Meet Carter Jones. The youngest Jones boy. The newest member of the Memphis Soul.
After signing a contract with his hometown team that made him football’s highest paid wide receiver, Carter thought life couldn’t get any sweeter. But he’s dropping passes in games and hearing the boos from the fans. Worse, his oldest brother/roommate keeps butting into his business. He needs a new place to stay. Today. When he drives by an open house, he thinks his luck is changing. When he meets the beautiful real estate agent, he knows things are looking up—even if she wants nothing to do with him.
Gabby Stephens has had enough of rich guys. After kicking her ex-husband to the curb, she’s eager for a fresh start and has no time for playboys, even the ridiculously hot ones. But when her bills start piling up, finding a home for Carter becomes her top priority. Her second priority? Ignoring her overwhelming attraction to the pro athlete.
In this game of love, Carter is more than ready to make the play to win Gabby’s heart.
“Today was statistically the worst game of your career. Had to be tough. So what happened?” The reporter shoved a recorder in Carter’s face, practically licking his lips in anticipation for the football player to deliver a tasty “woe is me” soundbite he could dissect a thousand ways, or worse, sneer at, in that night’s telecast. Fans liked success, duh, but discord and dysfunction were almost as good as far as the sports media were concerned. Discord meant hot takes that drew viewers, listeners, and readers in droves.
Carter knew all that and still it took every ounce of willpower in him not to snarl, “What the fuck do you think happened?”
He’d played like shit, and he wanted to be anywhere but here in the locker room being peppered with dumbass questions from journalists. But going off on the pompous, faux-concerned reporter was going to get him exactly nowhere other than becoming the lead story on ESPN and trending on Twitter.
“Nothing happened. That’s the problem.” He dramatically widened his eyes and inserted a joking tone into his voice. “I mean damn. It got crazy out there. Even I was wondering if an alien had invaded my body.”
The reporters gathered around his locker chuckled like they were supposed to.
Carter relaxed. He’d always handled the media with good humor, thereby maintaining a decent relationship with them. In other words, he fed them bullshit, and they ate it up. “It’s the first game of the season. Some growing pains are to be expected, but I have full confidence we’ll get it figured out.”
“You had training camp and the whole preseason to develop chemistry with your brother. It doesn’t look like anything stuck.” Reporter Most Likely to Get Cursed Out shook his head in mock commiseration. Commiseration that didn’t extend to his gleaming, beady eyes. “Dropped passes, incorrect routes…They were incorrect, right?”
A growl came entirely too close to pushing past Carter’s way-too-media-savvy-for-this-bullshit mouth. He pressed his lips together just in time. Then he shrugged and sighed before making sure his voice came out in his usual upbeat tone. “Like I said, growing pains. We’ll get it figured out.”
The reporters, en masse, made a noncommittal sound. Skepticism reigned supreme in their facial expressions.
Carter struggled to keep his smile from slipping. Didn’t they know he was trying his hardest? That he wanted to succeed?
It was one game. He was the best receiver in the NFL. Full stop. He and his brother would get on the same page soon. Those weren’t platitudes for a reporter. He believed it. But he hated starting the season off this way.
Carter shook his shoulders. At least they’d won the game. At the end of the day, that was all that mattered.
The reporters asked a few more questions but went in search of more amenable prey after they realized they weren’t going to get anything but sunshine and daffodils out of him. He wasn’t sad to see them go. He exhaled and finished dressing in peace.
He looked up. Jackson, his hair and goatee perfectly groomed as always and decked out in his best postgame outfit—a perfectly tailored gray suit accessorized with a red tie that matched the Soul’s logo—strode toward him. He’d probably just returned from his press conference, where he’d undoubtedly said all the right things and calmed down fans who were always ready to panic at the first sign of trouble.
“What’s up?” Carter asked when his brother reached his side.
Jackson glanced around before speaking. “How about we watch some film before we head to Mama’s?”
