The Matchmaker's Playbook by Rachel Van Dyken


  “Easy.” I leaned my sticky back against the chair and glanced up into her pretty wide eyes. “Some cocky topless chick tried to kill me.”

  “I’m not topless.” She crossed her arms.

  A groan escaped through my lips as my gaze zeroed in on her chest. “I stand corrected.” I reached out and grazed my hand against her bare stomach. “Semitopless.”

  “I didn’t mean, what happened just right now, where I literally handed you your own ass.” She sat on the deck in front of me and hugged her knees. “I stopped following football after”—she shrugged—“after my brother. It was too hard.”

  “I get that.” I exhaled loudly. “Believe me, I do.”

  “So?”

  “Can you keep a secret?” I leaned forward just as she leaned forward, her eyes narrowing into tiny slits. Hah, she was already calling my bullshit. I loved it.

  “Yes.”

  “I saved the life of two old ladies as they crossed the road. Didn’t even see the cars coming. Did I mention they had cats with them? And I managed to save all four lives. Possibly five, if you count the chicken that was crossing the road at the exact same time. The car ran me over. And well . . . they gave me the keys to the city . . .”

  “Wow, just a regular crime fighter, aren’t you?”

  I nodded slowly, then crooked my finger. “So here’s the secret part.”

  “I’m ready.”

  “I’m Superman.”

  Her eyebrows shot up as a patronizing smile appeared across her soft features, momentarily stealing my breath away. “Is that so?”

  “Cross my heart.” I winked. “Why else would my best friend, also known as my nemesis, be named Lex? I’ll understand if you want proof. My cape’s back in my room. Wanna see?”

  “Superman had his cape on at all times.”

  “Right. The one I’m currently sporting’s invisible, like my superhuman sight. The only way to unlock your human eyes to my godlike strength is to have sex with me.”

  “Hah. And you were doing so well.”

  “Hey!” I held up my hands. “I don’t make the rules, sweet cheeks. I’m just a regular run-of-the-mill hero.”

  “He really is,” Gabi said. How long had she been standing there? “That poor little boy would have died. Can you imagine what that would have done to that father? After losing his wife? It was amazing, Ian. Don’t sell yourself short. You saved his life, at the risk of losing yours. I still can’t get over the phone call from Lex when he said to get to the hospital. They said you were hemorrhaging, and—”

  “That’s enough, Gabs,” I said softly, though something that felt a hell of a lot like anger was burning me from the inside out, making me want to escape. But with a bum leg, all I could do is sit there and listen to her paint me out to be the hero I knew I’d never be.

  Yeah. I’d saved that kid’s life.

  Yeah. They called me a hero.

  But what kind of selfish prick’s first thought after he sees his teammates go to the Super Bowl is “I should have let the car hit him”?

  “The drug dealer has returned.” Lex burst into the yard and tossed a pill bottle into my hands.

  “Don’t you mean Lex Luthor?” Blake laughed, easing some of the tension. Her hand reached for mine and locked on.

  She didn’t let go.

  She should have let go.

  Because something, in that moment, snapped into focus. Even Gabi wasn’t aware of the demons that still haunted me, but something told me Blake was more than aware of what it would be like to lose the very thing that had been holding you together your entire life.

  Losing football was more than losing my identity.

  Some days, it felt like I’d lost my soul.

  “Gabs . . .” Blake cleared her throat. “Is the food ready?”

  “Oh!” Gabi shot to her feet. “Sorry, guys, yeah—the plates are inside. You want to eat out here or at the table?”

  “Outside,” Blake and I said in unison.

  Gabi was silent, like she was examining both of us and about ready to come up with some stupid conclusion about the reason we were both acting funny. Thank God for Lex.

  “Woma-an,” Lex growled. “Stop being”—he shoved her toward the door—“you. Just for, like, two seconds. Food. It’s only food. They want to eat outside, we let them eat outside. Also, you promised pie. I don’t smell any pie.”

