The car arrives shortly. I imagine it’s never difficult to get any kind of service in this neighborhood.

“Claire, it’s not what you think,” he calls down to me.

“I’m done,” I tell him. “I got my big dumb fuck. I’m good for another decade.”

He stops trying to explain. I look up at the top of the stairs. He’s shirtless with only a pair of boxer briefs on. With all his muscle he looks like some kind of Greek god standing at the top of his throne. The pain in his eyes guts me. There’s physical pain there, but there’s something else there too that makes him look tortured.

I swallow hard and leave.

As the car pulls away from the house my mood darkens and I’m drowned in sadness. I just ruined the best thing that has ever happened to me. I tell myself that it’s my job at the Hope Center that I’m worried about, but that’s not entirely true.

I look out the window and watch the beautiful scene of Lake Michigan fly by as tears spill down my cheek.6AJStupid, stupid, STUPID, I think. Hours have gone by since Claire left my house and I’m still haunted by the way she left. I should’ve handled that better. I have a nasty habit of just blurting out the truth no matter the consequences. That’s why the team’s press agent put a stop to most of my post-game interviews if the questions weren’t vetted first.

Now I look like a creep. She probably thinks I’m some kind of stalker, some jerk trying to buy her love. I don’t blame her for running out. Despite her hurtful words, I know she wasn’t just using me for a fuck last night. Her body gave away all of her secrets. And I ruined it by opening my fucking mouth.

I pace the living room, our last words ruminating in my head. When my phone rings, my heart completely stops and so do my feet. I walk toward the coffee table where I’d set my phone, hoping to see her number on the screen. My stomach sinks when I see that it’s only my agent, Carson.

I don’t want to answer it, but I know if I sit here, wallowing in pity, I will only sink deeper into this anguish. I don’t want to set up camp in these dark feelings. I need to find a way to make things right with Claire.

When I answer the phone, I can already tell by Carson’s lack of greeting and the long sigh that comes before his words, that something is wrong. Normally, he answers the phone with an exaggerated, enthusiastic, “Hey buddy how’s it going.” Today all he says is, “We have a problem.”

I close my eyes, bracing myself for whatever he’s about to say next. I really don’t want this day to get any worse than it is, but it doesn’t look like I have a choice in the matter.

He says, “Apparently you went out to dinner last night and some jackass young reporter followed you …” Despite bracing myself, my body feels as though it will tip forward. I already know where this is going and I don’t like the sound of it. “He has photos of you driving up to your home with a woman who looks very much like the doctor from the new clinic. The press is asking for a quote.”

I sigh. All young reporters are the same, trying to get the dirt, trying to ruin someone’s reputation for their own shot at the spotlight. I’m not too worried about my own reputation. I’ve done nothing but take an old friend out to dinner. But I don’t think this is going to go well at all for Claire. The media is undeniably harsher on women, especially when it comes to sex. If Claire didn’t hate me before, she will now.

“You tell those sons of bitches we’re just friends,” I say, hating that I have to explain at all. We’re two adults entitled to our privacy. I shouldn’t have to say shit. But I also know, in my line of work, that’s not how this works.

Carson hesitates. I don’t like it when he does that. “They have a photo of you nearly naked, standing in front of your bedroom window with a blurry female figure in the bed behind you. They also have pictures of her leaving this morning.”

Shit. That asshole reporter stayed the night to watch us? What the hell am I paying security for?

“I’m going to need a better quote than that,” Carson says apologetically.

There are no better quotes. “Pay them off. Those pictures can’t get out.”

I doubt paying anyone off will work this time. A young reporter wants the story. They’ll want the fame. But it’s worth a try. “Whatever it takes.”

Carson hesitates again. I want to reach through the phone and strangle him. “What aren’t you telling me?” I demand.

Tags: Penny Wylder Romance