Carter sighed. “I don’t think so. I have plans.” He didn’t have plans other than not watching game film. “Tell Mama and Pops I can’t make dinner.”
Jackson gave him the concerned-big-brother look he didn’t need right now. “Running away when things get tough isn’t the answer.”
The barb made a direct hit. Carter’s hand clenched into a fist at his side.
Aware there were eyes and ears everywhere, feeling them perking up and tuning in, he kept his tone civil. “I’m not running anywhere. I. Have. Plans.”
Jackson didn’t stop him when he grabbed his phone and wallet and headed out of the locker room. He signed a few autographs for fans, but kept walking when a couple of reporters tried to get in a few more questions.
“Not today,” he offered with as pleasant a smile as he could muster.
He made it to his car—a sleek, black Ferrari—a few minutes later. He exited the players’ parking lot. Fans lined the streets outside the lot entrance, hoping for a peek at their favorite players. Once past them, he accelerated down the street—away from the site of his failed debut with the Soul. Away from the memories of his mistakes.
Damn, he sounded like the lead in some overhyped drama made for the express purpose of winning Oscars. Time to drown out his thoughts. He turned on the radio.
“Carter Jones hasn’t been the same player he was in Arizona—not in training camp and not today when the games started to matter. It’s early, but the Soul front office execs have to be wondering if they made a mistake giving him that seventy-five-million-dollar contract.”
With an angry stab at the dial, Carter turned off the radio. Silence and his rambling thoughts had to be better than that crap.
Except he could still hear that prick’s voice.
The Soul hadn’t made a mistake. He was still the best wide receiver in the league. He’d just had a bad game—which, frankly, shocked the shit out of him.
Carter gripped the leather steering wheel harder, the stitches biting into his palms.
He was Carter Jones, damn it. The Natural. Except he hadn’t played like it. Missing catches. Dropping others. Turning simple plays into fiascos. He’d had bad games before. Every athlete had. Sure, his had been few and far between, but they’d happened. So why was this one bothering him so much? Because his bad play had never happened in his debut with a new team when all eyes were on him. When the lights were the brightest, he showed up and delivered. Always.
His phone beeped. He glanced at the center console screen. Jackson was calling, probably to see if he’d changed his mind. He hadn’t, so he let the call go to voice mail. Besides, his success on the field had never come from watching endless hours of tape.
Joining the Memphis Soul was supposed to be the start of something huge. Leading his hometown team to a championship. Playing with his brothers. It was all supposed to be easy.
His life was all about easy. Doing whatever he liked that caught his fancy and showcased his natural talents. He was good—no, fantastic—at football and got paid millions for it. What more could he ask for? But so far, since he’d come home, nothing had gone as planned.
Carter took a deep breath. One…two… three… four… five. It was only one game. Fifteen more to go to show people what he could do. He shrugged. Why was he worried anyway? Everything always worked out for him.
The pessimism stopped now.
Carter came to a stop at the red light. Where did he go? A club? That’s what he usually did after a game, but it was too early and he wasn’t in the mood anyway.
Home? So he could tense up every time he heard a noise because he thought Jackson had arrived?
A situation made possible because, he, Carter Jones, had made the brilliant decision to move in with his big brother.
Why not, he’d asked himself when Jackson suggested it after Carter signed his contract. His brother’s house was huge. Jackson had bought the place after his wife, Lisa, passed away three years ago. He’d been living there alone, so it made sense that he would want some company. But even as big as the residence was, Jackson always managed to find him.
Maybe it was time to look for his own place. Jackson was like a mother hen, always clucking around him. Did you eat? Wanna talk? Want to study the playbook? He already had a mother and a father—great ones, thank you very much.
Speaking of… “Dial Mama.” The Bluetooth in the car called his parents’ house.
During the first ring, the light turned green. He made an impulsive decision to turn right. Why not? He had no place to be.
“Hello.” His mother’s voice came through the car’s amazing speakers.
