Iplace the final pile of clothing into my suitcase and lay my body over it so I can zip it closed, saying a silent prayer that it doesn’t come off the conveyor belt at the airport busted open with my bras and panties hanging out. That would be just my luck recently, adding misery to heartbreak since my fiancé broke off our engagement months ago because he’d fallen for someone else.
There’s a knock on my door and I turn around to see my parents standing in the doorway. No doubt they’re here for one last-ditch effort to convince me to stay. They don’t understand that everywhere I look is a memory of what I thought my life would be.
“Well, I’m all packed. My ride should be here soon,” I say, trying to convey it’s no use trying to talk me out of this, I am indeed flying across the country to live in San Francisco.
“Honey, are you sure you want to do this?” My mom steps into my room, arms outstretched, and grips me by the shoulders.
I love my mom. We have a close relationship, always doing stuff together, from tending to our vegetable garden in the summer to being members of the same book club. I’m going to miss her terribly, and I wish things were different, I really do, but ever since Mathew called off the wedding, everyone in our small town looks at me with pity. I can’t stand the whispers anymore. I’m trying my best to move forward, but this town is a constant reminder of what he did. If I stay here, I’ll forever be the girl whose fiancé ditched her for someone else.
Enter San Francisco.
My big brother, Miles, is the safety for the San Francisco Kingsmen football team, and I’ve visited him numerous times over the years. I even consider some of his teammates my friends—they’re certainly more than acquaintances.
I always enjoy my time there, and one day, I thought, what if? I searched the internet for living arrangements and stumbled upon a condo and pet-sitting job for some tech guy who will be away for months, and I applied on impulse. To my surprise, I got the job and took it as a sign that I should head west and get the hell out of my small town in Connecticut.
“I’m sure, Mom. It won’t be forever. I just need to clear my head. I’ll be back.”
She gives me a small smile as though she doesn’t believe me. I honestly don’t know if she should. I don’t plan on staying longer than my house-sitting job lasts, but the idea of returning here feels mountainous right now. Now that Mathew has broken my image of the future, I like the idea of not being anchored anywhere.
Regardless, I teach elementary school, and San Francisco is so expensive to live in I doubt I could afford to live there on a teacher’s salary even if I wanted to stay. But even a few months away from everything Mathew will do me good.
“Is Miles picking you up at the airport?” my dad asks.
I concentrate on lifting my suitcase off the bed, and my dad groans.
“You still haven’t told him?” His voice is full of disapproval.
“It’s a surprise,” I say in my bright and cheery teacher voice—the one I use when it’s raining and I tell the kids recess is inside.
The truth is, I have no idea how my brother will react to me living in the same city as him. A short visit is one thing, but will I hold him back if I’m there longer?
He’s the epitome of an overbearing, overprotective big brother, and I’m hoping he won’t play dad to me the entire time I’m there. I might still be reeling from my breakup, but I’m an adult, and I don’t need him or anyone else watching over me twenty-four seven.
“If you’re talking to him, please don’t tell him until I do…” I give them my best pleading eyes.
They glance at one another then back at me, nodding with reluctance.
“Just make sure you do it as soon as you’re settled. I don’t like the idea of you in that big city all alone.” My mom frowns.
“Mom, I’ve been there lots of times. I know my way around.”
“Sure, but I’ve always felt better knowing you were at your brother’s place and he was watching out for you.”
“I’m a grown woman. I don’t need him to be my babysitter.”
My dad rubs his hand down my upper arm. “We just worry about you, sweetie. Especially after what happened.”
I point at him. “And that is exactly why I have to leave. So I can distance myself from what happened and be around people who don’t know.”
My dad’s thin lips suggest he doesn’t agree, but he nods anyway. “Here, I’ll take your
suitcase downstairs.” He steps forward and lifts it. “Jeez, do you have a dead body in here?”
I roll my eyes. “Funny, funny.”
He says the same thing every time he picks up a suitcase of mine.
Tears spring to my eyes. I’m going to miss my parents. As much as I want to flee from this town, I love my family. My friends jokingly call us the Cleavers—a nod to the perfect family from the 1950s sitcom Leave it to Beaver.
“Oh, sweetie.” My mom draws me into a hug, and I wrap my arms around her. “It’s okay to admit you made a mistake. If you need to come home, we’ll be here.”
I nod into her neck. They’d welcome me back, no questions asked, I know that. But it’s time for me to leave the nest. Not just because of my failed relationship but because I’m twenty-five and I still live in my childhood home.
I need to spread my wings and discover whether I’ll soar to new heights or fall flat on my face.
How the hell did I get roped into this bullshit?
