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Not in the Game
© 2018Jasmine Haynes
How many second chances do we get to fall in love?
Mark Gregory had a major thing going for Carolina Hutchins years ago. But that was high school, she’d been four years older than him, and she hadn’t even known he was alive.
At least that’s what he thought.
Now he’s found her again. And this time he’s a game-winning running back with a Super Bowl ring and a hell of lot more to offer. Only problem, she’s on the rebound from a bad divorce and thinks all men are like her ex-husband.
Can he convince this gorgeous woman to take a second chance with him? Or, despite the attraction that flares between them, is letting a new man into her life simply not in the game?
Not in the Game
© 2018Jasmine Haynes
“You want to jump out of the cake at the bachelor party?” Deidre gave an unladylike snort. “You’re joking, right?”
“I’m not.” Carolina Hutchins had never been more serious in her life. One week from tonight, she wanted to take Deidre’s place and jump out of that cake.
“But…” Deidre looked her up and down. “You’re thirty-eight years old.”
The rest of the sentiment was implied rather than stated. And Carolina’s pretty roommate was right. Men didn’t pay to see a thirty-eight-year-old woman dance her way out of a cake. They wanted nubile young things like Deidre Morrow, petite, blond, buxom, with a tiny waist the span of a big man’s hands. And the tender age of twenty-five. Carolina was her opposite, tall, brunette, slender. And thirteen years older.
“Not that you’re not hot and all for an—” Deidre cut herself off.
“For an old lady,” Carolina finished
Deidre tssked. “You’re not old.”
“Just pre-menopausal,” Carolina supplied instead.
As two single women at nine on a Friday night in what was proving to be a gorgeously warm April, they should have been out on dates. Instead, they were seated on their flower-print couch in the San Jose apartment they’d shared for almost a year, and consuming a bottle of wine. It wasn’t expensive chardonnay, but not out of a box either. Their dateless state was by choice.
Deidre worked by day as an accounts payable clerk at a Silicon Valley corporation, took college courses at night, and burst out of cakes on weekends. Or played cop, nurse, dominatrix, whatever the boss of her adult party entertainment company wanted her to play. She was too busy to date. Carolina worked as an accounts receivable clerk at the same company—where they’d met and decided to become roommates—and hadn’t dated since her divorce two years ago.
“Don’t talk down about yourself,” Deidre chided.
Carolina had to laugh; she was supposed to be wiser. But Deidre was an old soul. She was working on a degree in business and had decided she’d be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company by the time she was forty. Carolina was sure she’d accomplish that goal.
“I’m not talking down,” she said. “I’m stating a fact.”
Deidre made a face, which, on her, was just another pretty aspect. “I don’t get why you’d want to pop out of a cake for an entire football team. They could be a rough audience.”
“I want to meet Mark Gregory.” He was best man for his teammate Rich Williams, who played center, and had arranged for Deidre to appear at the party.
“Ooh. Mark Gregory. One of the NFL’s most eligible bachelors. I love dark-haired, blue-eyed hunks.” Deidre studied her a moment. “There are probably easier ways to meet him.”
“I’d never get a chance to even be in the same room with him.” A running back for the San Jose Stallions, he was way out of her current league. As one of the more highly paid players, with numerous advertising contracts and a Super Bowl ring, he had any number of gorgeous young women willing to fawn all over him.
“So what’s the big deal about him? After what your husband did to you, I’d think you’d run a mile from any filthy-rich, good-time playboy type.”
Her ex-husband. Carolina had to admit she was still bitter. After thirteen years of marriage, Pete had found a prettier and younger trophy wife. And because of the prenuptial Carolina had signed—to prove she was marrying for love, not money—she got nothing. He’d cheated on her, and she was rewarded with exactly zilch. Not even the car she drove or the clothes and jewelry he’d bought her. Turned out everything was in his name. If they’d had kids—Pete had two boys by his first wife and said he was too old to want babies again—he’d have stolen them, too, she was sure. She’d been such a starstruck idiot. She’d thrown away her college education and given up her brand new accounting career. By the time she went back to get a job, she wasn’t even in the game anymore. In fact, it seemed a metaphor for her whole life. Not in the game. She was a clerk when she should have been controller by now, or even CFO. Instead, she was taking refresher courses at the community college and starting at the bottom again.
“I’m not interested in dating Mark Gregory.” She was done with dating, let alone relationships, for a very long time. “But anyway, he’s different.”
Deidre tipped her head and raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you know him.”
“I did, a long time ago.”
“Hmm.” Deidre chewed the inside of her lip, pondering. “Well, you couldn’t have gone to high school with him because he’s only thirty-four.”
“He went to school with my brother.”
“Your brother?” Deidre emphasized.
