Tennyson Clark is getting a life. First step: quitting her job as assistant to Dominic Anderson, star quarterback for the Washington Warriors, her best friend
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"I quit." Tennyson Clark mentally slapped a palm to her forehead, hating that her nerves made her mumble, so the announcement sounded much more like, "Mwy scmhit."
When one was declaring one's independence, one definitely shouldn't sound like a squirrel with a mouth full of nuts. She sighed. So much for being firm and assertive.
Fortunately — or unfortunately — her best friend of fifteen years, Dominic Anderson, was fluent in Tenny Speak. And since his attention snapped from the phone in his hand to focus completely on her, treating her to the full blast of his bright blue stare, she assumed he'd interpreted her garbled statement correctly.
"You quit?" he repeated, confirming her assumption in a calm and even tone. She wasn't in the least bit fooled. Ten years ago, he'd used that same voice when he'd threatened to cut off Calvin Shephard's dick if the bully dared touch her again.
Often, having someone in your life who loved, protected, and knew you better than anyone else on the planet was a comfort and gift. Then other times, it sucked hairy ape balls.
This was one of those times.
"Yes, that's what I said," she stated, fighting not to fidget under the power of his beautiful, scalpel-sharp gaze.
Damn, it was so unfair. After looking into those eyes for fourteen of her twenty-five years, she should've been immune to their beauty and intensity. But as Foster Mom #2 had been fond of saying, "A fair is a shitfest of carnies and rides. It ain't got fuck-all to do with life." Quite the poet, Foster Mom #2 had been. But in her own way, she'd been right on point.
Life had handed Tennyson a great deal — a mentally unstable mom, a parade of foster homes and parents who'd ranged from apathetic to scary, a plethora of schools, zero stability. But one thing it had never offered her was fairness.
For instance, this pathetic, secret, cringe-worthy unrequited love for her best friend and employer.
Well ... former employer, as of five seconds ago.
Dom slowly straightened from his lazy sprawl on the couch and set his cell down on the coffee table in front of him with an ominous thunk, causing her hope that he would take the news well to crumble like a Taylor Swift relationship past the ninety-day mark.
Suddenly, he wasn't Dom, her childhood friend, but Dominic Anderson, celebrated All-Star, four-time Pro-Bowl quarterback for the Washington Warriors. As the leader of one of the best teams in the NFL, he commanded a legion of behemoths on a daily basis.
"Look," she muttered, "I'm trying not to be pusillanimous about this, and you glaring at me isn't helping."
Dom blinked, his only reaction. "From the context of your sentence, I'm guessing that means you're trying not to be a pussy about dropping this atom bomb that you're abandoning me as my PA."
This time, she couldn't prevent flinching. "I would've gone with cowardly or faint-hearted, but very good," she complimented, trying to insert a little levity into the conversation. #Epicfail.
Without waiting for his reply — which was sure to contain at least one F-bomb and probably a couple of goddamns — she launched up from the huge armchair that swallowed her Lilliputian frame whole but was perfect for the giant across from her. She shot from the suddenly too-stifling confines of his man-cave den and dashed for the kitchen as if a naked Jason Momoa waited for her next to the pots and pans rack.
Like everything else in his Mediterranean-style home in the wealthy Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Dom's kitchen was mammoth. It was also total culinary porn. Weak light from the late morning October sun trickled in through the large windows, brushing the marble counters and the island in pale, watery streams. Walnut cabinets with glass fronts lined two walls above high-end appliances that would have Mario Batali whining in jealousy. A huge window that stretched from the ceiling to above the sink granted gorgeous views of Mount Rainier, the beautiful evergreens that surrounded the house and property, and an endless stretch of sky. At least on sunny days. Today, that sky was overcast, and the rain that the Pacific Northwest was known for pinged against the glass, but it was still beautiful. So rich and vivid.
Still, the masterpiece of the kitchen, and what she loved most, was the beautiful stainless-steel stove with its six eyes; large, self-cleaning oven; and multiple settings. Yes, if she could have sex with it, she probably would. Considering the last couple of times she'd been with a man, the stove would no doubt generate more heat.
The best thing about the room, though, was that Dom — also known as Chef Boyar-Don't — couldn't boil an egg without shells and yolk ending up splattered on the ceiling. When he'd had the kitchen designed, it'd been for her, because she loved to cook. The precision and creativity of preparing food soothed her, grounded her.
She didn't need a psychologist to explain why. Control. At first, it'd been her mother who'd supplied her meals ... and often added extra ingredients guaranteed to make Tennyson sick, warranting another trip to the hospital emergency room. Later, in the foster homes, she'd had no choice but to eat whatever she'd been given, some of it indigestible. Or if it'd been adequate, there hadn't been enough of it. When she'd grown older and was able to provide for herself, food had been one of the first things she'd exerted autonomy over. What she ate. The quality of it. The quantity.