“Hi, baby. Jackson said you couldn’t make it tonight.”
He steeled himself against the disappointment in her voice. “Yeah, I wasn’t thinking and told a friend I’d have dinner with him. I’m sorry I can’t be there.”
“I know you are. Don’t worry about today. It was only one game.” The concern in her voice was ten times worse. “What do those refs know? That defensive back clearly interfered with you the whole game. There were at least five pass interference calls they missed.”
Carter smiled. His parents always had his back. Always. “Thanks, Mama.”
“What? I’m just telling the truth. Those refs need to get their eyes examined. I’ll send a plate home for you. Hold on. Jackson wants to talk to you.”
But she was already gone.
“Carter, we will talk later tonight.” Jackson’s authoritative voice filled the car.
Carter rolled his eyes. “Okay, whatever. Bye.” He ended the call.
Jackson took his role as big brother entirely too seriously.
Carter had initially been excited about living with his sibling. He’d looked at the arrangement as a chance to recapture the fun they’d had as kids. Yeah…but no. He loved his brother, but facts were facts. Jackson was driving him batshit crazy. Maybe he should do more than think about finding a place of his own.
Carter was so caught up in his musings, he almost missed it. He stomped on his brakes. Wincing at the squeal of tires, he peered out the windshield. Ahead, a bright bouquet of green and yellow balloons emblazoned with “WELCOME” tied to a metal post was impossible to miss. An open house? He zeroed in on the display in the middle of the lawn. A for-sale sign.
It was a sign. And he always looked for signs. They never steered him wrong.
He wasn’t interested in buying a house, but maybe the owners would consider renting it.
He pulled over and alighted from the car with a pep in his step, ready for whatever came his way. He’d assumed when the time came to move out he’d get a condo in or near downtown Memphis, but it never hurt to consider other options.
He looked around. A nice, domesticated neighborhood. Not much activity going on. Not his usual scene, but at this point, he couldn’t afford to rule anything out.
No other cars were parked in front of the house, so maybe that was another sign that he was meant to find this house before anyone else did anyway.
He made his way to the front door and knocked. He waited a few seconds, but no one answered. Still, the welcome sign and balloons were definitely real. An open house had to be happening. He tried the knob, and it twisted easily beneath his hand. He stepped into the foyer. Gleaming hardwood floors led to a wrought iron staircase. Faint strains of music were coming from a room down the hall. He followed the sounds and stopped at the entrance to what he assumed was the living room.
Near the fireplace, a woman danced with her back to him. Beyoncé’s Formation was coming from a phone on the coffee table. The mystery lady’s choreography was on point. Beyoncé’s backup dancers couldn’t have done a better job.
Carter leaned against the wall, amused. Her back dipped in an arch, the move pulling her white button-down shirt across her chest, while her hips swayed side to side—noteworthy hips hugged by a bright red skirt. A skirt that managed to be both sexy and professional. Long, dark brown hair swung side to side. Still dancing, she executed a graceful whirl. And spotted him.
She shrieked loud enough to wake up every person in a five-mile radius.
“Where did you come from? How did you get in here?” She backed away, her eyes darting around like she was searching for a weapon to defend herself with or a path to escape. Except he blocked the only exit out of the room.
Shit. He’d scared her. But how? It was an open house, after all. She had to expect strangers to come.
“Hello,” he said slowly, holding up his hands and taking a step backward. “I saw the for-sale sign in the yard and the balloons. I thought an open house was going on. I knocked, but you didn’t hear, so I tried the door. It was open. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Oh.” A vee appeared between her brows. She turned off the music. Silence descended.
“Are you the real estate agent?” he asked when she did nothing but stare at him.
“Yes.” Said so reluctantly, he was surprised she’d responded at all. “Didn’t you see that the open house is scheduled for tomorrow?” she asked, her dark brown eyes now clear and focused. She’d obviously recovered from her brief lapse.
He offered an appeasing smile. “There was nothing out there with a date and time.”