  “Correction. I said I’d buy you pie, not bake one for you. If you want to marry your mother, just do it, Lex.”

  “It better be apple,” he grumbled before the screen door slammed behind him. He returned quickly with both of our plates and whispered under his breath, “I’ll take care of the terrorist, but you owe me.”

  “Thanks, man.” I laughed as he disappeared back into the house and screamed, “Stella!”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  We finished our food in silence. The painkillers were starting to kick in, making it easier to enjoy my meal without grimacing every time I shifted my leg. Layered clouds in pinks and reds streamed across the sky.

  “It’s getting late.” Blake took my plate into the house and returned with a giant piece of pie.

  “I think”—I took the plate from her and basically shoved half the pie in my mouth before finishing my thought—“I may get hurt again if this is the response I get.”

  “Hah.” Her eyes homed in on my mouth. “You have some . . . apple . . .”

  “Saving it.”

  “Then it’s in the perfect spot, Superman.”

  “God, I’d kill for a woman to call me that in bed.”

  “How about you lie on your bed . . .”

  A smile so wide it hurt spread across my face.

  “With your clothes on . . .”

  The dream popped, and my smile left. I pointed a finger at her. “You’re no fun.”

  She smirked. “And when I call you Superman, you pretend that it’s because of your amazing sexual skills and not the fact that you really are a hero.”

  “Not a hero.” The pie suddenly went dry in my throat, and I had to work to get it down. “I think that’s the worst part. People called me a hero, still do sometimes. It makes me feel . . . guilty. And pretty unworthy. Here I am, bitter about not being able to play football, and the kid could have died.”

  “In a way,” Blake said, her voice just above a whisper, “you sort of did.”

  I jerked my head in her direction. “What did you say?”

  She took my plate and sighed, her shoulders hunching a bit, like she did when she felt nervous or embarrassed. “You lost part of what made you you. That would be like me working my entire life to go to the Olympics for volleyball, only to get hurt the day before the plane was supposed to take off.”

  “Yeah.” I swallowed the giant ball of sadness lodged in my throat. “I’ve worked past it, you know? I don’t want you to think I’m one of those broken guys still stuck in the glory days of ‘if only I’d been able to stay in the NFL.’” I shrugged. “I dealt with that particular feeling for one day. When the Hawks went to the Super Bowl for the second time. And then, I was just . . . over it. All of it. I wished I hadn’t saved the little boy, I wished I was a more selfish person, or slower.” I laughed and shook my head.

  “What made you get over it?”

  I looked up. “He stopped by the hospital that very next day.”

  Blake leaned in. Damn, I wanted to swim in the depths of those eyes. She was just so . . . open. “And?”

  “I called him by his last name—Montgomery, or Little Monty. He was really little. Apparently still afraid of the dark . . . He, um, brought me his stuffed bear, very smartly named Bear.”

  Blake laughed, her eyes filling with tears.

  “His mom had passed away from cancer earlier that year. It was the first father-son outing he and his dad had gone on since her death. She gave him the bear exactly twelve hours before she breathed her last breath. He was a guard bear, Monty said, and he was supposed to keep him from being af
raid.” I gulped. “He said it was a bravery bear.”

  A tear spilled over onto Blake’s cheek.

  “He gave it to me, said he didn’t need it anymore because he had me. But that I might need it since I still had another surgery.” I sighed, trying to keep the emotion from my voice. “That damn bear lives the high life in my room, let me tell ya.”

  Blake laughed softly. “And Monty?”

  “Monty’s going to be one badass football player one day.” I chuckled. “His dad sends me his practice and game schedule. I’ve been to a few of his practices, which basically means his friends think he’s way cooler than he really is. Or so he says.”

  “So”—Blake leaned forward—“moral of the story . . . you really are Superman.”

  “Hah!” I laughed. “To one person, yes.”

  “Two,” she corrected. “And sometimes, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah,” I croaked out. “I think so.”

  She moved closer, and I captured her lips with mine as her arm wrapped around my neck. I massaged my tongue against hers, savoring her sweet taste.

