The Matchmaker's Playbook by Rachel Van Dyken


  “Listen.” I pressed a finger to her lips. “You are beautiful no matter what you wear. You could wear basketball shorts and those ugly-ass flip-flops every day of your life, and your brother would still be proud of you. I promise.”

  Tears filled her eyes again. “You think?”

  “I know.”

  “How?”

  “Because I’m proud of you. And I’m not easy to impress—you do know who I am, right?”

  “Ian Hunter.” She said my name with reverence. God above, I wanted to be worthy of the way she said my name.

  “Guys,” Gabi called from somewhere inside the house. “You just gonna stand there and eye-screw each other, or can we get the snacks?”

  “Be right there,” I yelled back, never taking my eyes off Blake. “Are you going to be okay?”

  The light reflected off of her tearstained face. She was . . . beautiful. So beautiful it hurt. “As long as you stay.”

  “Done.”

  “Good.” She reached for the bags, then blocked the door with her hand. “But I can’t let you in unless you managed to get the chocolate Gabi and I begged for.”

  Sighing, I reached into one of the bags and pulled out two Hershey’s Krackel bars. “You mean this chocolate?”

  Blake swiped it from my hand and inhaled. “So good.”

  “Question.” I leaned in. “If it was between me and a Krackel bar—”

  “Krackel bar.” She patted my shoulder. “Every time.”

  “Had to ask.”

  “Guys,” Gabi yelled again.

  “Coming!” we said in unison, making our way back through the house.

  Gabi was in the kitchen prepping the hamburgers and hot dogs.

  She frowned at us. “Blake, are you okay?” Her eyes fell on me in a crabby stare.

  “Yeah.” Blake touched her cheeks. “Let me just run upstairs real quick and get the mascara smudges.”

  I watched her run off.

  Meaning I didn’t duck and cover.

  Gabi clocked me in the shoulder, then reared back like she was aiming for my face.

  “What?” I stumbled back from her. “I didn’t make her cry!”

  Gabi didn’t look convinced. “I told you to stay away from her!”

  “And I did.” I held up my hands in surrender. “Technically.”

  “Technically?”

  “Shit, you have that look in your eyes again. Gabs, she likes David, I’m helping her with David. End of story.”

  “Did you have sex with her?”

  “I wish,” I grumbled.

  Gabi frowned. “Wait, what?”

  “Nothing. Hey, Lex is late—I’m going to go call him.” I turned to leave but was tugged back by the loop in my jeans.

  “Speak.”

  “Lex could be dead.”

  “Don’t care.”

  “In a very serious accident, and we’re running out of time.”

  “Out with it.”

  “Five seconds away from his last breath and you want me to gossip with you about my feelings?”

  “Ian.”

  “Lex is dead. Hope you’re happy.”

  Her grip on my jeans tightened, and then she tugged up.

  “Whoa there.” I jerked away from her and glanced behind me where the stairway was. “Okay, summarized version?”

  She nodded and crossed her arms.

  “I like her.”

  Gabi nodded more and then frowned. “Wait, that’s it? That’s the declaration I get after years of watching you screw everything with a pulse? You like her?”

  “Yeah.” For the first time in years, I felt myself heat with embarrassment.

  “You. Like. Her.” Gabi’s voice was rising. I tried to shush her, but it was Gabi—that was like poking a grizzly. “Men are so stupid. Please tell me you didn’t confess this out loud to her like a Facebook status. I like Blake. Here’s a picture of us. Oh, cool, five hundred shares. Like we’re in freaking HIGH SCHOOL!”

  “KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN!” I shouted.

  “There we go!” Gabi slapped me on the shoulder. “A little passion. This is the first time you’ve admitted to liking anything in years!”

  “Not true,” I argued. “I adored that cute little gerbil you had.”

  “The one Lex killed? That gerbil?”

  “Poor Arnold.” I smirked. “Sore subject?”

  “Bastard’s going to get his balls cut off one of these nights, in his sleep.”

