, I’d be happy to tell you all about it. You don’t have to read the online bullshit. More than half of it is not true.”
Taylor blew out the breath she couldn’t seem to stop holding. “What you did and with whom is technically no more my business than my dating habits are yours. But what I read did make me curious, Max. What exactly am I to you? Am I just the next dating game you’re ready to play? I would be what? Wicked Wade’s affair with an older woman?”
“No, of course not. I want to date you and see where it goes. While we’re throwing stones, I guess I’ll lob one back to you. Are you saying none of your dating relationships were ever casual?”
Taylor shook her head. “No—they weren’t. Or at least they weren’t casual to me. I don’t do casual. I selectively dated and always with the goal of finding someone to marry. I slept only with men I thought I might possibly want to live with for the rest of my life. Though my one attempt at marriage ended badly, I fell madly in love with the man when it all started. Now I’ll lob that one back to you. How long was your longest relationship? From what I read, ‘casual’ should be your middle name.”
One day, when Taylor was able to hear him, Max thought he might tell her that the nurses had been friendly and caring at a time when he had been alone and scared of losing virtually everything. Frankly, he had needed the comfort of sweet kisses and hugs while he waited to find out the extent of his physical damage. Neither of those women had expected anything from him even when the press had linked their names.
The reporter had happened because he had badly needed a friend after he’d found out his career was on hold, but she hadn’t turned out to be as genuine as she had first seemed. Maybe he’d been naïve about her career, or vulnerable because of his injury, but he’d needed to hear someone tell him life wasn’t over even though he’d feared his sports career was.
After all she put him through publically, her exploitation had seemed more than enough reason to call it quits with her. Since his mistake with trusting the reporter, Max had become a lot more discerning about women, which is why he hadn’t been dating anyone he’d met at the hotel.
His interest in Taylor felt different from anything he’d felt before. There had been something different about Taylor from the beginning—and that counted the first time he’d ever seen her and felt the pull.
“My longest relationship was for three months. And it was with that reporter. That doesn’t mean I’m some kind of commitment-phobe who keeps women at an emotional distance. If that were the case, I would never have trusted her to begin with. I admit I haven’t found the right person for anything as real as what’s between Jasper and Chloe.”
Taylor felt her mouth settle into a firm line. Men like Max made her want to grind her teeth.
“So three months and you’re what? Thirty-one, right? Three months is still pretty casual. I was married for four and a half years while you were sleeping with your groupies. I went into my marriage thinking it would last forever. Worse, I tried like hell to save it even after he’d moved out. That’s how not casual I am.”
Max wondered how Taylor could think he was so awful from what she’d read online about him. He’d been on his best behavior the whole time he’d known her. “If you honestly consider me so irredeemable, then why bother raising my hopes about Thursday? Don’t you think I deserve at least the same shot your fake cowboy got, Legs.”
Using the other guy’s nickname for her made Taylor’s eyes blaze. Max wanted that fire to be for another reason, but he’d take anger over being ignored. He didn’t plan on being lumped together with the rest of her discards.
Of the two of them, it seemed to him that Taylor had the bigger problem with them dating. Her heart was walled up behind her bad experiences, automatically refusing entry to anyone who wanted to find out what would make her happy.
Her resistance left him little recourse except to try a forecheck play and see it through. Wicked Wade had a reputation of doing anything to gain possession. Right now, there was no other game worthy of his time. Winning even a small amount of Taylor’s approval was becoming critical to his self-respect.
“If you really want to convince me that this chemistry we have isn’t worth a real shot, kiss me and prove you’re not interested. Call it dare if you want, but I think you want me way more than you’re admitting. I haven’t forgotten our last kiss, but if there’s no spark between us this time, then I promise I’ll leave you alone.”
Tired of his taunting, Taylor stalked to him. If Max wanted physical humiliation to go with the truth, then she could dish that out too. “Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Max brought clammy palms to Taylor’s cheeks and saw surprise in her eyes at his show of nerves. “Yes, that’s right. I’m nervous. Your opinion matters to me, which is what I’ve been trying to tell you for the last two hours. Can you at least try to believe that I’m in the process of changing into someone you might actually like?”
Taylor couldn’t tear her gaze away from his. God, she wanted to believe him. Why? What did it matter? Max was ten years her junior, and she definitely did not need to be Wicked Wade’s next sexual conquest. “I bet women have been dropping their panties for you since you were a teenager. Why in hell are you pressing me so hard, Max?”
“You’re the first woman who has owned my full attention in every way and hasn’t wanted to use me. My interest in you has been growing since I saw you the first time. And baby, right now I want to kiss you so badly I ache all over with the need.”
