Home > False Start (Playing for Keeps #2)

False Start (Playing for Keeps #2)
Author: Neve Wilder








They say time heals all wounds, blunts the edges of life’s blades. That it dulls the memory of someone’s smile, leeches warmth from the memory of their touch.

Always sounded like a load of bullshit to me.

Yet, I kinda believed it—at least in an optimistic sense—until five minutes ago when, amid the hum of chatter and clinking glass, I glanced up from scrolling my phone to find Cullen Atwood sitting on one of SkyAir Lounge’s fancy barstools. Even at a distance, my heart shuddered with recognition at the way his finger lazily traced the rim of the glass the bartender placed in front of him. The curve of his back was still etched in my memory, sharp as a blade. I couldn’t look away, mesmerized by the jolt of electricity that surged through me, just as powerful as it’d been when I’d first met him at Southern University a decade ago.

My phone chimed with a text, breaking my trance, and I dropped my gaze with a sigh of relief.

Garrett: You there yet?

Me: Still at O’Hare. Flight’s been delayed.

Garrett: Ugh. Sorry, bro.

Me: No big deal. SkyAir’s members’ club is pretty sweet. Maybe I can just stay here for the next couple of days. Screw the interview.

Ramsey: Your enthusiasm about this job opportunity is overwhelming. Please tone it down.

Garrett: That’s just Houston. Excitable as a puppy.

Ramsey: If the puppy is a Rottweiler.

Garrett: I was thinking more along the lines of a wiener dog. Speaking of, I think we should get a dog.

Ramsey: I don’t know about that. We can circle back to wieners, though.

Me: Please don’t.



I groaned, even as a smile tickled the corner of my lips. Being in a group chat with my best friend and his boyfriend, who happened to also be my younger brother, was a mixed bag that usually devolved into them smack-talking each other, or me, until I threatened to leave the chat.

Me: As much as I’d love to watch a text debate about pet ownership play out, I feel I should be the voice of reason and remind you both that you play pro football for a living. You don’t have time for a dog right now.

Garrett: Which is why you’ll dog sit for us.

That was my cue.

Me: I’m leaving the chat now.



Tucking my phone away, I glanced at the flight display and sighed. The delay on top of Atwood somehow appearing in an airport club a thousand miles away from our respective home bases was starting to feel like another prank from the universe.

The last time I saw him, what felt like a lifetime ago, there were fewer than five yards and an entire world between us. I still had my pro football career with the Rush, a roaring stadium, the ringing of the coach’s calls, and the bustle of my teammates surrounding me. From the opposing side, Cullen’s piercing hazel gaze locked on mine until the shrill of the whistle drew them away.

A smart man would go back to the mind-numbing scroll of his phone.

Or leave.

But I never claimed to be smart, especially where Cullen was concerned, just decent at football until my knee had a disastrous encounter with two opposing linebackers and my career was unceremoniously over. Ramsey was right that I wasn’t overly enthused about the assistant coach interview with New York, but I’d had enough time to mourn my career. It was time to be an active participant in my own life again.

I rubbed a thumb over the twinge in my knee as I rose, hefted my backpack to my shoulder, and made my way to the bar. I left a stool between me and Cullen as I sat to order a drink. I suddenly needed one.

Cullen’s head swinging toward me felt both as inevitable and unexpected as the first time his lips brushed mine. The golden flecks in his eyes were enhanced by the forest-colored button-down he wore. I’d ripped something similar off him before, and the memory thumped the back of my brain with a dull ache as he gestured toward the stool between us nonchalantly. “That some sort of boundary line, McRae? Don’t worry, I won’t steal your backpack.”

We’d never done proper goodbyes; why would we bother with a proper hello? “I hear it’s something called ‘common courtesy.’”

“Ahhh, yes.” Cullen’s lips twisted into a sardonic moue. “One of those things I try to avoid at all costs.” The bartender set a rocks glass down in front of me. Clear liquid, a lime on the rim. “I assume you still like vodka tonics. Saw you as I walked in.” His self-assured grin, like he’d known I’d come over, irked me.

“Not usually at 10:00 a.m. on a Monday.” There were plenty of empty stools nearby, but maybe he was spot-on about it being a boundary line. The scent of his cologne hung faintly in the air—the same damn one he wore in college. That I remembered it was yet more evidence that all the epithets about time were bullshit.

“I’m celebrating signing an endorsement deal.” Cullen’s grin widened as I eyed the dark liquid in his glass and lifted a brow. “Just Coke. Still a guilty pleasure.”

“So I hear.” There’d been a story about some party he was at months ago, mildly scandalous compared to other stories about him I’d caught from the tabloids. I couldn’t remember the details, though. Not as well as the scent of his cologne, anyway.

“You know better. My tests are always clean. Always have been, always will be. What everyone else does is none of my business.” He shrugged. I couldn’t challenge him on that. There were a lot of things about Cullen I could question, but his single-minded dedication to the sport wasn’t one of them, for better or worse. He might toe the line with his antics, but he’d never risk sabotaging his career with drugs or excessive booze.

“No entourage today?” Cullen was typically hounded by fans and paps anywhere he went. Not that I stalked him or anything; he just happened to pop up frequently on socials, and I liked to stay on top of football-related news. The media had kept him under a microscope for years, one of their favorite bad boys. Cullen seemed to court it at this point.

“I guess traveling home to see your sister doesn’t have the same panache as flying to Miami to party on yachts. Paps gave up before I even got to security.”

“How is she?” I took a testing sip of my vodka tonic. It tasted a little wrong in the morning hour, but the immediate warmth in my stomach was a welcome change from the knot in my gut over being in close proximity to Cullen.

“Good. Same old Charity. Just a little older.” She and Cullen had been close in college—she’d visited him several times and was the only member of his family I’d ever hung out with—so I was glad to hear that still seemed to be the case. “Caught some of the news about your brother and Ramsey. Guess that worked out pretty well for them.”

“It did. They’re doing great.” I sucked down another third of my drink, trying to drown the pit in my stomach. Fuck this conversation. I wasn’t sure there were any safe topics with Cullen, but this one? Probably among the most dangerous, and I was almost certain that in the abrupt silence that followed, he felt the tension between us balloon outward as much as I did. I definitely should’ve just headed to my gate.

“It’s good to see you,” he said after a beat, offering a wan smile. Yeah, he definitely felt it.

Hot Books
» House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City #1)
» A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire
» From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash #1)
» A Million Kisses in Your Lifetime
» Deviant King (Royal Elite #1)
» Den of Vipers
» House of Sky and Breath (Crescent City #2)
» Sweet Temptation
» The Sweetest Oblivion (Made #1)
» Chasing Cassandra (The Ravenels #6)
» Wreck & Ruin
» Steel Princess (Royal Elite #2)
» Twisted Hate (Twisted #3)
» The Play (Briar U Book 3)
» The War of Two Queens (Blood and Ash #4)