“Yes, there was.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t interested in making peace.
He would have to try again. Carter stepped toward her. “Does it matter? I’m here now, so maybe I could—”
“You have to leave. Now.”
He froze mid-step. It took him a second to process what she’d said—no, demanded. He wasn’t used to rejection. Didn’t understand it. Time to break out his most formidable weapon. His smile, the one that came so easily to him, just as life did, spread across his lips. “I don’t want to sound like a douche—”
“Then don’t.” Her eyebrows arched, clearly immune to his charm—or trying to be. No one was actually immune, he’d found in his twenty-eight years on Earth.
“But do you know who I am?” he finished.
Her eyebrows rose higher. She swept her gaze up and down his figure. Her expression didn’t change. She wasn’t impressed by the physique he spent countless hours perfecting? How was that possible? Her eyes returned to his face. They were beautiful—dark brown with a thick fringe of lashes surrounding them.
“Epic fail at not sounding like a douche.” Her lips, painted in a glossy burgundy that highlighted their plumpness and kissability, parted in a small smile. “And yes, at the risk of making your head bigger than it clearly already is, I know who you are. I simply don’t care.”
Pure, unadulterated shock swept through his body. He rocked back on his heels. Wait. What? Everyone cared. That had been true since his premature birth when he’d been dubbed the miracle child after his mother’s difficult pregnancy. He crossed his arms and braced his feet apart. “Why not?”
She sighed as though talking to a recalcitrant child uninterested in hearing why he couldn’t eat chicken nuggets for the fifth meal in a row. “I would care if there were thirty seconds left in the game, we were down four points, and you had single coverage on you—i.e. the perfect chance to throw a game-winning pass your way.”
So she did know who he was.
“Are we in that position?” she continued.
“No,” he admitted reluctantly.
“Then I don’t care.” A self-satisfied smile spread across her pretty, heart-shaped face like she’d delivered a trump card he couldn’t possibly beat.
He stepped closer. “Are you trying to sell this house?”
Her nose lifted, as though she knew where he was going with his line of questioning. “Yes.”
“I’m a potential buyer.” His trump card. No, he hadn’t entered the residence with the thought of buying it, but he never lost. At anything. And it was a nice house.
She sighed. “Look, I’m not trying to be rude, but I was staging the house for someone to look at tonight.” The look she sent his way made it clear he was not that person. “The homeowners agreed to give him an early look before the house officially goes on the market, as he’s very particular about how he does business. If he doesn’t make an offer, there will be an open house tomorrow. You can come back then. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare for his arrival.”
“Look, I don’t have time for fun and games. I need to sell this house tonight, which means I need you to go.” Her voice quivered like she was holding back tears. She pressed fingers to her mouth, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Then, she pulled her shoulders back and met his gaze. “Excuse me.”
He understood pride. Pride kept him from admitting to those reporters earlier he was struggling on the field. Pride kept him from admitting that he didn’t know how or if he would solve his woes.
She stepped around him and headed to the front door, clearly expecting him to follow. She was tough, another quality he admired. Who was she?
Carter spotted a stack of business cards on the fireplace mantle. The thick material felt smooth and expensive between fingers calloused from catching balls for the past twenty years.
Gabrielle Stephens. A sophisticated name for a sophisticated woman, who knew football.
He exited the room and caught up with her in the hall. Her confident stride didn’t falter. He put her height at about five-four, but her heels added another couple of inches.
She opened the door and stepped outside. He stopped at the threshold. She kept going to the sign that had drawn his attention in the first place. She glared at the ground. He craned his neck. Oh, there was something on the grass. She picked it up and slapped it against the post. The sign did indeed say the open house was to take place tomorrow. It stuck to the column for about two seconds before falling to the ground.
She let loose with a growl he hadn’t suspected could come out of her small frame.
Carter hurried toward her. “Hey, let me help.”