In this moment, even as she declared her independence in another area of her life, she still turned to the thing that comforted her.
Striding to the enormous refrigerator, she opened it and scanned the contents, finally settling on French toast, bacon, and an omelet. Scooping up the needed ingredients, she kicked the door closed and deposited the food on the island.
"You can't dodge this conversation by going all Iron Chef," Dom growled.
She hadn't heard him enter the room; for a six-foot-five, two-hundred-and- twenty-five-pound giant, he was remarkably light on his feet. But she hadn't needed to catch his footsteps to know he stood behind her. She felt him. Like her body transformed into a tuning fork specifically adjusted to perceive him. Her skin sensitized, her belly tightened, her heart beat at a slightly elevated pace. Over the years, she'd had to work hard to hide her reaction from his all-too-perceptive gaze. She'd become a master at deception. At pretending she loved Dom like an annoying and overprotective big brother when her feelings were anything but platonic.
The decade-long charade was ... exhausting. But the alternative — admitting to him that she wanted to be one of those tall, gorgeous, sexy supermodels, actresses, or even random football groupies he fucked like sex was the last loaf of bread on a grocery store shelf during a snowstorm — scared the hell out of her. No, sir. Quite some time ago, she'd been on the receiving end of his gentle, soft, and utterly humiliating rejection. And not to mention the pity. The awful, mortifying pity. No thanks. Never again. The scar from the first time they'd had that Friend Zone talk hadn't fully healed even after all these years. Damn if she would tear open another wound.
"I'm not dodging anything," she said, removing the chopping board from one of the island's side drawers. "I'm fixing breakfast while we discuss."
"Yeah, let's discuss." He leaned on the marble top, his rock-hard abs brushing her elbow and arm. Shit. She fumbled the onion but quickly recovered, cursing that glancing touch that now had electric currents zinging up and down her spine. Images of the corrugated ladder of muscles that covered his stomach bombarded her mind. If she didn't know better, she would agree with those snide comments on Instagram that snarked about the images of Dom being Photoshopped to show a corded, ripped eight-pack. But she knew better. Dom had never possessed a single modest bone in his body, so she'd been treated to unhindered views of his bare torso many times through the years.
Masochism, thy name is Tennyson Clark.
Forcing the panty-melting picture from her head, she focused. "It's not like I'm leaving you tomorrow. I'm giving you a month's notice, and I'll stay to train my replacement."
"The hell, Tenny?" he snapped, frustration ripe in every sharply enunciated word. "I don't want a replacement. And I damn sure don't want a month's notice."
"Well, you have one, and you're going to get the other." She shook her head. "Dom, it's past time I left —"
"Really?" he interrupted. "Says who?"
"Says me," she ground out. "You know, me. The person in charge of my life and what happens in it? That me."
He blew out a hard breath, pushing off the island. She glanced up in time to catch him thrusting his fingers through his dark brown hair. Over the years, he'd worn it ruthlessly short, like a Roman centurion, or so long the strands had brushed his shoulders. Lately, the loose waves grazed his carved-from- stone jaw, making him resemble the guy who played Jamie Fraser in Outlander more than he usually did.
The thick, soft-looking hair should've seemed incongruous with the chiseled lines of his face. And they might have if not for the black, dense fringe of lashes that accentuated the cobalt depths of his eyes and that sensual, almost lush mouth that made a woman imagine all the dirty things he could do with it. And undoubtedly do well. His face was a stunning work of art.
God, his face. It'd sold everything from electric razors to luxury cars. And it haunted her every night, starring in her most secret, erotic dreams.
Glancing away, she desperately reined in the thoughts before they seeped into her expression, and he glimpsed the taboo longing that was as much a part of her as the wild curls on her head and the birthmark under her left ear.
He didn't want that from her. Not her longing. Not her desire. Definitely not her heart. He'd made that abundantly clear years ago when she'd made the godawful mistake of getting drunk one night and letting slip how she felt about him. Oh yes. Abundantly clear.
"I know this is surprising —" she began again.
"No, Tenny. Finding out Santa Claus wasn't real, that was surprising. La La Land discovering they hadn't won Best Picture was surprising. Kanye having a mental breakdown was surprising ..."
"Was it? Was it really?" she interjected. But at his narrowed glare, she sighed and pantomimed zipping her lips shut. But seriously, Kanye losing his shit hadn't been that shocking.
"You up and quitting out of the blue is a straight kick in the nuts I didn't see coming. And in the beginning of the season? I should be enjoying my day off before focusing on winning against the Steelers, but instead, you hit me with this."
"Well, I'm sorry, but when would've been a good time? Besides," she added, anger beginning to lick at her chest, "this isn't about you."