Carolina poured another half glass of wine for each of them. Her brother was a software engineer in Silicon Valley. “Yeah. Lowell got in with a bad crowd when he started high school, and it was Mark who helped him turn his life around.” She shuddered. “I’d hate to think what he would have become. Mark introduced him to football. The game gave Lowell purpose. He didn’t turn out to be one of the greats like Mark is, but he’s got a good life, and I’m proud of him.” She’d always been grateful that Mark had stepped in to provide the guidance Lowell needed. As his big sister, that should have been her job, but she’d been away at university when it was all going on. At least that was her excuse.
“So you just want to thank good old Mark for what he did for your brother by entertaining him at his buddy’s bachelor party?”
Carolina shrugged. “It would be interesting to see him again.”
“Doesn’t your brother talk to him? After all, they were friends.”
“They didn’t keep in touch.”
Deidre leaned forward to tap Carolina’s temple. “Something’s going on up there. I don’t know what. But you’ve got an awful lot of excuses for why you have to do it this way.”
“It was just a spur of the moment thought when you said you were performing at the bachelor party he’s holding for his friend.”
Deidre snorted. “You’ve never done anything like this in your life. And I don’t even think you approve of what I do.”
“That’s not true at all.” Deidre’s performances didn’t go beyond stripping down to a bikini bathing suit. And she didn’t do lap dances. She danced sexy, yes, but that was all. “I think it’s great that you’re working so hard to put yourself through school.”
Deidre gave her a press-lipped, knowing smile. “You better tell me what’s really going on or I’m not letting you do it.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you. I was attracted to him back then, okay. But he was in high school and I was in college. And it’s not like I could even think about telling anyone how I felt, let alone date him. And I just want to know now. If there’s still any hint of that attraction.” She raised her hands. “He probably won’t even remember me.” What she’d felt might have been mutual, but she’d never been sure. “And it is a spur of the moment thing. I wouldn’t even have thought of him if you hadn’t told me about the party.” Except that she had watched all the Stallions’ games, and she knew every single one of Mark’s stats.
Maybe a bit of it was also curiosity as to whether fame and fortune had turned Mark into the kind of man her ex-husband had been. Pete had used people for what he could gain from them, then discarded them like empty husks.
She’d been a starry-eyed twit for not realizing it would happen to her eventually.
Deidre waggled her eyebrows like a cartoon villain. “So the ice queen is interested in a man.”
Carolina didn’t flinch at the title. Deidre was actually poking fun at Pete, who’d called her an ice queen, stating that his cheating was her fault because she was frigid. He’d been the consummate liar. He probably had to use Viagra to entice the new trophy wife. And he’d throw her away when she reached a mature age as well. Carolina actually felt sorry for her.
“Okay, yes, I’m interested,” Carolina agreed. “So help me out.”
Deidre pursed her lips, then finally smiled until laughter spread across her face. “All right. But we’re going to wow you up, lots of makeup, really big hair.” She fluffed Carolina’s straight brunette locks that flowed over her shoulders. “I’m thinking hair like Peggy from Married with Children. Stand up.” She waved her hands.
Married with Children? Good God. Carolina rose. In sweat pants and a T-shirt, she didn’t look like anyone’s version of Wow.
Deidre stroked her chin, considering, then clapped her hands. “I’ve got it. Black corset, leather pants, and five-inch platform boots. You’re going to be a dominatrix. Snap your flogger around a little, maybe give the groom a good spanking.”
Spank the groom?
Carolina hadn’t thought about the show she’d be required to put on. She’d only imagined the look on Mark Gregory’s face when—if—he recognized her. And if he didn’t, she’d at least be able to observe the kind of man he’d turned into. That would certainly be no hardship on the eyes.
“A dominatrix? Is that what he asked for?”
Deidre shrugged. “He wasn’t specific. Just wanted some girl to dance around and entertain.”
“I don’t think a dominatrix would jump out of a cake. That’s not their style.”
“This is fantasy,” Deidre scoffed. “We can have our dominatrix do anything we want.”
This could actually be terrifying. Her?In a corset and leather pants? “I don’t own anything a dominatrix would wear.”
Deidre batted her eyelashes. “That’s why we’re going shopping.”
Oh God, she was in for it now. Yet despite the momentary terror, there was a certain appeal to the idea. What would Pete have done if, instead of being his doormat, she’d brought out a whip years ago? What if she’d taken charge and shown him what a real woman was capable of?
The thought had possibilities.
“The dominatrix is growing on me.” She could take out her aggressions. Not that she’d actually cause pain. But lording it over a bunch of men, oh yeah, definitely appealing.
“I can’t wait to see you all decked out.” Deidre rubbed her hands together with glee as she made her plans. “Those guys are going to eat you up.”
Not if Carolina ate them up first.