I’m a tight end for the San Francisco Kingsmen, not fucking Martha Stewart. What do I know about hosting an engagement party?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for our wide receiver Brady and his former nanny, Violet. At least I don’t have to listen to him groan anymore about how he lost her, because they’re engaged. Great. Isn’t that between the two of them, not the rest of us?
My teammates insisted I host tonight’s shenanigans since I’ve never hosted anything but a poker game, so here we are. It’s really their punishment, not mine.
Looking at the spread on my kitchen island, I could do worse. Pork rinds, bowls of chips, a veggie tray for the women, and I plan to order pizza once everyone’s here. There’s beer in the fridge. What more do we need?
My condo isn’t enormous—three bedrooms, two baths, a big kitchen that’s separate from the massive living/dining room combo—but it’s bigger than the house I grew up in. That living room is the entire reason I bought it, and rather than putting in some formal dining table, I made the whole space what some might consider a man cave.
An eighty-inch flat-screen TV hangs on one wall, connected to a state-of-the-art sound system. It’s across from a huge sectional, and behind that is my pool table, poker table, darts, and a few pinball machines. All the shit I enjoyed growing up in Small Town, Montana.
The first knock lands on my door, and I pull at the collar of my shirt. I’ve already undone the first button. I crack my neck while walking over to the door. Tonight promises to be a long night.
I open the door to a smiling Lee and Shayna. Lee’s the team’s quarterback, and Shayna is one of the team’s athletic trainers and also Lee’s fiancée. Yeah, that’s two of my teammates engaged. It’s almost like commitment is contagious, the way they both fell so fast.
“Hey.” I manage to give them a half smile.
“I see you’re already in the hosting mood.” Lee chuckles and claps me on the shoulder.
“Hey, Chase. Don’t worry, it won’t be that bad.” Shayna’s trying to hold back a laugh at my obvious discomfort.
“Says you.” I step back from the door and wave them in.
“Oh.” Shayna comes up short and looks around the living/dining room. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but somehow this completely fits the brand.”
“Brand?” I scowl.
“Grumpy introverted bachelor who plays professional football.”
I shake my head.
“Go easy on him, babe. It’s his first time hosting anything more than poker night, right, Chase?” Lee shrugs out of his coat and helps Shayna out of hers. “Where should we put these?” Lee holds up their coats.
“Um…” I look around, take them, and toss them on the pool table.
“Chase? How about your second bedroom?” Shayna suggests, and I want to ask her why the hell they didn’t host if she knows the coats go in the bedroom.
“Sure.” I nod to Lee, and he walks down my hallway to the second bedroom. I move to the kitchen, Shayna following me. “Do you guys want something to drink?”
“That’d be great,” Shayna says.
I turn to face her as she sets a gift bag I didn’t realize she was holding on the counter by the stove.
“What’s in there?” I nod at the glittery pink-and-purple bag that looks totally out of place in my industrial kitchen.
“An engagement gift for Brady and Violet.”
I swing my gaze Lee’s way as he returns from the bedroom. “You didn’t tell me I had to get them a gift.”
He holds up his hands. “I didn’t know. Shayna took care of that.”
“You know, if you had a woman in your life, she would help you do these kinds of things,” Shayna says in a singsong voice.
I narrow my eyes at her. “Don’t start.” I swing open the fridge door. “What do you guys want to drink? I’ve got light and regular.”
Shayna peers over my shoulder. “Light or regular what?”
“Beer,” I answer, straightening up so she can see around me.
“You don’t have any coolers?” Shayna asks.
I look at her. “I have a subzero freezer right here.” I point at where it is directly beside the fridge. “Why would I need a cooler?”
She presses her lips together and looks back at Lee, who is already laughing. Fuck them. I didn’t want to do this in the first place.
“I think she means wine or vodka coolers,” Lee says.
My forehead wrinkles. “Oh… no. Just beer.” I motion to where all the bottles are lined up like soldiers in the large fridge.
“That’s okay. I’ll just
take a light beer then,” she says with a tone that suggests she’s unhappy.
“Same,” Lee echoes.
The doorbell rings and I pass them each a beer. “Here. I’ll be back in a second.”
Thank God I gave the concierge the names of everyone I’m expecting and directed him to let everyone up; otherwise, I would have to spend half the night answering his calls.
When I swing open the door, Darius and Elijah are arguing about some draft pick. Darius is a defensive end on the team and Elijah is a cornerback, and they both think they know the most about football. They make predictions on trades and always tell the other they don’t know what they’re talking about.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Elijah says before greeting me with a big smile.
“Hey, guys.” I let them in, and we shake hands, then hug, patting each other on the back.