  “Don’t sneak-approach him in his bed. He may think you want something you don’t. And the last thing I need is to deal with Lex after he accidently grazes boob, only to realize it’s yours. He’ll cut off his hands, and I need his hands for my computer program and future lucrative business ideas.”

  “Back!” Blake bounced down the stairs.

  Gabi gave me a look that said this was far from over before slowly unwrapping one of the Krackel bars and shoving the damn thing in her mouth.

  “No sharing?” My eyebrows shot up.

  “Nope,” Gabi answered, mouth full of chocolate. “Get your own.”

  “I bought it.”

  “And we’re poor college students, so . . .” Gabi grinned.

  The front door slammed. Suddenly Lex appeared from the hall holding up two giant bags of groceries. “If you ever”—he swore violently—“and I do mean ever, send me to the store to get tampons again, I’m going to have sex in your bed with a complete stranger, take selfies, blow them up to poster size, and plaster them to your ceiling.”

  He dropped the bags onto the counter. A box of tampons fell out.

  I smirked. “Errand boy.”

  “Suck it,” Lex grumbled. “At least I know where they are. Last time Gabs sent you, you had to ask for directions, ended up hitting on the salesclerk, and never made it back to the house.”

  I stole a glance at Blake’s expression. She was smiling, but it was forced, and suddenly all of my past bangs seemed more like past sins, past wrongs, something that made me less in her eyes.

  “Thanks, man,” I said under my breath.

  “Any time.” Lex rubbed his hands together. “Am I manning the grill, Gabs? Or did you grow a penis within the last twelve hours?”

  Blake gave me a confused look.

  I explained with a smirk. “Only boys can man the grill. It says so.”

  “Where?” Gabi asked, pulling the giant grill spatula from the drawer and hiding it behind her back.

  “On the instructions when we’re born,” I said, faking a dumbfounded expression. “It’s Life 101. Seriously, sometimes I wonder if you girls even went to elementary school.”

  Lex barked out a “hah,” then stole the spatula from Gabi and marched outside with the plate of burgers and hot dogs.

  “He’s such a gem, that one,” Gabi huffed out as she started pulling out all the condiments.

  “A true gentleman,” I said, just as a volleyball sailed toward my head. I barely ducked in time. “What the hell?”

  Blake grinned. “You down for a little game, boy?”

  Staggered, I stared at her dumbly. “Did you just call me . . . ‘boy’?”

  Another spike in my direction.

  “That’s it.” I grabbed the ball and marched outside. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but Blake, I was in the NFL—I can play all sports.”

  Lex coughed.

  “Except golf.”

  He coughed again.

  “And I think it’s already been established that ice-skating shouldn’t count.”

  Lex held up his hands, then went back to flipping burgers.

  “Your serve.” I bumped the ball in Blake’s direction. “Ladies always first. I’m a gentleman on the court and in bed—lucky you.”

  “Oh wow. Thanks,” Blake said sarcastically. “Let me just get comfortable.” Her top came off.

  I smelled something burning.

  “Lex,” I yelled. “Man the burgers. I got this!”

  “Sorry.” He turned back around.

>   I stared at her tan, muscled skin as she stretched her arms above her head and put her hair in a high ponytail. Her jeans were still on, but hanging so low on her hips a cop should ticket her. And the plain black sports bra just . . . for some reason . . . looked hot.

  Damn hot.

  “Ready?” she asked.

  “Clearly someone’s trying to cheat.” I pointed at her stomach.

  “Oh, this?” She shrugged. “Don’t want to get sweat on my shirt. I’m sure you understand.”

  “Sure I do.” I peeled my shirt off and tossed it onto the ground. “I understand perfectly.”

  I flexed what I’d been told on several occasions by numerous women, including a few professors, was my eight-pack.

  Her eyes widened.

  “Pissing match, party of two,” Lex yelled.

  Gabi came running.

  Oh, good—an audience.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  “You know it’s physically impossible to play one-on-one volleyball against me, right?” I smirked, tossing the ball into the air—once, twice—actually feeling a little sorry for her future loss. Maybe I’d buy her more chocolate, lessen the blow a bit.

