Chapter 1 - Isabelle
“But even though I knew he was a player, and that I was just another game to him, I played along. No harm in that, when you knew the rules, right? I was just trying demo mode, I was never going to sign up for the full game.”
There was an air of excitement stirring in the atmosphere. Given where we were tonight, it wasn’t unexpected. But still, I couldn’t help stealing glances at all the famous people around us – dressed up in their finest frocks and tuxes, ready to party well into the night.
It was New Year’s Eve. But not just any New Year’s Eve – this one was extra special – because it was also the night that my cousin, Austin Johnson, married the love of his life, Aria Davis. There was a lot more to this story, of course. In a nutshell, Austin was the lead singer in the biggest band in the world right now - Scarlet Shadow - and Aria, the band’s lead publicist. They’d known each other since childhood, were best friends, had a falling out in high school, then reconnected again years later, and the rest, as they said, were history.
Given the fame and status of the groom, it was no wonder that I was surrounded by a sea of celebrities attending the wedding of the year tonight at an exclusive five-star resort hired out for the occasion. I felt slightly out of my element; even though I had family connections to showbiz, my own life was a far cry from glamorous. Everything at this wedding reception was grand, every detail planned out, the atmosphere was quite simply magical with thousands upon thousands of fairy lights hanging like a canopy tent from the roof to the sides, a sea of flowers adorning the tables. Absolutely nothing had been left to chance. Security swarmed the hotel grounds, keeping the hungry media out and protecting the secrets of the wealthy, well-heeled wedding guests.
The ceremony had concluded late afternoon, and the party was in full swing at the reception. Speeches had been delivered, toasts were made, and the dance floor was filling up fast.
“This is one hell of a party,” Jordan turned to me, tearing his eyes away from Curtis Chandler, another member of Scarlet Shadow, who’d just walked past. “Thanks for inviting me along, because I would’ve hated to miss this.”
“You’re welcome,” I smiled at him. “And you’re doing me the favor here, actually, agreeing to be my date at short notice.”
“That’s what best friends are for,” he clinked his glass against mine as we both took a sip of champagne.
His eyes kept following Curtis Chandler back to his table, where he took a seat with my other cousin, Austin’s brother, Dominic, who was the bass player in Scarlet Shadow. They were talking to a famous supermodel whose name I couldn’t remember off the cuff. Suffice to say that her face, and more importantly, her body, was gracing every second billboard from here well into the next state, advertising lacy designer underwear.
"Damn. That man is fine,” Jordan sighed, and I giggled so hard my sinuses started to burn from the champagne threatening to snort up my nose.
“Some damn fine guys at this party tonight, that’s for sure,” I had to agree with him though.
He frowned. “So, what’s the story with Carson?”
Carson was my ex. My very recent ex, in fact, whom I’d broken up with exactly two days ago, hence the necessity for Jordan, my best friend, to step in as my wedding date last-minute.
I sighed. “He was starting to get demanding. He was saying that we didn’t see each other enough, and it felt as though he was laying the guilt on me, you know? He knew full well the kind of lifestyle I live when we got together. Traveling for tournaments is part of the deal, it’s not something I can negotiate my way out of. I need to play to perform in the rankings. That’s the life of a tennis player; he knew that, but he didn’t really understand,” I exhaled, feeling kind of down even though I was attending the party of the year.
Jordan’s eyebrows rose. “He should’ve known better than to make demands on you like that. He knew what he was getting into, dating Isabelle Johnson,” he smirked cheekily, and I punched him lightly on the upper arm for teasing me like that, because in the greater scheme of things, I really was no one – just another college girl trying her best to make it as a professional tennis player, waiting for her big break to be invited to the grand slams one day.
“Ouch, Iz, that hurt. Be gentle – you have actual muscles to hit power shots, girl,” he rubbed his arm, his handsome face contorting into an unimpressed scowl.
“Sorry. And they’re called aces, but yeah. You know what, he is handsome and talented, and I really liked him to start off with. But the more I got to know him, the more he... changed,” I sighed, feeling defeated. “He was getting impatient with me,” I admitted.
“How long has it been? Two months?” Jordan asked with a frown, getting what I was trying to say in so many words.
I nodded. “About six weeks. But our conversation two days ago gave me a clear indication that this was never going to work between us. He made me feel guilty for only being able to turn up to one of his football games so far. Not that he bothered to come to any of mine, but that’s beside the point. The main thing was that he didn’t want to wait any longer...” I bit my bottom lip, feeling self-conscious. I wasn’t completely inexperienced, and it wouldn’t have been my first time, but I hadn’t been ready to take things to the next level with Carson. It just didn’t feel right. And the harder he pushed, the less I felt inclined to do it with him. To the point, where I felt the need to break things off, because I was starting to dislike him as a person.
“And although he said that he understood after I called him out, it felt forced. He didn’t really get the demands on my time, and didn’t understand that tennis has to be my biggest priority right now, either,” I added as an afterthought.