“Hey, hostess with the mostest,” Darius says with a laugh.
“No thanks to you two.”
When we took a vote in the locker room as to who should host tonight, both these pricks voted for me.
Eli claps his hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”
“Yeah? Next time you host something, and we’ll exchange notes.” I arch an eyebrow.
“All right, whenever you get engaged, I promise I’ll host the engagement party.” Eli grins, slaps Darius on the back, and the two crack up all the way into my kitchen.
“Har har. We all know me getting engaged is about as likely as Darius here winning a round of poker.”
Eli points at Darius, who scowls, and I laugh.
“You guys have jokes, huh?” He’s always on the losing end of our poker games.
“Beer is in the fridge, and food is on the counter. Which reminds me, I gotta order the pizza.”
The two of them share a look with raised eyebrows.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing.” Darius presses his lips together. “Pizza’s good, man.”
I cross my arms and look down my nose at them. “Is there something wrong with pizza?”
“I love pizza,” Eli says. “But it’s also what my sister orders for my niece and nephew’s birthday parties. I don’t think it’s usually something to serve at an engagement party.”
“When my sister got engaged, everything was mini. Mini crab cakes, mini wieners wrapped
in dough, mini shrimp thing on a cracker.” Darius looks at Eli. “I did love those mini wieners though.” He stares into space as if remembering them fondly. “Pizza is cool though.”
Eli covers his mouth and bends over. “Please stop with the wieners. You’re just asking for it.”
“You’re so immature!” Darius opens the fridge, helping himself to a beer.
Another knock on the door and my arms drop to my sides. “Well, consider me a trendsetter.” I brush past them toward the door.
“Hey, man,” Miles, the team’s safety, says when I open the door. “Fed up already?”
“You have no idea,” I grumble, opening the door wider.
Miles glances down the hall. “Great,” he mutters and pushes in past me. “I need a drink.”
I peek my head out into the hall, although I already know only one person gets Miles all riled up. Sure enough, Bryce is sauntering down the hallway. She works for the San Jose newspaper, and she and Miles go together about as well as ice cream and relish, though no one really knows why.
“Miles hiding out from me?” she says when she reaches me. She, too, holds a gift bag, along with another big bag slung over her shoulder.
“Guess so.” She’s friends with Shayna and now Violet, which is why I had to invite her.
“Hey!” Shayna says behind me and rushes over to give Bryce a hug, Lee behind her.
“Can I get you a beer?” I ask Bryce.
“There’s light beer or regular beer,” Shayna says in what sounds to me like a sarcastic tone.
Bryce chuckles and pulls a bottle of wine from the large bag she’s carrying. “Please. When I found out who the host was, I knew I had to come prepared.” She winks in my direction.
Shayna quickly thrusts her beer into Lee’s hands. “You’re going to share, right?”
“Of course.” Bryce smiles and they venture into the kitchen.
Lee shrugs and finishes her beer.
Halfway to the kitchen, Shayna turns around. “Chase, where do you keep your wineglasses?”
I arch a brow at her
“Right. No wineglasses. Solo cups it is.” She salutes me and continues to the kitchen.
I groan. “This is a fucking nightmare.”
“Could be worse,” Lee says with a smug smile I want to punch off his fucking face.
“Oh yeah, how?”
“You could be hosting a baby shower.”
I scowl. “Fuck off.”
Then I walk over to the coffee table where I left my phone, pull up the app, and order the pizza. Once I’ve ordered, there’s another knock at the door. For the next twenty-five minutes, I spend my time answering the door and offering drinks, doing my best not to act as if having all these people in my private space doesn’t feel like fire ants crawling up my ass.
I’m standing near my door, shooting the shit with a few of the guys on the team, when I hear people talking out in the hall. It sounds like Brady. What the hell is he doing making a ruckus out there? He’s the guest of honor, and I’m pretty sure the sooner he gets in here, the sooner all these people leave.
I excuse myself and walk over to the door, whipping it open. “Thought I heard you out here. What the hell, are you trying to piss off all my—” I abruptly stop talking when I notice Miles’s sister, Twyla, standing with Brady and Violet.
What the hell is she doing here?
“Funny thing, we just met your new neighbor.” Brady thumbs toward Twyla.
My stomach lurches. Great, as if tonight could get any worse. Temptation just moved in across the hall.
Chase fills the doorway of his condo with his mouth hanging open. My brother, Miles, once told me Chase is one of the biggest tight ends in the league and at six foot four, two hundred sixty-five pounds of muscle, I believe him. But that’s not what’s most intimidating about the man—it’s the constant scowl glued on his face whenever he looks at someone and his short, flippant