This week’s Romance Roundup includes a scorned wife out for some good, old-fashioned revenge, two best friends who realize that The One is much closer than they think, and a lovely lady who’s about to solve other people’s problems.
One of NPR's Best Books of 2018
An Amazon Best Romance of 2018 Pick
An iBooks “Best of September” Pick
A GoodReads Best of the Month pick for September
One of Booklist's Top 10 Romance Debuts for 2018
One of BookBubs Best Fall Romances of 2018
Marlee thought she scored the man of her dreams only to be scorched by a bad breakup. But there's a new player on the horizon, and he's in a league of his own...
Marlee Harper is the perfect girlfriend. She's definitely had enough practice by dating her NFL-star boyfriend for the last ten years. But when she discovers he has been tackling other women on the sly, she vows to never date an athlete again. There's just one problem: Gavin Pope, the new hotshot quarterback and a fling from the past, has Marlee in his sights.
Gavin fights to show Marlee he's nothing like her ex. Unfortunately, not everyone is ready to let her escape her past. The team's wives, who never led the welcome wagon, are not happy with Marlee's return. They have only one thing on their minds: taking her down. But when the gossip makes Marlee public enemy number one, she worries about more than just her reputation.
Between their own fumbles and the wicked wives, it will take a Hail Mary for Marlee and Gavin's relationship to survive the season.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Alexa Martin
For the first three years, it’s fun being a pro football player’s girlfriend.
“Marlee, let me see your hand! Did Chris propose yet?” Amber asks.
I’m in year ten.
“Still naked.” I wiggle my fingers in front of her the same way I did last week and the week before that . . . and the week before that. #HeDidntPutARingOnIt
Sometimes, I like to hashtag my life. #CheaperThanTherapy
I sip my margarita. “When it happens, I promise to let you know.” Or, you know, keep asking every time you see me.
“Marlee.” Courtney sighs. She stands at the head of the table clutching a glitter-coated gavel. “We made exceptions for you to join the Lady Mustangs. Try to acknowledge that and save your little side conversation until we’ve finished.”
“Sorry, Court.” Every time I call her Court, she strains her Botoxed forehead and glares in my direction, so obviously, it’s the only thing I call her. Well, sometimes I call her bitch, but she doesn’t know about that.
“As I was saying, the annual Lady Mustangs Fashion Show is in three weeks. Everyone must attend the next meeting so we can discuss the outfits for you and your husbands.”
I catch her eye again. She raises her chin, and her fat-injected lips form an actual smile.
“Oh, I’m sorry. In your case, Marlee, you and your boyfriend.”
See? What a bitch.
“Thanks for the clarification, Court, but I understood.” My fingernails dig into my palm as I fight the urge to ask if one of her husband’s girlfriends will be joining the festivities.
“I didn’t want you to feel like you were being excluded.”
Hmm . . . including me by pointing out my differences. Makes so much sense. I don’t know if she’s trying to convince herself, me, or the rest of the Mustang wives, but she isn’t succeeding with anybody.
“You’re so thoughtful,” I return with an equal amount of authenticity.
Courtney is the president (how obnoxious) of the Lady Mustangs, the charitable organization consisting of the wives and girlfriend (singular) of the Denver Mustangs. We get together every Wednesday during the season to plan different events to benefit the community. There is an unspoken rule—each woman only gets one season to lead—but surprising nobody at all, Courtney didn’t think the rules applied to her. This is her fourth year as president. Her husband, Kevin Matthews, is our quarterback, but her head is bigger than his. And that’s saying a lot. There are football players and then there are quarterbacks—which are an entirely different breed. Courtney has also made it her mission during her reign of terror to put me in my place, a spot well below her. She doesn’t seem to realize I’m fresh out of fucks to give.
“As I was saying, now that the season has arrived, everyone needs to be here every week. No excuses.” She looks toward me again.
So I’ve missed some meetings, sue me. But, unlike Courtney, I have an actual job that includes more than lunching. We also live in the day and age of email, something that seems to evade her.
“Remember what we always say? We work hard to inspire our husbands’ on-field success with our off-field dedication, support, and achievements.”
Honestly, besides the constant pressure to prove I’ll be the best football wife ever, the only reason I keep coming to these awful things is because it gives me an excuse to drink in the early afternoon. I focus on the Colorado sun shining down on our rooftop patio table as I sip my oversized margarita, listening to the music as it switches between seventies pop and nineties hip-hop—until Courtney’s shrill voice pulls my attention back to her.