They reached for the sign at the same time. Carter’s hand covered hers. An electric charge zipped up his arm. Her quick gasp confirmed she felt it, too. Not looking at him, she tugged her hand away and retreated a step.
He slapped the sign to the post. The adhesive worked this time.
She threw her hands up in the air. “Of course it worked for you.” She crossed her arms. “Thanks.”
Carter laughed. How could he not? That was the least appreciative utterance of gratitude he’d heard in his entire life. His response caused her eyes to darken with annoyance—which only made him laugh harder. Her lips downturned. That only made him want to kiss the frown away.
Their gazes caught. The moment stretched. Awareness filled the air. His laughter died away.
She was the first to break the connection, averting her gaze for a moment. She cleared her throat. “Thanks. Truthfully.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Why do I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming?”
She lifted her chin. “But now that you’ve helped, I’m going back inside. Alone.” She stalked toward the house.
“See you later, Gabrielle.”
She stilled and glared at him over her shoulder.
He waved her business card. “You prefer Gabby?”
Her scowl deepened.
He rolled his lips to keep laughter from spilling out. She probably would have picked up that for-sale sign and impaled him on it if the chuckle had escaped.
Why was he teasing her? Trying to get a rise out of her? Was he nine years old? He didn’t have to annoy women to get their attention. Hell, he didn’t have to do anything to get their attention. He just showed up and they flocked to him, whether they knew what he did for a living or not.
The door closed with a quiet, dignified click. He chuckled. So much for her saying goodbye.
Not that she was his type anyway. All buttoned up. Responsible. Although there had been that moment when he’d caught her dancing. Except her actions and comments afterward made it clear that incident was the exception that proved the rule.
The only responsibility he wanted was scoring touchdowns and winning games. That’s all he was capable of. So why did he get into his car, drive down the street, and park instead of going home?
He just wanted to see this amazing client she’d kicked him out of the house for, that’s all. It had nothing to do with her…really.
He grabbed his phone and opened the YouTube app, then searched for Beyoncé’s video. He laughed. He’d always had a good memory. Gabrielle had had the whole routine down pat.
Ten minutes later, worry began to creep in. Gabrielle had come back outside and stood on the front porch, but no other car had pulled up. The hopeful smile on her face drooped. Her shoulders, which she’d held up with so much pride while talking to him, fell. Finally, she turned and went back in the house, shutting the door behind her.
Shutting him out. Which was ridiculous. He didn’t know her. Would never see her again. So why did her disappointment feel like his own?
Carter shook his head. What was his deal? She didn’t care about him, had barely tolerated his presence. There were plenty of other women who wouldn’t give him a hard time or demand too much from him.
So why was he still here? Good question.
He had to figure out how to get his game back on track—his football game. And that’s all there was to it. He drove away with only a brief glance back at the house and the woman inside.
“Get out of the car and go inside,” Gabby muttered to herself the next morning.
She didn’t move. Instead, she continued to stare out her windshield at the red brick wall her car was parked in front of.
She couldn’t. Not yet. But didn’t she deserve some props for actually getting out of bed, showering, putting on clean clothes that actually matched, and driving to work? Just because she couldn’t take that final step of exiting her Toyota and walking into the building didn’t make her a failure. Hell, no, it didn’t.
She would move. Eventually. As soon as she practiced the speech she planned to give to her boss for the tenth time.
Roosevelt Sinclair wasn’t going to buy the house. He’d called her personally to deliver the message, instead of having his assistant do it, so she should be flattered, right?
“I see you couldn’t follow my simple request for no one else to see the house before I did,” he’d said.
“But—” she’d tried to defend herself.
“Don’t lie. I saw that other car out front.” And then he’d hung up the phone.
Grr. Gabby’s fingernails dug deep into the flesh of her palms. The flash of pain just made her madder.