  The light above us flicked on.

  We broke apart like two kids on curfew.

  “Guys?” Gabi poked her head out the screen door. “You up for a movie?”

  “Sure thing.” I didn’t take my eyes off Blake.

  “You think you can make it?” Her lips were still wet from my kiss. I had to look away before I did something stupid. Again.

  “Sure.” I stood on my good leg. “I’ll just lean heavily on my badass opponent. I claim rematch by the way.”

  “Wouldn’t expect anything less.” She pressed her body up against mine as we awkwardly made our way into the house.

  Lex yelled at Gabi that she picked the movie last time.

  They stopped arguing when we made it into the living room.

  “You guys.” Gabi scrunched up her nose. “No. Just not happening. Shower, or no couch time.”

  “Gabs,” I whined. “I smell awesome. I always smell awesome. Tell ’em, Blake.”

  Blake glanced up at me with guilty eyes. “You smell like . . . grass.”

  “Well, you smell like . . . dirt.”

  Lex burst out laughing. “Good one, man. You gonna make mud pies later or—?”

  I flipped him off. “Fine, we’ll go shower.”

  “Not together!” Gabi frowned.

  “Don’t worry.” Blake laughed. “I’m more of an archvillain type of girl. Who wants the hero when he won’t even get her dirty?”

  I stumbled against her and nearly face-planted the wall with my mouth while Lex howled with laughter.

  “You got my number, baby,” Lex called, then started yelping. “Ow, stop scratching me like a damn cat!”

  I suppressed a smile. Gabi had most likely attacked him with her nails. She was good with those things.

  Blake went up ahead of me. I followed, hopping up one stair at a time and using the railing for help.

  I purposely bumped into her once we reached the top of the stairway, and whispered in her ear, “Heroes get dirty too, sweet cheeks. It feels so good it must be bad.”

  An erratic pulse beat in her neck as she leaned back against me. Like a heat-seeking missile, my mouth found it and settled there. The ragged throb against my lips gave my body vivid ideas. My mouth was just getting used to the idea of marking her when the doorbell rang.

  “Ignore it,” I hissed, my teeth nipping at her neck while my mouth sucked hard. She let out a little moan, her hands blindly reaching behind her. Not that she had to reach or feel far. I was right there with her, hard, waiting, straining against my jeans just to feel her.

  “Hey, is Blake here?”

  It was David.

  Blake froze, her hands slowly returning to her sides.

  As I slowly deflated.

  And the moment was gone.

  “Hey, Blake?” Gabi called up the steps. “David’s here to see you!”

  I stepped out of Blake’s way, and with a voice I didn’t even recognize, I said, “Well? What are you waiting for?”

  Indecision crossed her features, followed by hurt, as she stepped away from me and ran down the stairs.

  “What the hell am I doing?” I muttered under my breath, aching for her touch. And not just for the release.

  For her.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

  The bastard stayed for the movie. Best part? Because of my leg, I couldn’t really maneuver myself in between them, and because my job was technically to bow out and let him have the girl once he passed the last few stages, I was stuck anyway.

  At least his excuse was better this time.

  He was asking her out.

  Technically, it was a dinner date with him and his dad. Apparently, they all went way back. If I had to hear one more story about how Blake and David built their own damn tree house, I was going to shit a brick and knock him out with it.

  So far, I hadn’t noticed any sly movements from him. He didn’t glare at me, didn’t flip me off again. If anything, he was trying to be too nice. Something wasn’t quite right, but it took me a while to put my finger on it.

  Befriending the enemy.

  I knew it well.

  Because in the end, it would prove to the girl that the guy wasn’t really jealous anymore, he just wanted her happiness above all else, blah, blah, mother-effing blah.

  And the real catch? No matter the girl, she always—and I do mean always—believed the guy she was after, because he seemed to be the one who practiced more self-control, whereas my job had always been to push that control so that the girl got noticed. True colors are very rarely shown during the courting phase—I knew that better than anyone. He was putting his best foot forward, capitalizing on whatever weaknesses he saw in me.

