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Kelsie Carrington glided across the room straight toward him. His Cactus Prairie High School crush here? In Seattle? What the fuck? Wasn’t halfway across the country far enough to escape those painful memories? He blinked several times, but there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with his vision. His one-date disaster balanced on a pair of heels so high the altitude should require an oxygen mask. Her blonde hair shone as brightly as the gold in a coveted Super Bowl ring. Each graceful step of those long legs carried her closer to him.
He held his breath and prayed she didn’t recognize him. Just like old times, Kelsie looked right through him, as if he didn’t exist. Her patent beauty-queen smile was plastered across her perfectly made-up face. Damn, seeing her transported him back to being an awkward teenage boy who only fit in on the football field. Her fake smile reminded him how stupid he’d been to fall for her particular brand of poison. Her perfect face dredged up a shitload of painful emotions.
Oh, yeah, painful all right. Zach Murphy had fallen in love once and been carried out of the game on a stretcher. He’d stick with football. Football gave him life, while women sucked the life out of him. Football made sense to him. Women didn’t.
Especially this woman.
He glanced to either side to see if any of his teammates noticed the fucking bleeding heart dangling on his sleeve. They were too busy staring at Kelsie—she’d always had that effect on men. Well, except for the king of asshole quarterbacks, Tyler Harris. Zach gave Harris a few grudging points for tossing out his womanizer ways and only having eyes for his sassy girlfriend.
Yet something on Zach’s face must have clued Harris in. Like a hungry hyena catching the scent of wounded prey, Harris’s sharp gaze moved from Zach to Kelsie and back again. The quarterback possessed this uncanny ability to dissect an enemy’s weakness—and despite being teammates, they were enemies. One corner of the fuckhead’s mouth turned up in a knowing smirk. He nodded briefly at Zach and returned to his conversation with his hot little girlfriend, even though Zach knew damn well the jerk kept one eye on him.
Ignoring Harris, Zach scratched his chin and studied Kelsie. What the hell was the cause of his most humiliating moment in a lifetime of humiliating moments doing here a thousand miles from Texas, invading his territory?
He blinked a few times and looked again. Really looked beyond the beauty-queen face and body. Something was very wrong with this picture. A loaded tray of drinks teetered precariously on the palm of Kelsie’s raised hand as she moved in and out of the crowd. Rich girl Kel had never worked a real job in her life. Yet, he doubted she was serving drinks just for the unique opportunity to slum with the common folk.
Damn, maybe his life wasn’t the only thing that’d changed.
Kelsie scanned the room then did a double take. Their eyes met and crashed with the intensity of a wrong-way collision on I-5. The fake smile faltered. The gliding stopped. She looked around the room as if planning an escape route. Then she straightened her shoulders and turned on the charm, gracing him with her Halogen smile—perfect white teeth and hot red lips. Really hot. As if she were happy to see him.
Kelsie faltered. Her stride went from graceful to jerky. The smile slipped off her face, replaced by what appeared to be panic. She pivoted on her impossibly high heels and fired up the after-burners.
Oh, no, she wasn’t getting away this easily. Zach jumped to his feet and gave chase, single-mindedly focused on confronting her, something he’d been dying to do since his senior year of high school. Yeah, stupid idea, but he’d never been one for thinking before reacting, a trait which worked well in football, not so well in real life.
She glanced over her shoulder, her blue eyes filled with what looked like fear, as if she expected him to do physical damage to her or some stupid-assed thing like that.
Zach cornered her near the head table. Kelsie changed directions and charged past him. He spun around to follow, refusing to let her off that easily. He clipped her full tray drinks with his elbow. She lurched with the tray, but it was too late. Helpless, Zach watched the disaster happen in slow motion.
The tray teetered back and forth, as Kelsie desperately fought to gain control. The tray won. Glasses of wine sprayed red, white, and pink across the tablecloth, looking like a tie-dye session gone mad. Goblets shattered. Women screamed as wine drenched expensive evening gowns. The team owner leapt to his feet, his sputtering laced with profanity as red wine coated his custom-tux and white shirt. His spoiled daughter, Veronica, didn’t hold anything back either, loudly insulting the size of Zach’s brain and his dick. Closest to the debacle, the governor’s wife leapt to her feet, her low-cut sequined evening gown hung on her like a limp rag. Red wine and mimosas dribbled down her neck and chest and disappeared in her cleavage. Zach grabbed a napkin and desperately blotted at the wine. In his panic, he swiped the napkin across the plump mounds of her breasts. She screamed as if he’d purposely groped her. HughJack, the team’s head coach, grabbed him and pulled him away.