“Is there anything else that needs to be discussed today?” Courtney asks. After a quick glance around the table confirms there’s nothing else to be said, the gavel slams into the table and glitter explodes off of it, covering the table, plates, and floor.
Like the waitstaff needed more of a reason to hate us beyond the ten separate checks, no dressing/no flavor orders, and the three women who sent their meals back because they spotted a carb.
Whenever these meetings end, the switch flips from good deeds to gossip central.
“Can I have a chip?” Naomi says. “Salad is so stupid. Why don’t you ever tell me not to order one?” She draws my attention away from the brewing gossip storm as she reaches to my plate without waiting for an answer. Not that she needs one, she does this every week. And every week she still orders a salad—like the calories don’t count if I’m the one who orders them. #WhoNeedsScience
“What if I was going to say no?”
“Were you?” She crunches into the chip in a manner so un-Lady-Mustang-like, I’m surprised Courtney doesn’t slam down the gavel again to reprimand her.
“No, you can have the rest, I’m done. Playing nice while Power Trip Barbie threw her jabs stole my appetite.”
I love Naomi. She has never questioned the authenticity of my relationship because of my lack of a gaudy diamond decorating my left hand. She’s the first to call me to get together when the guys are out of town. She also doesn’t partake in the hype some of the other women do when it comes to the faux fame of being an athlete’s wife.
“Don’t mind Courtney. She’s just pissed they’re bringing in another quarterback, and Kevin’s reign as leader supreme is coming to an end . . . not surprising considering how he played during preseason.” She doesn’t even finish the sentence before she’s grabbing the untouched taco still on my plate.
“Wait. What? When did that happen?” I ask.
“They announced it this morning. How do you not know these things? As a wide receiver, this affects Chris more than anyone else, except for Kevin.” Her eyes never meet mine, and if I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought she was whispering sweet nothings to a taco.
“The season started. Chris isn’t around to tell me these things, and I don’t have ESPN alerts sent to my phone like the rest of you freaks. Who’d they get?”
Instead of an answer, all I get is one flawless, manicured finger in my face while another points toward her mouth as she chews what was left of my lunch. Rolling my eyes to the heavens, I try to gather patience while she takes an eternity to swallow and chase it down with her watery Diet Coke.
“Gavin Pope—he was the Bears quarterback,” she says with shrug.
She’s all nonchalant while I, on the other hand, contemplate grabbing my chest and calling 911. My heart is racing so fast, I’m afraid I’m seconds away from keeling over. The sunshine now feels like a heat lamp, and my straightened hair against the back of my neck starts to curl.
“Holy shit. Are you okay? You just turned white.”
“Actually, I’m feeling a little queasy. I think I drank my margarita too fast.” I’m well accustomed to explaining away my distress around the wicked wives, and sitting by Naomi, hearing the one name I work overtime to avoid, is no different. “I think I’m going to head out, rest a little before Chris gets home.”
“Good, go and feel better. Call me later if you need anything.” Naomi’s watchful gaze follows my shaky movements as I put enough money on the table to cover my bill and offer a small apology for the glitter they’ll no doubt be cleaning for the next six months.
“I will, thank you.” I give Naomi a hug, shout a quick goodbye to our table, and get the hell out of dodge.
The problem with a rooftop patio is there’s no quick escape.
How is this my life? I know Lady Luck has never been too fond of me, but it’s just cruel that out of all the quarterbacks and all the teams, Gavin Pope ends up on the Mustangs.
Halfway down the stairs, my knees are knocking so hard I have to stop and let the wall support me. My breathing won’t slow, and I’m dizzy from all of the scenarios spinning in my head.
“Are you okay, ma’am?” an unexpected voice calls from behind me. I jump back and hit my head against the sports memorabilia–covered walls. One of the pictures crashes down, landing at my feet. I bend to pick it up and my shaking hands almost drop it twice before my nerves calm enough to look at it.
I forget where I am. Instead of a restaurant in a Denver suburb, I’m back in that Chicago high-rise. The guy I’d just had the hottest night of my life with—the one who told me he was an investment banker—has framed pictures of himself in his apartment. But instead of a suit, Gavin Pope wears a Bears hat with the NFL commissioner’s arm draped over his shoulders.
