I get highlights in my hair and watch my whole look change before my eyes. I went from tired-looking to radiant in the course of a few hours. How? I mean, I thought those bags under my eyes from so many sleepless nights were permanent. I feel beautiful for the first time since college. Judging by the men ogling me as I leave the salon, I’m thinking other people think so too.

It’s a full makeover from head to toe—even down to the sexy bra and panties I bought. I take a deep breath, fear and anticipation making my stomach wobble. I can do this. I deserve this. I am not a fraud. I’ve worked hard.

I try to hush all the doubts that creep into my mind. It’s not easy. I’ve been knocked down so many times and have had other people with less experience and less knowledge than me steal my opportunities. It’s easy to let those voices inside affect my self-esteem, but no more. I’ve got this.

Taking a deep breath, I dial the quickest route to the Hope Center into the GPS of my car and drive toward my future.The party is in full swing when I get there. CEOs, members of the board, city council members, the mayor; everyone has shown up for the Hope Center’s grand opening. It’s a big day for Chicago. I think seeing everyone here and how many important people showed up for the occasion, the reality and magnitude of the situation hits me for the first time. Even the governor of the state of Illinois tweeted about the event this morning. It’s a big deal. And someone thought it was a good idea to put me in charge of all of it. My heart starts to thunder in my chest and I’m struggling to breathe, to focus.

I grab a flute of champagne from one of the servers and chug it like a frat bro at a keg party. I need to calm down.

I wander around, introducing myself to some of the doctors and nursing staff I’ll be working with. The food is to die for. This shindig is fully catered by one of the most famous celebrity chefs on TV. It’s a far cry from the gas station donuts and hospital vending machine sandwiches I live on most days at work.

Once I’ve thoroughly stuffed my face, I start to feel myself relax a little. That is until I hear an uproar from the reporters on site. I’m temporarily blinded by all the flashes of light as cameras and phones go off. Then I see him and realize what all the fuss is about.

My heart seizes at the sight of AJ Hargrove. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end. It’s like seeing a ghost. I haven’t seen him since the night we spent together in college—a crazy, amazing night I’ve thought of often since it first happened. In fact, it took years for me to stop comparing other men to him. At one point I thought—and still do think—he ruined me in some way. I haven’t been able to have an orgasm from sex with other men since.

He’s gorgeous. Always was. Not much has changed about him except that he’s bulked up quite a bit since college. I guess that’s what happens when you become one of the highest paid NFL players. I imagine, like myself, he dedicated all of his free time to become the best at what he does. For me that meant sixty hours a week in hospitals and clinics. For him that time was spent in the gym.

I remember hearing that he’d signed an obscenely large contract out of college. I didn’t have much time to follow sports over the years, though I did like to watch the games from time to time on TV. I followed him as much as I could throughout his career. He was known for his bravado on the field, his lightning fast legs, an instinct like no other, always keeping one step ahead, and frustrating the opposing team’s defense with a cocky assurance.

I’d also heard that the Hope Center was primarily funded by a sports star. I didn’t think much more about that. Until now.

AJ steps up to the podium. His hair is sandy blonde, neatly trimmed in a style that fits his angular face perfectly. Though he has perfect, all-American good looks and could be a model—and has been at one point for the Nike shoes deal he had—there are scars here and there from rough game play that give him a rugged quality.

His blue suit fits him impeccably, and confidence seems to ooze from his pores. He’s still the same cocky son of a bitch he always was, yet there’s something very humble about his stance. His smile is disarming when a little boy wearing braces on his legs comes up to him and asks for an autograph on his football. AJ signs the ball and swoops the boy into his arms like he weighs nothing and gives him a hug. I imagine ovaries everywhere aching at the sight of it. I’m also not immune to the cuteness of the scene. If it weren’t for the boy’s mother’s insistence that the boy say thank you and get off the podium, I would have thought it was some kind of media stunt. But that’s also something AJ is known for: giving back to his fans and his community. He might be cocky on the field, but all of his actions off the field prove he’s just an all-around great guy.

Tags: Penny Wylder Romance
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