Unable to trust his reaction to touching her, Max leaned forward and kissed Taylor’s forehead instead of her mouth.
“But you know what? You’re right about this not working. I can’t enjoy kissing you the way I want with you thinking I’m some random, womanizing jerk like that fake cowboy guy.”
Pulling his hands off Taylor was the hardest thing Max could ever remember doing, until he turned and made himself walk away from her.
In accepting that Taylor thought so poorly of his character, Max suddenly had a clear picture of what real failure felt like. And it was a lot worse than losing his ability to play in a hockey game.
Maybe he was already in love with Taylor. It would explain a lot about why her opinion mattered so damn much to him.
“Max—wait. Don’t leave like this.” Taylor snapped out the order, walking quickly to him, swearing under her breath as she did so.
Her stomach was full of butterflies and her heart was beating hard between her breasts as her feet erased the distance between them. Max opened his arms to receive her, and she walked straight into them, even though she knew it wasn’t wise.
The moment their bodies touched, hers fell against his in surrender, wanting to be held.
When his arms tightened around her in joyful welcome, she sighed in confusion as she felt Max bury his face in her hair. She could actually feel his relief.
“Damn you, Max. I really don’t want to feel this way about you. You’re not right for me,” she said to him.
But regardless of what her brain argued, Taylor still turned up her face and reached for his mouth. Max bent down to meet her half-way, his mouth hot and needy on hers in return. Kissing him was just as good as it had been the first time—better even because this time it was deliberate, completely sensual, and the man was obviously putting everything he had into it.
When he put one hand behind her head and delved into her mouth with his tongue, a desperate, needy moan escaped her throat. Max seemed to take the sound as an invitation to torture her more. Her legs automatically weakened as he lifted her up against his hips and forced her to stand on tip-toes even in her four-inch heels. She felt like a ballerina about to dance away, struggling to stay in place while Max’s body made promises of what could be if she’d give in to the lust between them.
His hands swept down to her hips and gripped them firmly to prevent her escape.
“See? I’m not all that little. Make sure to tell the damn cowboy how wrong he was next time you see him,” Max declared.
Taylor knew better than to encourage him, but a laugh tumbled out of her mouth. “Stop bragging about your assets and kiss me again.”
She worked hard to ignore her feminine reaction to his flirty comments, but it was impossible to ignore what was pressed against her. Her stomach fluttered and her thighs melted. Max chuckled happily against her mouth the whole time he rocked against her. Her head was spinning before he finally allowed some breathing space between their bodies.
Taylor sighed as she tried to feel grounded again. It was hard to do standing on her toes while being pressed against a hard, excited male.
“I knew kissing you was a bad idea. Now what am I supposed to do with you?” she demanded.
“I don’t know, but I’m anxious as hell to find out. Kissing you drives me crazy and those shoes fulfill a couple dozen of my fantasies about you. Will you stay for a drink Thursday night after the show? At least get to know me before you condemn me to the discarded jocks pile.”
Taylor took a deep breath and swore silently. She had expressly promised herself not to be stupid about a guy again. Lewis had been a big enough mistake for a lifetime. Max had the potential to be an even bigger one. The man knew how to hug and her arms didn’t want to let go.
“I haven’t walked out on the beach in ages. Maybe we can take a late walk after your last set Thursday. I never made it down the cliffs either time I stayed at the hotel.”
“Sounds like a great idea, but also too long from now.”
She let out a breath when Max finally lowered her to the floor, letting her slide down the front of him. The action made them both unsteady with lust. Her ragged, disappointed sigh was an echo of his.
“Max, all I’m offering is a walk on the beach.” The blatant disbelief in his grin had her blushing. When she pulled out of his arms and stepped away, he let her go but was slow about it. Her disappointment at being out of his arms was so keen that it hurt.
Max sighed and smiled. “Sexy woman. Moonlight. A walk by the ocean. That’s a lot more game than I’ve had in a while. I’m up for it. I’m sure I will be again on Thursday.”
“Is that flirting skill you’ve perfected why they call you Wicked Wade? No, on second thought, I don’t want to know that answer. Take your double-entendres out of my office and let me get back to work.”
Taylor turned away so Max wouldn’t see her smiling. When she turned back to where he’d had been standing, it was to discover he’d finally gone.
Unnerved by the neediness she’d felt in his arms, Taylor shook her head at her rising excitement about what might happen next time she saw him. She knew it was dumb to get involved with someone like him, but suddenly Thursday did seem awfully far away.