  “Sure. Okay.” Blake’s face was impassive. I couldn’t read her at all. Was this what her opponents felt like all the time? My eyes narrowed. Not even a blink in my direction, or hesitation. Did she really think she was going to somehow beat me? For one, I towered over her; two, I was a guy; and three, I had balls, and I knew how to use them—well.

  “Fine.” I stretched my arms above my head, the ball traveling with me in my left hand. That’s right, I was palming it.

  Because I was a guy, and my hands were huge, and I could freaking spike it into her face so hard she’d probably need plastic surgery to get her nose fixed. But sure, yeah, let’s play fair. “You can serve first.”

  “My money’s on Blake,” Gabi piped up from a lawn chair.

  Lex closed the lid to the grill and pulled up a seat. With a snort, he pointed at me. “You do realize he was nominated for the Heisman, right?”

  “Heisman Shmeisman,” Blake teased as she bounced between her bare feet, her boobs joining in with the fun.

  “Focus,” Lex snapped.

  “I am!”

  Or at least I was trying. Really hard. To focus. Damn, they just never got old, did they?

  “Twenty bucks says she knocks him out with the first spike,” Gabi said in an amused tone.

  “You’ve got yourself a bet.” Lex shook her hand.

  They were shaking hands. They were sitting next to each other, and World War III wasn’t breaking out. I opened my mouth to comment just as Lex released her hand and rubbed it on his jeans.

  “What? Afraid of girls now?” Gabi sneered.

  “Just the ones who may be dudes.” Lex nodded, then directed a pointed look at her crotch. “Hmm, I’m thinking fifty-fifty chance.”

  “Don’t put it past me to dump lighter fluid on the barbecue.”

  “And burn down your own house?”

  “Why else would I take out insurance?” Gabi said sweetly, smacking Lex in the arm, then grabbing his bicep and pinching.

  Just kidding. All was right with the world.

  “Are you ready?” Blake called.

  “Yup.” I tossed the ball into the air. “Service.”

  She returned with a simple bump, and I returned with a set. Really, it was kind of silly how slow the game was starting—

  One minute, the ball was in the air floating in Blake’s direction; the next, I was on my ass looking up at the sky and wondering if a tree branch had impaled itself in my neck.

  “What the hell?” I croaked.

  Blake stood over me, hands on hips. “Sorry, do you want me to warn you next time I spike it?”

  “Nope.” I grinned. “No mercy, huh?”

  “Nope,” she said in the same way I had.

  With a coy smile, she offered her hand. I slapped it away and got to my feet under my own power. “Don’t get pissed if I break your face.”

  “Likewise,” she fired back, tossing the ball over the net.

  “Careful, man.” Lex laughed. “She’s got a strong arm.”

  “You think?” I said.

  Gabi kept silent. Smart girl.

  “What is it?” I asked. “One to nothing?”

  Blake blew me a kiss.

  “That’s it.” I tossed the ball into the air and spiked it as hard as I could. She returned it just before it kissed the grass, causing the ball to float over the net. Cake. I jumped up to spike it down, but she blocked my shot, causing the ball to fall back onto my side. Quickly I stumbled backward and just barely caught it with my fist, bumping it up over to her side.

  I let out a sigh of relief when it bounced on the grass.

  “Aw . . .” I winked at Blake. “Next time, sport.”

  Her indifference shattered, Blake’s face went from calm to “I may kill you in your sleep, then feed your intestines to the neighborhood cats.”

  I took a cautious step back.

  “My serve.” Her hips swayed as she moved back toward her side. “Service.”

  The ball came careening over the net like a bullet train. I had to dive to get underneath it, and even then it just barely grazed over the net.

  We volleyed back and forth three times before she finally tipped it over and scored.

  For the next hour, that was exactly how it went. We continued to volley back and forth while Gabi and Lex stuffed their faces. Neither of us wanted to quit, and every time one of us got to game point, the other was right behind. And Gabi said that the winner had to win by two, not one.

  It was nearing ninety minutes.