“Ma’am?” The waiter’s voice startles me back to the present.
I shake the memories of the Chicago police officers staring at my tight dress, smudged mascara, and just-been-fucked hair as I ran out of the high-rise and focus on the picture frame in my hands. It’s not Gavin. Instead, it’s my boyfriend, both feet in the air, football locked tight in his outstretched arms.
“I’m fine. Thank you.” I hand him the frame, and then I’m running again. I don’t stop until I’m sitting in my car. But once I’m inside my Prius, the news hits me all over again.
Like a tsunami, each memory of that night hits me like another wave. His eyes as he watched me undress. Crash. My tongue dancing against his. Crash. The way he took me to the edge of euphoria over and over and over again. Crash. Crash. Crash. I’m drowning with the sinking realization that all of my hard work to bury every panty-dropping, toe-curling memory of that night was for nothing.
Not only did fate decide it’d be fun to remind me of him, it threw him right smack-dab in the center of my life. I mean, it’s not like the quarterback holds the wide receivers’ careers in their hands or anything. How could this possibly go wrong?
I guess it depends on whether Gavin Pope even remembers who I am.
Chris and I live in what I fondly refer to as the seventh circle of hell—oddly enough, that’s located in Denver.
We are both native Denverites; we met in high school, and somehow, Chris lucked out by being drafted by the Mustangs and never being traded. In the NFL, getting to play at all is odds defying. And staying on the same team for more than five seasons is a damn miracle.
With Chris’s awesome income, the money I get from my freelance design jobs, and no kids, we should be living the high life. Denver is the coolest city with the most eclectic, vibrant mix of people. But we don’t live in an industrial condo downtown or a historical bungalow in Washington Park.
No, no, no. Chris and I—just the two of us—live in eight thousand square feet of obnoxious marble and crystal covered extravagance in the gated community of all gated communities with all the other Mustang starters in #TheLandWhereHighSchoolNeverEnds.
I grew up middle class. Chris grew up loaded. His dad is still the most sought after plastic surgeon in Colorado—a common topic between the other wives and I. And to this day, I still have no idea who the hell Chris is trying to impress. I guess showing your daddy you’re a big boy includes ugly chandeliers and gold leafed wallpaper.
After hearing about Gavin’s arrival, I knew Chris was going to be upset. And because I’m such a wonderful girlfriend, I made him my world famous red velvet cake to help ease the pain. I absolutely did not make it in an effort to eat my own feelings. And the extra bowl of cream cheese frosting hidden in the back of the fridge isn’t for that either. Sweet decadent denial.
“Fuck Coach Jacobs!” Chris’s entrances tend to have a flair for theatrics, but he has outdone himself this time. His deep voice echoes off the gallery art–lined walls. His heavy feet against the white marble causes them to rattle. But the crowning glory on this manly display of fury is the way he launches his workout bag across the kitchen the moment he sees me. Almost as if in slow motion, I watch his Nike bag soar over the island into my favorite teal cake stand holding my beautiful, iced to perfection, world famous red velvet cake. Both fall to the floor with a frosting-padded thud.
“What the hell, Chris?” I walk over and start picking out cream cheese covered ceramic. I’m contemplating whether or not to still eat the parts of the cake that didn’t directly touch the floor when Chris starts yelling again.
“Are you really more worried about a fucking cake than me right now?”
Well . . . yes.
“Of course not. It’s just a mess, and I don’t want either of us to cut our feet.” Lies.
Bye, cake. I’ll miss you.
I stand up to look at him and when I do, I realize leaving the cake for later is for the best. Chris’s normally mocha complexion has a cherry hue to it, and his full lips are pulled into a thin, straight line. If I didn’t know him better, I’d think he’s about to cry. “Holy shit. Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not fucking okay! That piece of shit Jacobs brought in another quarterback. Fucking Gavin Pope. Even the guy’s fuckin’ name is pretentious.” His eyes are focused on the coffered ceiling and his hands never stop roaming his not-quite-bald head.
In all my time knowing him, I’ve never seen him so worked up over football.
“Kevin and I were solid. I was his receiver. With him throwing me the ball, this was going to be my biggest contract year yet. And that rat, son of a bitch, knew it. He doesn’t want to fuckin’ pay me, and he thought bringing in some pretty boy was going to stop me. Fuck that. He’s got another thing coming.”