Max blinked at Marla. “What do you mean she’s not ready yet? Chloe never misses her start time. Did Jasper talk our lead singer into taking one of their infamous breaks?”
The entire hotel staff giggled every time the hotel’s owner disappeared with his singer. His brother would undoubtedly claim he was running Chloe through some vocal practice.
Max tried not to envy Jasper’s new love life, but it getting harder and harder—pun intended. “Fine,” he said, flipping through his sheet music.
The crowd was getting restless. He was too. Taylor arrived a few minutes ago. She was sitting with Emma and Ryan. He still wasn’t feeling very friendly toward the reporter for validating all that stuff Taylor had read online about him. Trying to set the story straight would likely be a waste of time since Ryan was friends with the last fling he’d had.
“Hey, Marla. You can do a few openers while we wait on Chloe.”
“I can’t. Vanessa’s not here yet either. That husband of hers is keeping her on a short leash lately. I can’t help that problem none, but I can scout around for another backup singer, which I’ve been warning her I was going to do.”
Max slid a couple of songs in front of the ones for Chloe. “If you want, I can ask Taylor and Emma to back you up.”
“Sorry. Sorry,” Vanessa said as she ran in already dressed in her performance clothes. “Babysitter was late again.”
“Girl, you need someone more reliable. You’re making me think I do too,” Marla said.
“Please, auntie. Don’t give up on me now. I’m working it out.”
Marla turned to Jasper. “Let’s do that acapella number we’ve been practicing with you.”
“Uh…” Max said, trying to think of a reason to get out of singing. It was one thing to sing with a piano playing nearly as loud as your voice, but quite another to sing on key with nothing. “It needs more work.”
“You were the one who said this was an emergency, Maximillian. Get up here and sing.”
Sighing, Max stood. Singing wasn’t his favorite thing, but it was expected. Marla and Vanessa had taken it upon themselves to improve his delivery. They swore singing acapella would make a world of difference. Max agreed, but he was afraid the difference would be bad. Without music, he couldn’t hide his mistakes.
Max stepped up to the microphone and tapped on it. The room fell silent. “Evening, everyone. This is the first set, but our star is slightly detained. To pass your time, Marla and Vanessa have convinced me to torture—I mean, entertain—you with tonight’s opener.”
When the room erupted in catcalls and whistles, Max laughed. But his smile stayed in place when he saw Taylor smiling from across the room.
“You might want to hold that applause until I’m done.” He looked around. “Okay, ladies. Let’s get his humiliation over with.”
Marla and Vanessa giggled, then stepped to the mics. Marla hummed. Then Vanessa hummed. Max hummed too, his natural baritone lifting above their softer tones.
“Ba da da da,” they sang. “Ba da da da.”
With their backup in his ears, Max started singing. When he got to the chorus, he winked at Taylor. “Oh, I think that I’ve found myself a cheerleader.”
Laughter rippled through the audience as he sang. Being a good sport—and helping a nervous guy out—Taylor and Emma picked up two napkins and shook them in the air like cheerleaders. Soon, other women were doing the same. Max chuckled and somehow managed to finish the song.
He laughed full-out when the audience applauded loudly and called his name. He even heard “Wicked Wade” being shouted by a few.
“Thanks. You’re too kind,” he said, smiling at Marla and Vanessa who were laughing and clapping as well.
Chloe blew through the doorway in her signature two-piece blue sequined skirt and top. She’d lost some weight lately. Max wondered if Jasper noticed and if Chloe was okay.
“I’m fine,” Chloe said, answering the unasked question.
Max let his concern go when she stepped up to the microphone and said hello. After that, he didn’t hear anything except the opening lines of Chloe belting out her signature song, It’s in his kiss, over the roar of the crowd.
Taylor sipped her coke as she watched Marla and Vanessa hustle Chloe away the moment the set was done. Guess there would be no encores tonight. If this crowd wanted more from the star, they’d have to stay for the second set.
Chloe had asked them to come because Vanessa had to leave early tonight. Marla said if they could handle the whole set, she had some things to do as well. From what Chloe mentioned, that thing was probably Sam.
Max came to the table and sat in the chair closest to her. “Is Chloe feeling okay?” he asked, looking between her and Emma.
Taylor and Emma exchanged a look. They had their suspicions, but Chloe hadn’t said anything to them yet. “Go check on her, Em. I know you’re dying to.”
In a flash, her nurturing friend took off. Taylor stared after her. “I thought Chloe looked pretty pale when she came in this evening. Plus, she’s lost some weight.”
