Authors: Alice Gaines
Tags: #Alice Gaines, #Lovestruck, #Entangled, #Romance, #romantic comedy, #comedy, #funny, #lighthearted, #brother's best friend, #best friend's sister, #football, #Sports, #sports romance, #contemporary romance, #category
Keeping his hands
is a test he’s bound to fail…
Her brother’s best friend is not only the hottest man Michelle Dennis has ever seen, he’s the reason she left town eight years ago. Of
he’s the one waiting at the airport. Worse, he made sure they’re staying in the same house.
Alex Stafford is expecting to pick up his friend’s kid sister, not a full-fledged bombshell. He was planning to apologize for their past, but the feelings he had years ago come roaring back…and this time, there’s no denying them.
Keeping his hands
is a test he’s bound to fail—especially when they’re stuck in close quarters. But falling in love with Michelle, living in her world, isn’t an option for a guy like him. And remembering that will save them both a lot of heartache…
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Alice Gaines. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Visit our website at
Lovestruck is an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
Edited by Alycia Tornetta
Cover design by Heather Howland
Cover art from Shutterstock
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition September 2016
For my wonderful editor, Alycia Tornetta. You made my work better.
Michelle Dennis was a woman with a plan. She’d thought it out, even committing the most important parts to paper so she wouldn’t forget anything, and she ran it through her mind as she stepped off the plane at SFO and walked up the ramp. If things went well, she’d get into Sonoma County, fulfill her social obligations, and get out with her dignity intact. Success depended on staying as far away as she could from one particular individual.
She had another reason for her nerves to be tied into knots besides having to face Alex Stafford again. Butterflies had taken up permanent residence in her stomach weeks ago when she’d first received the call that Cardmouth University wanted to interview her for the faculty position. She’d toured the campus and barely choked down a sandwich before giving the presentation on her research. The possibility that she might win her dream job had stayed with her ever since. No pressure there, right?
As she walked toward the baggage claim, she glanced at her phone again, worried that she’d missed a call somehow. Or what if Cardmouth University had tried to contact her at her lab in Boston, instead?
Still following the flow of human foot traffic toward the escalator, she tapped the number for her lab and brought the phone to her ear.
“Neuroplasticity lab,” Jeff answered.
“Hi, it’s Michelle.”
“Too early to tell, I just landed.” And California was likely to be awkward as all hell the moment she and Alex got a look at each other. Nothing to be done about that but remain casual, like she’d planned. “Did anyone call me?”
“Like…oh, I don’t know…a certain university?” Jeff said.
“Please keep that to yourself,” she said as she got on the escalator, tugging her carry-on behind her. “I don’t want the powers-that-be at Hawthorn to get wind I’m looking for another job.”
“My lips are sealed. I’ll let you know immediately if they call,” he said. “Have a good time in California.”
“Thanks. Bye.” By the time she got to the bottom of the escalator, she’d almost managed to stuff her phone into her purse. She fumbled with that while stepping onto the floor and pulling her bag behind her—and walking straight into a wall of solid muscle.
She glanced up, craning her neck, and found herself staring into eyes so blue they could only belong to one person—her brother’s best friend, her idol, and her adolescent crush, all rolled into one—and her heart did the wing-flapping thing it had done back then, as if making its first attempts at flying. “Alex.”
“Mickey!” For a moment, his face lit up with the killer smile that had made him Mr. Popularity in high school and that now seduced every beautiful woman he met. He pulled her aside. “Someone’s going to come crashing into your back if you don’t move.”
Of course. Not more than a few seconds in his presence, and she’d already done something dumb. Now that they were out of the flow of humanity headed toward the baggage carousel, he took a step away from her, and his grin faltered. He was remembering that awful afternoon, of course. Eight years ago, the last time they’d seen each other. She sighed inwardly.
Let the awkwardness begin
“God, it’s great to see you,” he said after a few seconds.
For a moment, she just stood, drinking in the sight of him. She had her memories of him as a kid and then young man. For the last few years, she’d followed him in his National Football League career. On television, he looked edible. In person, he took her breath away.
After long seconds, she found her voice. “How did you find out what flight I was on?”
“You told Mom, remember?”
Of course she had. Emma had asked, and although Michelle had told her she’d rent a car, she should have known Alex’s mom would insist on sending someone for her. Only, why couldn’t she have sent someone else? Anyone else.
“If someone had to get me, my brother could have done it.”
“Kyle had an event at the winery,” Alex said. “He’ll be at the house when we get there.”