  I was hot as hell.

  Starved.

  And losing by one.

  “Concede,” Gabi shouted. “She’s got you!”

  “Never!” I jabbed a finger at Blake. “What if I let you win?”

  “I’ll know.”

  “Hmm.”

  “Besides”—she batted those damn eyelashes—“you’re too competitive to lose that way.”

  Damn it. I took my stance and waited. So far, all of her serves had been brutal. Come morning, I would probably look like J. J. Watt had bitch-slapped me in the face—repeatedly.

  The ball came flying over the net toward my left. I tried to move, but my knee caught, and the aching I’d been feeling for the past few weeks turned into full-blown bone-splitting agony. With a cry, I fell to the ground, my face slamming into the dirt and grass as the throbbing intensified.

  It hurt too badly for embarrassment to be a factor. Shit.

  “Oh shit.” Lex called, and then he was at my side. “You okay?”

  Damn, it hurt. Why did it have to hurt so much? Oh, right. Because I was missing some key tendons and ligaments, and a few metal rods were the only thing keeping my bones in place.

  “Ian!” Blake stumbled to my side, her eyes wild with panic. “What happened? Do we need to go to the hospital?”

  “No, no, no.” I winced as I tried to sit up and stretch my leg out. Normally it was the only thing that helped. Well, that and pain pills, but I refused to take anything I could possibly get addicted to. “I’m fine.”

  Blake pulled up my jeans and started running her hands up and down the side of my left knee.

  “But”—I cleared my throat—“that makes it feel so much better.”

  “Yeah, he’s okay.” Gabi rolled her eyes. “Come on Lex, let’s go get an ice pack.”

  “Yeah, Lex.” A smile spread across my face. “Run along.”

  He didn’t argue. Probably because he knew I hated it when anyone hovered over me, or fussed, or just extended their concern or pity. It reminded me too much of that day; hell, it reminded me of that week, that month. Thirty days of hospital visits, surgeries, teammates with sad eyes that basically conveyed the truth I already knew, despite the doctors’ optimism. I was done.

  I would never play again.

  “Here.” Blake pulled
her hand away from my knee and stood, then helped me to my feet. “Think you can limp over to the chair?”

  I bit out a curse as I tried to put weight on the leg. It was still as sore as an abscessed tooth, but not so much that I was going to have to get it checked out. I’d experienced this type of pain before, when I tweaked my knee during box jumps. I knew it would go away, after an ungodly amount of anti-inflammatories and beer.

  Body slick with sweat, I hobbled over to the plastic lawn chair and sagged into it with a sick thud, my legs sticking to my jeans, my jeans sticking to the chair, and sweat still dripping down my back.

  Blake kneeled in front of me and frowned. “You need to take your pants off.”

  “I’m naked underneath.”

  “I’ll close my eyes.”

  “I’m not taking my pants off and making a sweaty ass-mark on the plastic. I’m fine. I swear.”

  She didn’t look convinced as she felt my knee from outside my jeans, her fingers lightly touching the swollen spot on the outer left, the spot where bone tended to still rub on bone. Some days, I could swear I still felt it.

  Working out probably wasn’t the wisest course of action, but my doctor had said I couldn’t hurt myself worse. That was the good news. Hey, kid, I know you’ve known only football your entire life, and I might have to amputate, but the good news is, you aren’t dead!

  Might as well have been.

  “It’s starting to swell.” Blake pressed a little too hard, sending renewed pulses of hot agony up my leg.

  A hiss of pain escaped from between my lips.

  She winced. “Sorry.”

  “Ice pack.” Gabi opened the screen door and tossed a gel-filled blue blob at Blake. She caught it midair and placed it on my knee.

  “I’m going to reheat the food,” Gabi said. “Lex ran to the store to get some ibuprofen, since we’re out.”

  “Thanks, Gabs,” I called back, the cool pack already easing my searing torture.

  “Yup.” The door slammed behind her.

  Blake didn’t move from her position in front of me. Her eyes held worry. “What happened to your knee?”

 
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