Max nodded. “I noticed that myself. She’s been tired a lot lately too. Do you think she has the flu?”
Taylor snorted. “Yes. It’s a long-running flu. It might last two more months.”
“God, I hope not,” Max said. “Maybe she can take something for it.”
Laughing, Taylor shook Max’s arm. “Don’t be dense. Your brother can’t keep his hands off her. What do you think is wrong with a woman who’s getting laid more regularly than most?”
Max straightened in the chair. “Are you saying Jasper got her pregnant?”
Taylor spread her hands. “Chloe hasn’t said anything, but that’s my guess.”
“Wow,” Max said. “That would be amazing. Jasper would be over the moon. They need to get married.”
“They’ll work out what they need to work out,” Taylor said with a shrug. “I’ll be happy because I know Chloe will be happy. She always wanted children, but her ex didn’t.”
“Jasper will be a great father,” Max said, then laughed. “He’s been a great father to me. Our parents weren’t exactly nurturers. At least they had money enough for full-time nannies or we’d have been out on the streets.”
“Jasper and I talked about that once. My parents were the same—are the same. I rarely see them.”
He looked at Taylor. “Why didn’t you or Emma ever have kids?”
Taylor didn’t often share such private information, but Max was around so much that he was practically in their friend group.
“Emma can’t have children, or at least that’s the story she believes. Her ex left because he wanted a family and it wasn’t happening with Emma the old-fashioned way. She let him go when she found out he was seeing someone a lot younger than her. He’s a father of two now. Emma says she and her ex-husband are friends, and that she’s over the hurt. I’m not buying it, though. He didn’t sleep with her during the year or so before they divorced. Her lack of conceiving could have been his lack of interest in doing his part.”
Max wondered briefly how Ryan fit into that picture, but he was more curious about the woman in front of him. “So, how about you? Did you ever want children?”
Taylor lifted a shoulder. “When I was in my twenties, I dreamed of having it all. Of the three of us, I was the one who wanted soccer mom life the most. My ex didn’t want to have children, so he got himself fixed while we were dating. I didn’t know what he’d done until after we were married. I was too much in love with him not to forgive him, but outside of visiting a sperm bank, babies weren’t going to happen for me.”
Max shook his head. “I’m sorry, Taylor. That wasn’t fair of him.”
“Whoever said life was fair?” Taylor asked, chuckling as she sipped her rum and coke. “Some of the guys I dated after my divorce should have gotten fixed. Several ended up with children they didn’t raise with women they never married. Those guys considered their child support like a twenty-year car payment or a house mortgage.”
“Jasper drilled being sexually careful into me, and the lectures stuck. As far as I know, I don’t have any kids out there. I’ve had a couple of women pretend it happened, but DNA tests are pretty reliable these days. I would want to know, so I make them check.”
Taylor could definitely see women wanting to have Max’s children. His kids would be beautiful, talented, and inherit a portion of Max’s family wealth. As long as they didn’t expect long-term fidelity from the younger Wade, they could nearly have it all.
Sam popped over to their tables with fresh drinks. “What’s up with Chloe? She looked half-sick. I doubt this rowdy crowd noticed, but I could tell she wasn’t her usual sassy self.”
“Let’s see how smart you are,” Taylor said to Sam with a grin. “Jasper can’t keep his hands off Chloe. Given this fact, what do you think Chloe’s problem is?”
Sam froze, bar tray in hand. “Geez… you think Jasper knocked her up?”
Taylor burst out laughing. “I have no idea. It’s just a theory. Emma went to find out if she was okay. You might want to plant the idea in Jasper’s head so he won’t be too shocked when he finds out it’s true.”
Nodding, Sam grinned. “Everyone around here laughs when they both disappear in the middle of the day. They might as well be wearing a sign announcing what they’re doing.” He patted Taylor’s shoulder. “Jasper will be thrilled. After Chloe’s ex was here and caused that ruckus, I’m sure her and Jasper’s pregnancy will make the rich and famous news. The hotel staff probably already know. Nothing gets to stay a secret around here.”
Taylor giggled. “Jasper’s snooty ex will have a freaking melt-down, won’t she?”
Sam grunted. “Rayonna will spin the situation to her advantage. She’ll tell some paper that the love of her life has moved on and that she’s in mourning. Trust me, that woman is a survivor. She’ll hook some other big fish within the year. Good riddance, I say.”
“Sam’s right. That’s exactly what Rayonna will do. She never loved Jasper,” Max said in agreement.
“Are you and Emma singing for the second set?” Sam asked.
“That’s the plan. We’ll see how Chloe feels,” Taylor said.
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