Authors: Mira Lyn Kelly
Brynn Ahearne froze in place, recognition slamming through her like 250 pounds of shooting guard blowing past the net. It couldn’t be him. It was
him. Only this time there was no mistaking that not-quite-neat mop of straight dark brown hair falling across eyes only a few shades lighter; the traditionally handsome combination of features just rugged enough to keep them out of “pretty” territory; the unbroken nose and squared-off jaw; the broad shoulders on a lean build; and finally, the
—because this guy was definitely coming in a handful of inches taller than everyone else in the bar.
Her breath leaked out in an unsteady stream as decade-old memories fired through her consciousness. The east quad and that jolt of something almost electric when their eyes met the first time. The shy attraction she hadn’t had enough experience to know how to handle and the wild flutter in her belly when he smiled down at her. The first kiss and the hundreds that followed. The late-night laughter and the words other boys had said, but that never meant anything until she heard them from Ford. Those three short, achingly sweet months when she’d actually believed she could have all the things her dreams were made of.
Before her dad—well, before she’d lost it all.
Before she’d given Ford, who still slipped into her dreams some nights, every reason to hate her.
Only now, standing across from him for the first time in ten years, instead of hate or even a totally justified grudge coming off him the way she’d expect, all she was getting was that butterfly feeling deep in her belly as he gave her a smile so genuine and unrestrained, there was nothing to do but return it. Watch as he cut through the crowd, shaking his head with a laugh as he stopped in front of her.
“How are you, Ford?” she asked, her own smile pushing wider still because it was just so good to see his face.
“Jesus, Brynn, I can’t believe it’s you,” he said, wrapping her in a hug tight enough it stole her breath and made her dizzy. Or maybe that disruption to her equilibrium was more about the sound of his deep baritone shocking her system or the feel of his arms around her. The smell of the front of his shirt.
All of it so familiar, so good and so unexpected, she indulged in one delusional minute of believing Fate might finally be on her side, before realizing,
Fate was just seriously screwing with her again.
Not a week or a month or even a year ago? Anytime before her brother’s call and the news her dad was getting out?
Didn’t matter. All that did was the man who was giving her shoulder a last pat and squeeze, easing a bit of that old guilt she’d never totally let go of.
Ford released her and they both took a step back, then another when a waitress carrying a tray laden with drinks cut between them. Brynn bumped a couple of guys crowding around the table she’d just vacated, quickly apologized, and then shook her head to regain her bearings in the packed bar that had all but fallen away when Ford flashed that first megawatt smile at her.
A couple of women were weaving between them now, but Ford put those long limbs to good use, reaching around them and drawing Brynn back into his space.
“First time I see you in ten years, no way I’m letting you get away that easy,” he teased. Then, rubbing the back of his neck, he looked down at her, his brows knitting. “Except you’re wearing your jacket and your friends just walked out the door. So maybe I am?”
Jet and his new girlfriend, Shelly, who’d been every bit as cool as her buddy had sworn she would be. She pulled her phone from her coat pocket and fired off a short text telling Jet she’d see him at work the next day. Then, shrugging out of her jacket, she folded it over one arm.
“Did I look like I was leaving?” she asked, an almost euphoric delight bubbling up in her chest just to be standing with him. “No way. Not until I hear how you’re doing. What you’ve been up to. All that.”
A cool nod and easy grin.
Was it possible he’d grown another inch, or was it just the way his shoulders had filled out, giving the illusion that he took up more of the room? Maybe it was the confidence? Something in his posture, like he’d finally gotten used to moving that big body around without feeling conspicuous about it? Whatever it was, he wore it as comfortably as his open oxford and fitted-just-right T-shirt beneath. It looked good on him.
But then Ford had always looked good to her.
Something she shouldn’t be focusing on if she had any intention of playing it cool and easy herself.
“For the last ten years?” Ford reached past her again, this time catching the waitress on her way toward the bar. And yeah, there was definitely something different about the way he handled his body. “You’re maybe going to need another drink to get through
She was definitely going to need another drink, but more to sedate the increasingly restless herd of butterflies now showing signs of gamma-ray exposure the way they’d started walloping her belly since Ford’s casual comment about not letting her get away.
That wasn’t what this was about, no matter how tall or handsome Ford had gotten.
Because while there would probably always be some small part of her that wondered what might have happened if she’d made different choices ten years ago, the simple fact was…she hadn’t. The kind of happily-ever-after she’d started to let herself believe in with Ford Meyers ended the day she’d come home from the only term of undergraduate education she’d been able to complete and found the rug pulled from beneath her. All her hard work and plans for nothing. And her father full of excuses for the latest humiliating train wreck he’d made of their lives.
Shaking off the thought, she focused on the now. Her chance to reconnect with Ford and catch up, like any old friends might. To see if that goofy guy who’d stolen her heart so long ago was still there. If he was as sweet as she remembered. If life had been good to him.
But that was all this would be. With her dad getting out, her latest reprieve was over two years ahead of schedule. Daniel “Call me Danny” Ahearne would be back, circling her life while whatever stability she’d built since the judge’s gavel struck circled the drain. And it wouldn’t just be her life; it would be the life of anyone close enough to her to get caught in the current.
Not Ford. Not this time.
So half an hour would be Brynn’s limit before she gave the guy who’d been the sweetest part of her life a hug and wished him well. Forty-five minutes max.
The waitress took her order and then Brynn met his eyes again. “Okay, beer’s on the way. So let’s have it. Spare no detail.”
“Marry me,” Ford said two hours later, meaning it probably more than he should. Because damn,
The Ms. Pac-Man shirt hadn’t been the half of it.
