While this story is officially the second book in the Cleat Chasers Series, it is a stand-alone and can be read without giving too much away from book one. I loved writing this story. It was grueling to capture their journey as friends, to something more, to realizing their entire relationship was based on trust and love. Every time I write a book I get emotional at the end but this was the first story where the writing gutted me because it is so relatable to feel lost, uncertain of the future, panicky, and... afraid of taking a chance on something.
Aaron and Greta are completely different than the main couple in the first book, Challenge Accepted. These two are crass, wild, free-spirits that give them the "love em or hate em" personality. They do things people don't understand and make a lot of mistakes hoping to figure out life. One theme I always tend to put into stories is the consistency of having a found-friend group that can pull you through anything that comes your way. This circle of friends is a huge part of their story and I am beyond thrilled the world gets to meet these two in one month! Read an excerpt below!
Action movies are full of shit, feeding us fake information our entire lives. For instance, when a fight breaks out in a bar, there’s no Mark Wahlberg look-a-like to rescue the damsel in distress. Second the sound of flesh hitting flesh is repulsive and meaty. There are no wooshes or bangs or ka-pows. Nope. It’s just disgusting.
I cringed at the smack and crashing of a fist meeting the face of my date. That’s right. I always picked the best of the best when it came to dating and tonight was no different. Todd, who had blood dripping down his eye, chin and nose, had made the bold decision to ask me out. I’d accepted, like a fool, and would live to regret this night for all eternity.
“Where is my money, Todd?” The broad-shouldered man with a beard longer than my hair pummeled his meaty fists into my date’s face. “Where the feck you keepin’ it?”
No response. Burly Guy didn’t like that. He grunted, swung his arm back past the table and hit Todd square in the nose. What happened in my past life for me to witness this?
No one got up to help. No one moved. They all watched with half-smiles on their faces and I knew in the pit of my stomach I needed to get the hell out. Like, ten minutes ago. I slowly slid my trembling hand into my purse to find my phone, but Mr. Burly heard me. He whipped his face toward mine, the terrifying glint to his eyes making me gasp. I gulped, the fear suddenly very real.
“You know this fecking asshole?” he barked at me. Countless gazes followed his voice and now stared at me. They wanted a show and I was so not the person for the role. My chin trembled as I shook my head.
“N-n-no. I j-just met him tonight.” I clutched my phone to my chest. I would use it as a weapon if necessary, although I had no fucking clue what damage I could do on this beast of a man.
He ran his fat tongue over his lips and studied me. I stood stock-still, my spine straight as a rod. “I think it’s time for you to go, doll. My boss ain’t gunna like me lettin’ ya leave, but your blonde hair don’t fit in here. Get the feck out and don’t come back.”
I nodded, glancing one more time at Todd. My gut screamed to get out, but I had been raised Catholic. Do I leave my epic failure of a date to get killed? Do I call the cops?
Mr. Burly thought I took too long and put his grimy fingers around my wrist. I squealed, yanking it out of his touch.
“Get gone, girl.” He kicked open the door and threw me outside. I stood on a rundown street with one streetlight working correctly. The others flashed and made a high-pitched buzzing sound that sent chills down my spine. “Fuck. Fucking. Fuck.”
I called my best friend with shaking fingers and snot running down my face. Oh, did I mention I had blood on me that wasn’t my own? I gagged, looking at the splatters. The phone rang and rang again. I loved Callie to death, but if that bitch didn’t answer right then, I would get her for it. Big-time. Because what the fuck? It appeared the downward spiral my life had begun a month ago still had a way to go before hitting pure rock bottom. Nothing topped this story, as long as I got home alive.
“Give me my fecking money!” A booming voice traveled through the closed door. My longtime sixth sense had sent warning after warning all day and I’d chosen to ignore it. This is my own damn fault.
I gripped my phone tighter and took a deep breath. Count to eight. Make a box with your breathing. It did me no good and my fingers still shook. After three failed calls to Callie, I called the other number I knew by heart. Aaron Hill answered after the first ring with his obnoxious and playful voice.
“G-spot, what’s crackin’? Finally calling me for a booty call?” His voice had the power to make me smile and roll my eyes simultaneously. This was not that time.
“I need you to come get me.” My voice shook as the shouting picked up. Why had I let Todd convince me this place was cool and a ‘real biker bar’? Standing alone on the dark country road made it feel more like a place where girls went missing than a legit biker hangout. I fell for it. Dumbass.
“Where the hell are you?” His good-natured tone shifted and I imagined his steel eyes going dark. “It’s past midnight. Shit, G, are you alone?”
“Uh, pretty much.” I sent him the address while still on the phone. “I texted you the place. I’m calling in my favor.”
“Jesus, Greta.” He let out a string of cuss words. “Why the fuck are you all the way out there?”
“A date gone bad.” Shame filled my chest, regret chasing it. The feelings had my throat closing. Tears weren’t far behind.
“Goddamn it. I’m on my way. Stay on the phone with me. I swear, I’m going to wring your neck. I hate this shit.” A door slammed—he’d just gotten into his car. After a minute of silence, he sucked in a breath. “Are you at Dirty Matt’s? Please say no. Tell me no, right now, Greta.”