"You're right. It's about us." He waved a hand back and forth between them. "We're a team. We always have been."
A team. The words pierced her like a poison-tipped arrow straight to the heart. So innocuous, so ... kind. And that kindness killed her. Because it underscored how he would always see her — a kid sister, a pal. It emphasized her utter foolishness in continuing to carry this torch for him. It reminded her that one day she would watch him settle down with one of the women who flocked around him, while she remained alone and emotionally bruised.
Inhaling, she tried to explain again. "I get this is anathema to you ..."
"Small words, Tenny. Small words," he snapped.
"Fine," she retorted, her temper crackling like oil hitting a hot pan. "I know this fucks with your day, but it's done. And you're not changing my mind."
Marching to one of the cabinets, she yanked it open and removed a big mixing bowl. Dom grabbed the other side of the bowl and pulled on it, but she jerked it back. For the next few moments, they engaged in a truly childish tug- of-war.
"For godsakes," she muttered, releasing the bowl with a scowl.
Before she could grab another, he smacked the dish on the counter and, palming her waist, hiked her in the air and plopped her on the marble in front of him.
She gasped as he flattened his hands on either side of her hips and leaned forward, caging her between his big body and the large window behind her. She tried to edge back so every shallow breath didn't include his scent of soap and freshly washed skin, and the deeper, familiar fragrance of cedar and heavy, sultry rain. How many times had he come to visit her in one of her foster homes after he'd been adopted, the fragrance of cedar clinging to his shirt and hair from the Dayton lumberyard where he'd worked part-time?
Even now, she had to curl her fingers around the edge of the counter to keep herself from burying her nose in the crook between his shoulder and neck — the space that she'd claimed as her own at eleven years old — and just breathe him in. As a child, that place and his scent had been a comfort. They'd meant safety. Now, both still brought comfort, but they also wreaked havoc on her senses, on her pulse. Caused a decidedly sinuous, unfriendly heat to wind its way through her veins and culminate in an achy, throbbing beat between her thighs.
The struggle was real.
"Now, no more evading. Talk," he ordered.
Rebellion sparked within her at the imperious tone and the expectation to fall in line, but she deliberately inhaled, calming herself as well as the resentment that flickered inside her like a struck match. A foolish resentment because he couldn't know how much his nearness affected her; since the first time she'd stupidly and recklessly admitted her love for him, she'd made a concentrated effort to ensure he'd never know, and that her misplaced desire wouldn't jeopardize their friendship. Still, he wasn't a dumb man — far from it. He knew how much she cared for him, even if only in a sisterly way. Using his hotness and her unflagging loyalty against her was sneaky.
Anger and his close proximity formed a dangerous combination, and if she wasn't careful, she'd allow both to weaken her resolve and reveal information she wanted to keep close to her chest.
"I don't know how much clearer I can make it, Dom," she said. "I've been your personal assistant for five years now. Five years. It started out as a job you made up as a way you could give me money without it seeming like charity —"
"I did not," he objected. But when she lifted her eyebrows, he grumbled, "If you weren't so goddamn stubborn, I wouldn't have needed to do it. Still, that was then," he added. "Now, I can't imagine how I ever functioned without you."
"And that's the problem," she stated, a vise tightening around her heart at his words. "We have to find out how to function without each other." Especially her. Because her life — her heart — could no longer revolve around him. Not when the feeling wasn't reciprocated.
"That's bullshit," he rumbled. "Why? We're a —"
"Team, I know," she finished, barely managing not to roll her eyes. "And we don't need to work together to continue to be a team. Dom, I have a bachelor's and master's in social work, and I'm doing nothing with them."
"So that's it? You have another job?"
"No," she hedged. Technically, she wasn't lying. She'd applied for several jobs in the field in which she'd earned her degrees. And one was even a strong maybe. But nothing had come through as of this morning.
"Then what's the rush? Is it something I did?" He studied her, searching her face as if he could find the answer there. Again, she fought not to duck her head to avoid the penetrating scrutiny. "Was it when I snapped at you last week about that meeting with Under Armour? 'Cause you know I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I was tired and upset about the loss to Denver. If I need to apologize again, then I'm sorry."
She snorted, rolling her eyes. "Please. You seem to have a convenient forgettery." At his narrowed gaze, she huffed out a breath. "A convenient faulty memory. The Under Armour meeting was the third time you'd popped off at me that day. But if I stayed mad every time you got snippy, I'd have smothered you in your sleep years ago."
"You're either lying or nervous. Probably both," he announced. "You've used three of your vocab words in twenty minutes. That's a definite giveaway. So you want to try this again?"
Had she said that having someone in your life who knew you better than anyone else sometimes sucked hairy ape balls? Correction. It sucked hairy King Kong balls.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Scoring Off the Field"
Copyright © 2018 Naima Simone.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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