  I had never cared until now.

  Now it just seemed unfair that by being good at my job, I was losing someone I really liked.

  “I’m going to make some popcorn.” I stood.

  “But your leg,” Blake said.

  At least she was still concerned. Though she didn’t stand to join me, so I wasn’t sure how far that concern stretched. She was freshly showered, her mop of wet brown hair was tied into a knot on her head, and she was sporting a loose-fitting tank top that revealed way too much cleavage. Something good ol’ David noticed right away.

  “I can limp.” Jealousy surged through me as I noticed David’s hand on her thigh. I needed to get out of there. Fast. “It’s only a few feet.”

  Amongst everyone’s protests, I made it into the kitchen, bracing myself against the countertop.

  After a few seconds of inhaling and exhaling like I was a newborn babe and just learning how my lungs worked, I reached for the snack cupboard and pulled out a bag of microwave popcorn, just as footsteps sounded in the kitchen doorway.

  “Blake, I’m fine. Go watch the movie.”

  “Not Blake.” David’s deep voice jolted me out of my pity party.

  With a very forced, sly smile, I pressed “Start” on the microwave and turned around. “Something I can help you with?”

  “I get it.” He nodded. “She’s yours for now. But we have history. Something you can’t compete with. Not now, not ever.”

  “Aw, shucks, how will I ever compete with the tree house?” I tapped my fingers against my chin. “I bet the fact that I have a bigger dick helps.”

  David took a menacing step toward me, his fists clenched. “If you touch her, I swear I’ll—”

  “Make a fist?” I pointed down at his hands. “Dude, I get it. You can’t have her, so now you want her. But she’s not yours. She won’t ever be yours. Not unless you kill me, which you’re welcome to try now that it’s a fair fight and I only have one leg.”

  “You smug bastard.” He sneered, all politeness gone from his countenance, like he’d peeled back a mask and revealed that he wasn’t exactly what he seemed. “What the hell does she see in you?”

  “Oh, I’m sorry. I thou
ght we already went over this. Should I just take off my pants and show you? Heard you may be into dudes, but I wasn’t sure it was true until now.” I was trying to goad him, push his buttons, and see if, maybe, just maybe, good ol’ David wasn’t as good as we suspected.

  David’s chest brushed mine like he was ready to body-slam me back against the kitchen counter, then pummel my face in. He could try. He would fail, but he could try. A good fight was just what I needed.

  I’d never pushed any of my clients’ love interests this far, never made it about me, or took it this seriously.

  Because, up until that point, I didn’t realize I’d been fighting him. But I was. I was fighting him.

  No. I shook my head. “You don’t deserve her. You never will.”

  “And you think you do? A washed-up has-been who can’t keep it in his pants?”

  “No,” I answered quickly. “I won’t ever deserve her either, but at least I know it. At least I wake up with absolute certainty that I’m the lucky one.”

  “Hey . . .” Blake strolled into the kitchen, her sweats riding low on her hips, revealing a tease of tan skin. “Wasn’t aware making popcorn took this much brainpower.”

  “Yeah, well, all those drugs in my teen years fried mine, so David offered his help, but he was struggling to read the word ‘Start’ on the microwave. Thank God you’re here now.” I smiled smugly at the dude while he forced a similar smile on his face, then backed way off.

  “I gotta run, Blake.” He reached for her and kissed her head. “Next Thursday night, seven—don’t forget. Dad’s really excited to see you.”

  “Great.” She beamed as he left the kitchen.

  Her expression went from elated to detached. “I think I’m going to head to bed.”

  “Blake—”

  “What?” She was turned away from me. “What do you want, Ian?”

  You. That’s what I should have said. Instead, I opened my mouth and nothing came out.

  “That’s what I thought.” She snorted. “Just know, I may not be here by the time you figure it out.”

  The microwave dinged.

  “Yeah.” I leaned back against the counter. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

 
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