“I’m sorry. Oh, fucking hell. I’m so sorry.” Zach wanted to crawl under the nearest boulder.
“What did you think you were doing?” Coach spoke in that deadly calm, quiet voice that struck fear in the meanest of linemen. Zach preferred HughJack’s ranting and notorious clipboard throwing to that voice.
“I—I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
Veronica, still sputtering and looking for blood, turned on Kelsie. “You! How could you be so stupid?”
“I—I—” Kelsie shoved her fist in her mouth, obviously horrified at the carnage she’d helped cause. She lifted her gaze to Zach’s. Anger blazed in her stormy blue eyes.
Wait one fucking minute. She blamed him? He hadn’t done one damn thing other than be where he was supposed to be—a charity benefit for a charity whose name he couldn't even remember. She was the one who didn’t belong here.
Jerking her gaze away from his, Kelsie dropped to the floor and started wiping up the mess with any napkin she could confiscate from the nearby tables. Several other staff joined in the fray, wiping tables, cleaning up the mess, and comforting wet, angry guests.
Zach debated on whether or not to fade into the background or make her night that much worse. Once again, she’d made him look like a backwards hick, her special talent.
A fat, sweating chef with chocolate stains on his white apron waddled out of the kitchen and spoke in a harsh whisper to Kelsie. “You idiot. Did you do this?”
Kelsie didn’t look up, just worked frantically to clean up the mess. The chef bent down and pointed a pudgy finger in her direction. “You’re fired. Get the hell out of here. I’ll be contacting you for reimbursement for the damages.” He kept his voice low, but Zach heard him.
Zach stepped forward, a knight not exactly comfortable in his dinner-jacket armor. “Apologize to the lady. It was an accident, and your behavior is abusive.”
The chef gritted his teeth and spoke loud enough for only Zach to hear. “Who the hell are you? Some dumb jock? You probably beat up your girlfriend on a regular basis. And you accuse me of abuse?”
Zach exploded and charged. Just before he made contact, two defensive linemen, big suckers, yanked him backward and pinned his arms behind his back. Zach lunged at the fat chef again, dragging the linemen with him. More teammates jumped into the fray and held him back. Several others restrained the chef, who hurled accusations at Zach and Kelsie.
“Stop it, you dumb shit.” Harris smacked Zach on the arm none too gently. Zach grunted and squinted into the harsh light glaring in his eyes. Someone had a camera trained on him.
Harris stepped in front of Zach, blocked the cameraman, and faced the furious cook. “Let’s calm down and be civilized. It was an accident.” He spoke in an aside to his teammates. “Let them go.” The men did as Harris ordered. The cook made a move toward Zach but Harris countered it, placing his body between the two dueling men. He put his hand on Zach’s chest and pushed. Zach staggered back a step, reining in his temper.
He’d done it again. Screwed up in a social situation and dragged the whole team down with him. His new team. The ones who were counting on him to be a leader on and off the field. He’d led them, all right, almost into a brawl.
Zach released his breath in a whoosh, deflating not just his lungs but his ego. He’d made an ass of himself, embarrassed the team, and even worse, exposed a weakness to Tyler Harris in the name of one high-school-crush-on-the-mean-girl Kelsie Carrington.
Zach glanced off to the side where Kelsie stood. She’d shoved her knuckles in her mouth again, a sure sign of her discomfort he remembered from their high school days—not that he'd forgot a thing about her from back them. Cheerleader. Beauty queen. Rich and spoiled. The meanest of the mean girls. Tell that to a teenage Zach. He’d dragged his sorry ass after her without an ounce of pride, begging for any crumb she’d toss his way. She tossed just enough to keep him on her trail.
Zach scrubbed his hands over his face. Dropping his arms to his sides, he turned to Kelsie.
Her confidence of a few seconds ago shattered like the goblets on the floor. She hunched over and hugged herself in a gesture of self-protection. She flicked a glance in his direction. Their eyes met for a split second, just enough time to send his stomach into vigorous calisthenics and reduce his already damaged knees to mush.
Without another word, she fled the room, but not before his foolish heart lunged for her and missed, once again.