The neon signed mocked me, Dirty Matt’s, blinking over and over. “I’m at Dirty Matt's.”
“Jesus Christ.” His deep voice got so low, so calm, I made a vow to end all my plans for dating. His anger and disappointment in me were well deserved.
I gulped. Ever since my childhood best friend Callie had found love the year before, I’d wanted to try it. She’d fought it, but seeing how damn happy she had been all year and how she’d grown into herself had motivated me. I was damn happy for her and in no way jealous. I just yearned to have the closeness she had with her boyfriend, Zade.
Okay, so all the longing and searching had led me to a series of bad, awful and miserable dates. Not one had clicked. Not one had ended with the promise for more. And, not one has ended with a guy acting like a gentleman. Apparently, I had a stamp on my head that read, I tend to date losers. And, now, I could add I dated felons. It was the only explanation I could muster why Todd had brought me here, and why they’d beaten the shit out of him.
“I’m twenty minutes out and I’m beyond pissed at you. You know the rep this place has? Do you?” His deep voice held nothing but rage and worry. I closed my eyes and leaned against the wall. I had known about the reputation, but I’d wanted an adventure. Todd rode a motorcycle. He had tattoos and looked as good as sin. I wanted, even an inkling if possible, of the happiness Callie felt. Is that so bad?
Yes. I shivered.
Aaron’s shaking voice pulled me from my self-pitying thoughts. “Greta! Did you know and still go there?”
Shit. He was past mad. “Yeah.”
“Why? Tell me why. I know shit hasn’t been great for you recently, but stop with this self-destruction crap. I can’t watch you do this.”
The squealing tires informed me he was close. His dark SUV sped down the road on a mission, the headlights showcasing how wretched this place looked. He pulled up to the spot right in front of Dirty Matt’s and threw open his door. He stormed out, his anger evident on his handsome face.
“You asshole,” he said, yanking me into his arms. “You worried the hell out of me. I lost ten pounds on the drive here.”
“Aaron,” I managed to squeak out before he pressed my face into his chest. “I’m okay.”
“Just, let me be.”
So, we stood like that for at least three minutes. His ridiculously large frame towered over me, but not in the way Mr. Burly back there had. Aaron was different. His body was sculpted from hours and hours in the gym. My arms barely fit around his middle, but I tried anyway. He squeezed me one last time and broke our hug. His gray eyes still held on to some anger, but relief took over. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, G.” His lips turned white while he glanced at the sign. “Now, get in the car.”
I obeyed, not foolish enough to piss him off even more. He opened the passenger door and glared at me until I buckled myself in. Without a word, he shut it and pinched his nose walking to the driver’s side. His cologne clouded the car, the pleasant aroma of wood and leather comforting my nerves.
My body shook, the adrenaline wearing off. Aaron must’ve seen, because he turned on the heat despite the high July temperatures. I understood him well enough to let him stew. We had been close for over two years, but last year things were different. His dad being diagnosed with cancer had made the Aaron we all knew and loved change and we had grown closer and closer. Callie was my girl for life, but I couldn’t envision a future without knowing Aaron would be there. He understood me, respected me and pushed me to be better. He was allergic to feelings and emotions while I was forever giving up on men. Our friendship worked.
He drove the silent, dark path back to campus, one hand on the wheel and the other repeatedly making a fist. I blamed myself for his anger. He had enough to worry about and now picking me up… Remorse filled my chest and my eyes stung. “I’m fucking sorry. I’m an idiot. I don’t know why I went there. I wanted to have an adventure or something.”
He nibbled on his bottom lip, keeping his expression blank. Shit. Instead of remaining silent and letting him deal with it, I’d decided to ramble. Rambling was a favorite sport of mine and I couldn’t stop.
“He had a motorcycle…”
“I thought he would be a winner…”
“I want what Callie and Zade have…”
“I didn’t realize he was a felon or something and would get the shit beat out of him…”
“I had no fucking clue I would get manhandled…”
“Excuse me. What did you just say?” His jaw tightened.
“I didn’t have a clue—”
“No. You said manhandled. Someone hurt you?” His grip on the wheel tightened and I swallowed, loudly.
“Not hurt, no.” I tucked my arms further into myself. A bruise had already formed and Aaron was in no state to know that. “Forget I said anything.”
“I swear to God, Greta.” He pulled off the road and stopped the car. He shook, his large frame tight with pent-up rage. I wanted to crawl into a hole. Pissed-off Aaron could scare the boogeyman into retirement. “Don’t fucking lie to me. Are you hurt?”
I shook my head, but kept my arms crossed. His gaze flicked to my arms, and without asking, he grabbed them. I closed my eyes and knew he’d seen the bruise when he sucked in a breath. My lip trembled.
“Take off your shirt. I might have another one in the back.” He released my forearms and turned to grab something in the back of the car. He was too calm, too well-behaved. It freaked me the hell out. I expected him to lose his shit and break something. Calm Aaron was new.
“I-it’s okay.” My voice shook again.
“No,” he growled at me. “You have blood on you. Take it off now. I’m getting rid of it.”