This was all Carter Don’t-You-Know-Who-I-Am Jones’s fault. If she could, she would go down to the Soul’s stadium and punch him right in the middle of his nose. She was usually opposed to violence, but she could make an exception just this once. She’d mess up that pretty face, but he’d deserve it. And why was she thinking about how pretty Carter Jones was?
Yeah, she’d gawked like a young girl seeing her favorite singer for the first time when she’d turned and seen him standing there while she shook her groove thang. How could she not? He was a celebrity, but more than that, he was fine. Like finer than fine. Like…some bad metaphor she couldn’t think of right now.
Skin the color of chestnut. Six-three or so. Full, sensual lips. High cheekbones. Rock-hard jaw. Broad shoulders. Muscular frame. Perfect. So what? Men should be—no, were—the last thing on her mind.
Still, he’d had the nerve—the unmitigated gall—to show up in her dreams last night. Could she be more of a freaking cliché if she tried? Yeah, it had been the best damn dream she’d had in a long time, but there was no way in hell he could be as talented with his tongue…and hands…and tongue as he’d been in her dream. Right? She might have to guess about the tongue bit, but he did have some nice hands. She’d noticed them as he’d slapped that stupid sign on the post. Strong hands. Long, capable fingers….
Gabby squirmed against the leather seat. Okay, this was not the time to be thinking about that. The man had ruined her chance at a commission and might get her fired as a result. Which would be disastrous because she needed every penny she could muster right now. He wasn’t finer than her need for a job and a paycheck. Her parents were counting on her.
So yeah, time to stop procrastinating and get this over with. And not get fired. She could and would talk herself out of anything. She hoped. No, she would. She’d once been a confident, nothing’s-gonna-stand-in-my-way-person, and she’d get back there again. As soon as she had a comfortable nest egg.
That wasn’t going to happen until she did what needed to be done.
Gabby took a deep breath and consciously relaxed her shoulders as she exhaled. Time for action.
Her knees wobbled slightly as she stepped out of the car. Unacceptable. She locked her knees together. Her steps became surer as she made her way to the entrance of DeLuca Real Estate.
The receptionist, Erica, gave her a thumbs up when she passed her desk. Gabby returned the gesture and forced her lips into a smile, but didn’t stop. Erica would want details about last night’s viewing, and Gabby had to tell Marty first before she lost the courage she was barely clinging to.
Her feet urged her to make a left to go to her tiny office, but she forced them to make a right, where Marty DeLuca held court.
Maybe he wouldn’t be there. As she neared his office, she heard his twangy tenor courtesy of his small-town Tennessee roots coming through his door. Of course, he was here. Where else would he be when there was humiliation to be doled out?
“Gabby, just the person I wanted to see this morning. Come in, come in.” He ushered her into his office and shut the door. “Have a seat. So tell me, how was your showing with Mr. Sinclair?”
Gabby sat, happy her legs no longer needed to carry her weight. “Well, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”
Marty settled in his chair. “Great. Did you make us all a nice, hefty commission?”
She swallowed. Forced the words out. “No, Mr. Sinclair called to say he wouldn’t be buying the house.”
Marty’s expression cooled. “Why not?”
Marty tapped his pen on the desk. “Because?”
She dropped her gaze. Oh, look, there was a small stain—coffee maybe?—in the corner. She’d mention it to Erica so she could have the nightly cleaning crew get it out. “Because someone else showed up at the viewing.”
“In other words, you couldn’t get the job done.” He sighed heavily. “I took a chance on you when no one else would.”
She was well aware of that. How nice of him to point it out. For the tenth time. “Yes, I know.”
“Gabby, this is simply unacceptable.” His voice was getting higher. The walls were paper thin. Marty knew this. He loved it. He was a frustrated stage performer and considered his employees his rapt audience. “I need coffee if I’m going to continue to listen to this distressing news.”
He stood and crossed the office. He yanked open the door, then jerked back. “Oh, who are you?”
Marty’s tall form blocked Gabby’s view of whoever he was talking to. A voice came from the hall.
What. The. Hell?