“I thought Pope was supposed to be good?” Not like I’d know, or that I’ve looked up his stats once a week, every week for the last four years or anything.
“It’s not about him being fucking good, Marlee!” His attention snaps toward me. It seems he didn’t appreciate that little tidbit. “Do you listen when I talk to you?”
“First of all, yes, I do listen. Second, check yourself. I get you’re pissed and taking it out on Nike bags and innocent, baked-with-love cakes, but you will not take it out on me. I’m not Jacobs, I didn’t make this trade. I want to help you, but not if you’re acting like I’m the enemy here.” #99ProblemsButChrisAintOne
“Fuck. I’m sorry,” Chris says. He looks properly chastised, and resisting the urge to dust the dirt off my shoulder is almost too much for me to handle. “This was going to be our year, baby. I was going to be the number one receiver in the league; we were going to fly to Hawaii so I could play in the all-star game. I was going to get the franchise tag and the contract we’ve always dreamed of so we could start our family the right way—on top. Now Jacobs is putting it all at risk.”
I hate the way the dormant butterflies always take flight the second Chris mentions starting a family. If he was waiting for money, he could have proposed six years ago. But instead, every year passed without an engagement and another item added to his pre-marriage bucket list. But at last, Chris is nearing the end of his list. Plus, a few weeks ago, one of my rings went missing, and when I asked him about it, he got all jittery and nervous. I’ve wanted to be Mrs. Chris Alexander since I was sixteen and now, nearly eleven years later, the time is almost here.
“What can I do? There has to be something we can do to keep you in your number one spot.” Stepping over the long forgotten mess on the floor, I make my way around the kitchen island (or, more accurately, the kitchen continent) to Chris and wrap my arms around him. I’ve always loved how when I hug him, my head rests right above his heart.
“There is something you could do. I invited the wide receivers over next Tuesday. It’d be great if you make dinner.”
“Of course. Should I make Nonna’s lasagna? Is TK coming? He loved it last time.” Between the circles he’s drawing on my back and the rhythmic thumping of his heart beneath my ear, I’m at a serious risk of falling asleep in this kitchen.
“Sure, but make double because I invited Kevin and Gavin too.”
I pull back from Chris so quickly, you would’ve thought he told me Jeffery Dahmer was coming for dinner. Even though . . . Gavin has eaten me before.
Don’t go there now, Marlee!
“Gavin? Why would you invite him? Weren’t you just complaining because he’s on the team?” I try to cover my reaction with confusion. The last thing I need is for Chris to catch a whiff of what Gavin’s name does to me.
“I don’t want him on the team, but he’s here and the best thing I can do now is try to butter him up. Feed him some food, play some poker, try to bond with the guy. I need him to want to throw to me. So can you do it?”
I cannot cook dinner for Gavin Pope in the home I share with Chris. Granted, my one night with him happened during the break Chris wanted . . . okay, he’d pretty much dumped me, but still. Aren’t there rules about this kind of thing?
“I have a few projects, but their deadlines aren’t for a couple of weeks. I’d love to do this for you. I gotta do my part to support Team Alexander.”
“That’s why I love you—you always put the team first.” His lips crash into mine and when he pulls away, the anger he walked in with is nowhere to be found. Chris’s smile is so bright, the contrast between his brown skin and freakishly white teeth nearly causes me to squint.
“You know me—they don’t call me Marlee ‘Team Player’ Harper for no reason.” And if they knew what Gavin and I did, they’d be calling me that for a whole lot of other reasons. “Speaking of, I gotta feed my man. Do you want me to make you a plate?”
“No thanks, babe. I’m gonna head back to the facility. I left early because I was pissed about Pope, but since you calmed me down, I’m gonna finish watching film. First regular season game’s this weekend. I have to be ready now more than ever. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Nope. Go do your superstar prep. I’ll clean up here and knock out some work.” I roll onto my tippy toes and kiss his chin at the same time my palm stings from slapping his ass.
“I’m not sure how long this will take, so don’t wait up.”
Fine with me. I have an entire Tupperware filled with cream cheese frosting, an unopened bottle of wine, and unwelcome feelings to avoid.
“Okay, but try not to burn yourself out too early in the week,” I call to his back as he’s walking out of the kitchen.
“Always looking out for me. Bye, babe!” I barely hear the words before the rattling of the art alerts me he’s gone, and the only sounds left are the alarms bells in my head.
I’m going to see Gavin Pope again.