He waited, staring daggers at me until I took my blood-soaked shirt off. He wasn’t lying. He whipped it out of my hands and chucked it out of the window. “I can’t find my gym bag. Take mine instead.”
Aaron Hill taking off his shirt should be photographed and made into a calendar. Or, better yet, a promotion for a porn video. He had always been hot as hell, and this was so not the time to ogle my friend. But I was human and his muscles rippled as he tugged off his shirt. “Put this on, Greta. Don’t argue.”
I didn’t. I took the warm black shirt and put it on. It was three sizes too big, but I felt loads better. It wrapped around me like my favorite childhood blanket. I sniffed it unabashedly and closed my eyes. Sleep took over, and it wasn’t until we pulled into Aaron’s driveway in the early hours of the morning when I woke up.
I yawned, not sure why he hadn’t dropped me off at my apartment. He ran his hand down his face, getting out of the car without a word. Okay then. I followed suit and tried not to stare at his back. His beautiful, sculpted back. “Aaron, why didn’t you drop me off?”
“We need to ice your bruise. I have stuff here.” His clipped tone told me he still wasn’t happy with me. I couldn’t blame him, though. “Come on.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, guiding me into his home without making a sound. I walked toward the kitchen, but he shook his head and pointed upstairs. The floor creaked with each step and I made a vow to myself then and there.
No more dating.
No more being a dumbass.
I am going to focus on school and my friends.
I needed to save as much money as I could, ensuring I could return my senior year, because one of the things that had triggered my spiral was my dad losing his job six years before retirement. My parents had had to sell our childhood home, retire three years before they’d planned, and most of their money had been spent helping my brother with his nasty divorce. Shame consumed me again at how selfish and foolish I had been. My eyes stung and I clenched my jaw, hoping to stop the waterworks.
I planned to delete my online dating apps and have someone change my password as soon as I woke up the next day. Tonight had crossed a line. Too fucked-up.
“Go ahead and sit on the bed. I’ll get my kit.” He held the door for me and disappeared down the hall. Aaron’s room fit him well—baseball legends and pinup models plastered on the walls. Clothes scattered across the floor made it appear messy, but I knew the closet was organized by colors. The bed welcomed me, the exhaustion of the night taking me. I lay on it, just closing my eyes for a little. I would leave after I’d iced my bruised arm. Dreams began to take over when I felt the softest touch on my cheek, like a feather.
A deep, hushed voice forced me to open my eyes and Aaron’s gray ones were inches away from me. “Hm?”
“Sit up for a second. You can sleep right after.” He nudged my leg with his arm and sat next to me. He was still shirtless, the handsome devil. He carefully put my forearm in his left hand and used his other to hold the ice against it. “It hurts me seeing this bruise on you.”
I closed my eyes at his honesty. I leaned into his shoulder and sighed. “I’m so embarrassed. And sorry. And I hate myself a little right now.”
“We all make mistakes. Hell, you knew me when I went on a bender. You stood by me when I drank every night, slept with countless women, and chewed my ass out the one time I tried drugs. I haven’t forgotten that.”
I groaned into his shoulder. “I would do it again if I had to.”
“I know you would, G.” He laughed softly, the first time that night. I’d missed that sound.
“There it is. I wondered if your laughing part broke.”
“Okay, no need to be dramatic.” He picked up the ice and hissed at my arm. “Promise me something.”
“No need. I already made a vow to never online date again. No, to never date again. Or at least for five years. Don’t worry. This will never happen again.”
“It better fucking not.” His hand came around my leg, squeezing my knee. “Promise me you’ll call me if you need help. Any time. Any place. You’re one of the most important people in my goddamn life.”
“Okay.” I met his gaze and winced at the intensity in his eyes. “I promise.”
“Good.” He yawned, taking the bag off my arm. “I’m going to sleep. I’m beat.”
“Uh, should I call a cab?” I hesitated.
“Don’t be a dumbass. Sleep here. You’ve crashed on the couch countless times.” He leaned back, fluffing up the pillows and rolling over. Damn those back muscles. I want to bite them.
I pushed myself up to head downstairs when his arm wrapped around me. “Uh, Aaron?”
“Stay here. My bed is huge. Don’t make it weird.”
He pulled me back onto the bed but kept enough distance between us. He must’ve sensed my trepidation because he rolled over and mumbled, “You mean too much to me to try anything. Go to sleep.”
Early Review about The Game Changer:
"Having read previous works by this author, I snapped up the chance for an ARC of The Game Changer. Then promptly devoured it. It hits all the feel-good NA points, featuring two college best friends who decide to fake a stable relationship in order to save the scholarships--and possible future career--of baseball player Aaron after he hits a downward spiral that plays out publicly. Already friends, the chemistry is immediate with their banter and joking. It only builds from there, making for some super steamy bedroom scenes. Some of the best parts were in how strong the original friendship shone through during hard family times. It supported the foundation of the budding relationship and made it easily believable they could overcome the obstacles and make things real."
You can preorder it at the following places:
Goofy, romance-loving sports fanatic who often talks about her baby, her husband, or romance novels that make her heart feel squishy.