“So Emma deputized you to pick me up?” Michelle asked.
“I guess this is your lucky day.”
Okay, what had she rehearsed? Friendly but casual. Unaffected by seeing him again. That ghastly argument had never happened or didn’t matter. She’d put it behind her. She plastered a smile on her features. “You didn’t have to meet me. I rented a car.”
“Like hell. Mom and Dad would have had my hide if I didn’t pick you up.”
So of all people,
had to come get her, looking even better than he had the last time she’d laid eyes on him.
Ever since he’d made letters in baseball and football in high school, he’d been muscular from the weightlifting. No longer lanky, he’d filled out through college and now pro-football—namely, All-Pro linebacker for the New York Giants. Muscles bulged under his sweater, and his jeans fit him like a second skin. All male, all hunk, but he still had the same boy-next-door good looks, including the scar at his temple from a skateboard accident. The same sandy hair and crystal blue eyes—eyes that now filled with warmth, welcome, and more than a little uncertainty. For
“It’s good to see you, too,” she said. Yeah, see him and undress him with her eyes.
He tucked his fingers into the back pockets of his jeans while he gave her a onceover. “You look great.”
“Thanks.” Her skin heated. Damn, he’d see her blush.
“I mean, really. Your hair and makeup. Your…” He looked her up and down again, from her hair to her shoes, and then cleared his throat.
“It’s called growing up, Alex.”
“I guess I still think of you as Kyle’s kid sister, Mickey,” he said.
Great. Just flipping great. The story of her life. “Look, thanks for coming to pick me up, but I think I’ll keep the rental car.”
“Why?” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Because…” She stood her ground and stared at him. She hadn’t planned on having this battle right here in the terminal. In fact, she hadn’t planned on it anywhere until she’d already established herself at the B&B. But if SFO was going to be the theater of war, it could start right now. “I’ll need the car to get around.”
“Around where? The party’s at the house.”
“And I’m staying at the B&B in town. If I don’t have a car, someone will have to pick me up and drive me back every day.”
The expression on his face said he’d never heard anything so stupid. “Didn’t Mom tell you? You and Kyle are staying with us.”
“I don’t want to impose.” She’d rehearsed that line often enough that it came out naturally.
“Impose? This is my family we’re talking about. Your family, too. We had sleepovers our whole lives.”
“When we were twelve, Alex. We’re not twelve anymore,” she said.
“Yeah, I noticed,” he mumbled, or something that sounded like that.
“I beg your pardon.”
“What I meant is we’re not going to have pillow fights and stay up in our PJs watching scary movies,” he said. “You’ll have your own room.”
“I need my privacy.” Major understatement there. She’d had to accept the invitation to his parents’ thirty-fifth anniversary and his father’s sixty-fifth birthday party. His mother and father had meant too much to her when she was growing up. Of course, that meant a reunion with Alex, which she couldn’t avoid. She could, however, spend as little time in his presence as possible. “I’m staying at the B&B. I have a reservation.”
“Actually, no you don’t.”
This time it was her turn to stare at him. “What did you say?”
“You don’t have a reservation. I cancelled it.”
Her jaw dropped. “You
“Cancelled it.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I figured you might try something like that, so I called the B&B to check. Sure enough, they had your reservation, so I explained you didn’t need it after all.”
Good Lord in heaven. She walked right up to him and got into his face. “You didn’t. You wouldn’t.”
He stared down at her, wearing the same stubborn expression he got when he was doing something for “your own good.” “I did, and I’d do it again.”
“Damn it, Alex.” Great, no more than five minutes in his presence, and she was already shouting.
“Can we have this argument in the car?”
“No, we can have it right here.” Once inside a car with him, he could crowd her with his warmth and body…his overwhelming physical presence. She turned into the marshmallow filling of a s’more around him—hot and gooey—and she had no reason to think that had changed in the eight years she’d stayed away.
“Please. I’m kind of a public figure now.” He glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, some onlookers had taken notice. People would stare at any argument in public, but in this case,
of people around them were watching, and one man had aimed his cell phone at them to record the interaction. Damn it all to hell.
“All right,” she said between gritted teeth.
“Thanks.” With one hand, he grabbed the handle of her carry-on. The other cupped her elbow as he led her toward the baggage claim. So like him…taking charge. And her body did what it always did, fitting her movements to his. Even with his long legs, she matched his stride.