“Good thing you dumped him before it got too serious. Just because he’s on the Eastwood U football team, he probably thought you’d fall at his feet. And there’s no shortage of eligible bachelors at this joint tonight, Iz,” Jordan nudged me on. “Why don’t you ask Curtis Chandler to dance? I’m not sure that he brought a date to this wedding, actually, and the guy is smoking hot.
I laughed from the bottom of my stomach. “No thanks. No way in hell. There’s no way he’d say yes; he’s super famous and super hot, and he seems kind of stand-offish to add to that already lethal combination. I, on the other hand, am a nobody, and I have my pride. I don’t think I can handle that kind of public humiliation right now.”
Jordan’s eyebrows shot up. “You should seriously look in the mirror, girl. You’re hot. Those legs of yours...” he wiggled his eyebrows. “If I were straight, I’d be trying to get into your pants right now, for the record.”
I shook my head at him, still laughing. “Stay on your side of the bed tonight, okay? No funny business.”
And then we both laughed again as he pulled me up, nodding towards the dance floor.
“Well, I might not want to sleep with you, but I do want to dance with you. Let’s show these showbiz people how it’s done.”
A few songs later, I was fanning myself. Jordan ducked out to go to the men’s room, and I walked out onto the open-air terrace to catch some fresh air and cool down. I was the only person out there, and I somehow craved a little solitude. I was by no means heartbroken over Carson, but the whole thing still stung. Between studying for my degree and trying to climb in the WTA rankings, my life was full. I didn’t have the time to invest in starting new relationships, and the whole break-up was messing with my head a little, even though I’d been the one doing the dumping.
I was twenty-one, not far off from turning twenty-two, and only a few months off from graduating. And although I knew my whole life was still ahead of me, it felt like the clock was ticking, all the same. It was a race against time to try and make it professionally, and I knew that my heart would have to take a back seat for the time being. I’d worked so damn hard to get to where I was, I couldn’t afford to be distracted from the end goal. But even though I’d made my choices, it didn’t help that sting of loneliness that seemed to find its place inside my heart just like it was right now.
I leaned against the railing, feeling the cool sea breeze kiss my skin, my loosely curled, long sandy-blonde hair playing around ever-so-slightly in the wind. I sighed deeply, closing my eyes for a second, breathing the fresh air into my lungs.
“Mind if I join you?” An unfamiliar deep voice startled me back to reality, and my eyes flew open as I straightened myself out.
I swallowed visibly as I took in the guy standing next to me, wearing one hell of a handsome smile to complement his expensive tux. I recognized him immediately. Hell, everyone on campus knew who he was. Liam Blake – heartbreaker, football star. He was born into a family of football royalty, actually, so it was only right that he was the star wide receiver on Eastwood University’s team who was on the cusp of making the national championship final - the same team Carson played in, incidentally. His father was the legendary Mayhem Blake, hall of fame quarterback, turned-sports presenter on television. His brother was the devastatingly handsome Connor Blake, who seemed to be in contention for rookie of the year, and clearly well on his path to becoming just as big of an NFL legend as his famous dad. Gossip around campus was that several professional teams were courting Liam Blake already, and that it was just a matter of graduating before he’d go professional too, and follow in the family tradition.
“Sure,” I smiled hesitantly.
There were around 1500 guests at this wedding, which would explain why I hadn’t seen him until now. He had no idea who I was, obviously, but that didn’t stop him from looking at me with some level of interest, regardless.
“Liam,” he introduced himself, stretching out a hand confidently, wearing a sexy as sin smirk on his perfectly chiseled face. The guy could’ve walked out of an Armani catalog; he was that handsome, his face perfectly symmetrical, his steel-gray eyes framed by impossibly dark lashes and eyebrows, matching his midnight-black hair. He had that solid kind of jaw that women swooned over and cheekbones that could cut through paper. His tux hinted at the definition underneath, his dark dress pants perfectly tailored to fit snugly across his hips, and woefully unable to hide the sheer muscle in his thighs. It was almost criminal that a guy could be this good-looking because he had absolutely everything going for him.
I smiled, raising an eyebrow, realizing I had to say something because I’d just been staring at him for a good few seconds already. “I know who you are.”
He laughed, raising an eyebrow too, still waiting on me to take his outstretched hand.
“My reputation precedes me, then,” he teased, and I couldn’t help but smile a little, either. He had charm, alright. Pity I knew exactly the kind of guy he was.
“So it does,” I said dryly, sighing, taking his hand, because I was a lot of things – cautious, level-headed, responsible – but not rude.
“And you are?” He asked, still wearing that killer smile.
I had no idea what had gotten into me, but for some reason, I didn’t give him my real name. It didn’t matter in any event, right? We’d talk politely for a minute, keeping each other company, then carry on with our lives.