Grinning into her beer, Brynn shook her head and, after a swallow, set the bottle back on the table. “See, this is why I don’t lead with the job thing.”
If word got out she was behind the camera, shooting the Bulls games from under the net, there’d be a line a mile long of guys throwing themselves at her feet.
” he said again, sounding like a tool even to himself, because
“Just the home games, though,” she added with a shrug.
Just the home games.
“Right. No big deal, then.” And neither were the NBA on TNT East Coast games she traveled for. Or the White Sox games she covered during baseball season.
Not at all.
Another one of those half-shy laughs and Ford was wondering, even with the population at large
knowing she had the coolest job on the planet, how she was sitting across from him and still single? But that’s what she’d said when he finally gave in to the question that had been burning on his tongue since he’d gotten his first look at her.
Not married, divorced, dating, recovering from a breakup or even anyone’s mom.
Sort of. Since in her next breath she’d clarified the part about not being in the right place for a relationship with all the travel and crazy work hours and focusing on her job. He figured there was more to it than that, because in his experience, there always was. But whatever the reason, he was fully behind anything that had kept her single up until that very minute.
Yeah, things had ended badly between them. Abruptly and in a way he hadn’t been able to wrap his head around for nearly a year after. But they’d been
Not anymore, though. They’d grown up. Taken the lessons life doled out and learned from them. He sure as hell had, and behind the smiles and laughter there was something in Brynn’s eyes that made him think maybe she had, too. That maybe their paths crossing again could be a good thing. This time, a real thing.
Brynn rested her elbows on the table in front of her, her smile sitting a little crooked on her mouth. “What’s that laugh about?”
Me getting ahead of myself, that’s what.
“Nothing,” he said instead. “Just still can’t believe I’m sitting across from you, is all. Can’t believe how much the same it is talking with you.”
Because as different as their lives were now from when they’d met, it had been like this the first time, too. From the first words between them, it had been like everything was suddenly falling into place.
Those deep green eyes held with his a beat, and then she looked away as another blush washed over her cheeks. The girl could swear like a sailor, though she desperately tried not to, and trash-talk like—well, like Maggie, now that he thought about it—but there was still that shyness about her. Still the sweetness. Still the fun.
Her gaze drifted back to his again, her lips curving into the smile she’d given him that first day in the quad—the one that got his inner caveman thumping his chest. And like that he was back at the beginning, in too deep before he’d even realized he was sinking.
“Um, excuse me?”
Ford looked up from the notebook he’d been roughing out a new game in, frustrated at the interruption because he’d left the dorm to get away from Ava’s phone stalking so he could concentrate.
“Yeah,” he replied, trying to keep it polite because, well, hell, there were enough shitheads in this world and he wasn’t interested in being another one. Half glancing up from his notebook, he’d only barely registered the girl in front of him when the fog of deep focus cleared and his attention snapped back in what had to be a pitifully obvious double take.
Red hair shining in the August sun.
Freckles peppering the neat line of her nose.
Gorgeous, with a tentative smile on lips so pink and full—yeah, there were ideas already stewing in the shady regions of his mind he wasn’t too proud of. Because this girl also looked sweet.
“Sorry to bother you.”
And she’s talking to you, numbnuts. Don’t fuck this up!
“No, no. You’re fine,” he assured her, shooting to his feet and giving her a smile he could only hope came across as chill and not all overeager asshole. “Go ahead.”
“Right, so I was on this freshman orientation tour and we were in the athletic center when I guess I got distracted, and next thing I’m looking around and realize I have no idea where my group is. I thought maybe you saw them come through this way. There were like fifty people.”
Man, he wanted to be her hero. Bad. But the flat-out truth of it was, there could have been a marching band rolling through and chances were he wouldn’t have noticed. When he got his head into something, the rest of the world kind of fell away. It drove his sister nuts. Okay, it drove everybody nuts. Still, maybe he could help, because not only was this girl about the prettiest thing he’d ever seen, but she was standing in front of him wringing her fingers like she actually believed missing her orientation tour mattered.
Cute. And appealing, because he liked girls who took things seriously. Even if it was just a tour of their new campus.
“Sorry. I was distracted myself,” he said, showing her the design he’d been sketching before he’d remembered not to advertise what a top-tier nerd he was.
The girl’s brows arched and then she took a step closer, reaching for the side of his notebook as though she thought he’d pull it away before she was ready to give it up. Not likely.
“Are you an art student? I was thinking basketball with the height and you sitting on the steps here,” she said, nodding to the athletic center behind him. “But then I guess you’re both?”
He let out a laugh, because everyone thought he played basketball. “Neither, actually. I mean beyond shooting hoops with the guys once in a while, I don’t play for the school. Just watch. Avid fan. And the sketch is for a game I’m designing. I’m a Business and Computer Science guy.”
“A game? Wow, that’s—that’s so crazy cool,” she exclaimed, sounding like she actually meant it.
“You a gamer?” he asked, not daring to hope. “Have a favorite?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, when it comes to games, I’m more of a sports fanatic. Football, basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, hell—” Her cheeks turned pink and she gave her head a small shake. “Heck, I’ll even watch golf.”
His throat went dry, because next to girls who loved gaming, girls who loved sports were about as hot as it got. And seriously, a guy couldn’t ask for everything.
A breeze drifted through, catching a few soft spirals of that pretty red. Absently, she tucked them behind her ear and squinted up at him, her smile all but eclipsing the sun and doing something to the center of his chest he’d never felt before.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like video games,” she added ruefully. “But aside from the sports ones I’m a bigger fan of the old stuff than the new. Put Donkey Kong in front of me and I’ll be there until next week!”
Ford swallowed. Hard. Because, hello, girl he was going to marry.