For travel, she’d worn comfortable shoes. The insanely high heels she’d packed wouldn’t allow her to walk so quickly, but they’d give her other kinds of moves. She hadn’t managed to beat down the devil inside her that had insisted she buy them and bring them along to see how Alex, the NFL’s hottest playboy, would react. The same devil had tucked the skinny, sequined dress into her bag, too. She could still chicken out and not wear them.
When they got to baggage claim, he stopped in front of the carousel where her luggage would appear and stuck out his hand. “The papers for your rental, please.”
“You’re going to cancel that, too?”
“You won’t need it to get to the house,” he said. “You’ll be staying there.”
“What if I want it to do something like shopping or wine tasting?”
“One, there’ll be lots of cars at the house. Two, you won’t have time for much of anything but the party.” He counted off his points on the fingers of one hand. “And three, Kyle’s already brought all the wine anyone would need.”
Ah, yes. Her brother, the vintner. The guy too busy to pick her up, leaving her to ride all the way to Sonoma next to the man who’d humiliated her and then rejected her.
“Come on, Mickey, cooperate for Mom and Dad’s sake,” he said as he stuck out his hand again. “Do you want them to think there’s still something wrong between us?”
Oh, great. She was not discussing
with him. Not now. Not ever. So, in the interest of getting out of the airport without airing their personal business in public, she fished into her oversized bag and produced the papers. He snatched them as if she’d yank them back and pulled out his phone. After glancing at the form for the rental agency, he dialed and then scowled.
“The number’s on there,” she said.
“I can see that.”
“Bad reception?” she asked.
He glanced up. “What? Oh, yeah, reception. I’ll try from over by the windows.”
She let her gaze linger on him as he left. He wouldn’t see, and she could indulge herself for a few seconds. He still had the tightest ass in all of male humanity. She ought to know. She’d spent many Sunday afternoons during football season searching for him on television. The uniform accentuated his wide shoulders and tight abs, but he looked pretty damned fabulous in jeans and a sweater, too. How many times had she fantasized about using his body as a playground? She couldn’t stifle a sigh that was part groan.
Before she could get totally lost in heated fantasy about her brother’s best friend, the carousel started up with a crash of metal. Luggage slid up the conveyor belt and dropped down to where people could retrieve it. She half-heartedly watched for her own baggage while keeping an eye on Alex.
When he finished his call, he strode back across the baggage claim area with the grace of the natural athlete he was. She wasn’t the only one watching him, either. A woman standing at the next carousel followed him as her eyes widened in appreciation. No wonder. His faded jeans clung to his narrow hips and emphasized the length of his legs, and he’d pulled the sleeves of his sweater up to expose strong forearms dusted with sun-lightened hairs. The way he moved conjured up images of how he’d perform in an under-the-covers dance. He was, quite simply, temptation personified.
He glanced in the woman’s direction and gave her a smile before returning his attention to Michelle. He’d had a way with women since the day he’d discovered girls in high school. He’d dated the popular ones—cheerleaders and such—not the nerdy ones, like Michelle had been. But his talents with the opposite sex hadn’t kept him from having a strict moral code as far as his best friend’s kid sister was concerned. She could testify to that, much to her horror at the time and her continuing embarrassment.
A man standing with his family pointed toward Alex, and a small murmur went up. Most people recognized quarterbacks, with linebackers far less famous. Alex was All-Pro, though, and a local personality. He’d been spotted.
The man approached Alex and said a few words. Soon, his family joined them—his wife and a son and daughter. The girl was maybe ten or eleven, and she held a small football in her hand. Alex crouched to her eye level and spoke to her, finally pulling a felt-tip pen from his back pocket and signing her ball. The father produced something like a postcard, and Alex autographed that, too, and handed it to the boy. Then, he ruffled both kids’ hair and straightened.
So like him not to ignore the girl. Another pro football player might have. But Alex had always encouraged Michelle when they were small. Always picked her up when dear old Dad had said something that hurt her. At the time, she’d thought she’d always have Alex to turn to. Then she’d made that supremely stupid mistake and changed things between them forever.
But enough of that. Realistically, she could never have continued their innocent friendship after she’d matured enough to realize why men and women were built the way they were. No healthy female could look at a body like his and think of comfort. And his lips were made for sinning, not pleasant conversation. But then, she would have joined the legions of women who wanted him, and he would have gone on ignoring her in favor of the beautiful ones. She might have a PhD and a research job with the promise of an even better one on the horizon, but even the sequined dress and the platform shoes would only get a blip of interest from him. Nevertheless, she’d take that. One way or another, she’d prove to him that she’d grown up and she didn’t need him or his approval any longer.