“Anna,” I picked the name of a semi-famous former tennis player who people said I looked a little like, and the moment I said it, I wondered why the hell I did that. It seemed as though a couple of glasses of champagne had turned me in the mood for playing games tonight.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Anna,” he nodded, still holding onto my hand, something in his gaze telling me that he was flirting right now.
A waiter entered the veranda and Liam motioned him over, taking two champagne flutes off the tray he was carrying, nodding his head in appreciation. He immediately handed me one.
“Thank you.” I already felt the buzz in my bloodstream, but what the hell, I was at a wedding – and not just a wedding – the wedding of the year, so why not have another one?
He held up his glass in a toast, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
“To meeting beautiful strangers.”
My lips curved into an involuntary smile. Damn, this guy was good. He was turning on the charm like a fountain right now. But even though I knew he was a player, and that I was just another game to him, I played along. No harm in that, when you knew the rules, right? I was just trying demo mode, I was never going to sign up for the full game.
“To the impending new year,” I challenged back and he nodded, clinking my glass with his.
“So, Anna. Bride or groom’s side?”
“Friend of the bride.”
We both nodded, the atmosphere seemed charged, somehow.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you’re stunning,” he said, smooth as a bar of soap.
I smiled and raised an eyebrow, wondering how many other girls he’d said that line to this week. Because even though Liam Blake might not have known who I was, I knew very well that he deserved his reputation as one of the biggest players on campus. He happened to a friend of a friend one night, about a year ago. Picked her up at a bar, seduced her, and walked out of her room sometime later with a polite goodbye, not even asking for her number for appearances’ sake; that was how arrogant he was. And although, on all accounts, he could catch and run with a football, he most certainly wasn’t the type of guy I was interested in, because I didn’t want to be just another number inside a little black book or a notch on a bedpost.
“Thank you,” I gave a forced smile, doubting his sincerity. I checked my wristwatch. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my date.”
That didn’t seem to deter him, though.
“Can I have your number, Anna?”
I raised an eyebrow. “To do what with, exactly?”
He laughed. “To call you. Ask you out.”
Pity he didn’t know me very well.
“No thanks. But thank you for the company.”
His jaw dropped and I spun around, walking to the door leading back inside. But just as I reached for the door handle, I felt a hand on my upper arm, imploring me to turn around.
It was my turn to gasp because my skin came alive in an instant. He was standing so damn close to me, his gunmetal eyes smoking with intent as he devoured me with his gaze.
“You dropped an earring,” his voice was low and rough, and we just looked at each other breathlessly for a few seconds before he was the first to move, holding out his free hand with my earring inside.
My eyes darted down, and my lips parted. What the hell was wrong with me? I could feel my pulse – everywhere.
“Thank you,” my fingers brushed against his as I took my earring, swallowing heavily as I tried to put it back on, but my fingers were trembling for some reason, I couldn’t get the damn thing into the tiny pierced hole in my earlobe.
“Can I help?” His eyebrow rose; he hadn’t moved a damn inch, still invading my personal space. And the more he looked at me with that blazing intensity, the less I could think. The guy could have the morals of an eel, but that didn’t make him any less devastatingly handsome, unfortunately.
I stubbornly tried again, poking my earlobe damn hard with the sharp end.
“Ouch,” I bit my bottom lip, but then I let it slip from my teeth again as he lifted my hair with one hand, leaning in even closer.
“Give it here,” he demanded, his voice like a spell.
I swallowed again, then handed over the earring, feeling hotter and hotter by the damn second with him radiating heat at me in wave after wave, his body perilously close to mine.
I turned my head ever-so-slightly so that I didn’t have to look him in the eyes as his fingers skimmed my earlobe, hooking the earring back in place. The intoxicating bergamot scent of his aftershave prickled inside my nostrils, he was that damn close to me. And I felt my chest heave faster and faster...
He inhaled, pausing for a second with his fingers brushing against my cheekbone before I turned my head to face him again. And just like that, his gaze sucked me in...
A/N: Welcome to another rollercoaster ride! For my regulars, you know what you’re in for. For any new readers, brace yourself for passion, heartache, and an intense ride. I make no excuses for the fact that my characters aren’t perfect because that makes them human, and it makes for an interesting story. Please be kind with your comments, and remember I have a delete button ;-)
I’ll be updating this story every day at least initially, time permitting, but I do have a personal life that’s crazy-busy, and demands on my time can change quickly. My Insta-followers get extra love with bonus teasers, footage, and advance notification of bonus chapters - join me on Instagram at Talita.Lawrence.Author if you want to see what Liam looks like.
I am using fictitious institutions and team names in this story. This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons or events are purely coincidental. As such, I do not represent that everything in this story will be factually accurate.
This story is intended for a mature audience. It contains coarse language (hello f-bombs), mature themes, and sex scenes. Please make a U-turn right here if you’re under eighteen.
Keep reading for chapter two...
With love and gratitude, T.L xo