Basketball has always been his one love, until now . . .
Zeke Armstrong never imagined he’d be back in Vermont, but here he is, living in Colebury and trying to rehab an injury that could mean an early retirement from pro basketball. Running into his former classmate, Mallory Barrett, shouldn’t be a distraction. It shouldn’t mean anything, so why is he accidentally on purpose showing up at the coffee shop where the beautiful writer spends her time?
Mallory Barrett has met a guy. Well, she hasn’t met him yet, except for on the dating app she almost refused to download. “Coby” sparks her interest and gets her jokes--and gives the romance-novel heroes she loves so much a full-court run for their money. When their first date doesn’t work out, she decides to give him another shot . . . just as a man she despises reenters her life. While her interest in the mystery man on the app grows, she clashes constantly with Zeke in real life. She can’t forgive him for humiliating her in high school, yet she can’t deny she’s drawn to him now.
She’s somehow gone from confirmed bachelorette to the tie-breaker between two men. Meanwhile Zeke has a secret--one that will cost him the game if Mallory finds out . . .
“Are you on that dating app again?” Stacey asked.
“You know it,” I answered.
“I don’t get the appeal of going on a dating app to antagonize men. Don’t you want to find love?”
I gagged and shot my best friend and roommate a scathing look. First Spark was the app she was referring to. It was all about finding that first spark with the one. I wasn’t interested in that one bit. Thankfully, they also had a casual hook-up section called Blush which was what I used. It was less sleazy and didn’t have as many weirdos as a regular hookup app since First Spark was legitimate. I usually closed all the accounts Stacey set up for me, but I stayed with this one.
“You do get that you write romance for a living, don’t you?” Stacey deadpanned. “I’ll never understand how you do that.”
I heard the unspoken end of her sentence. “And it may be why your books aren’t doing as well as you want.” She’d said it so many times before that there was no point in her voicing it again. She thought I should give romance and dating a real chance. I thought she should mind her own business and keep up with her failed dating rituals.
My attention turned back to my phone so I could pick my next victim. The profile picture was of someone in climbing gear, turned toward the rock wall so all I saw was his back. His username was “Coby” which was cute. I couldn’t fault him for using a picture that didn’t show his face, though. A lot of people did that, myself included. My profile was a picture Stacey took a couple years ago of the back of my hair in all its curly glory. It’d been a good hair day. I swiped right and prepared my first message.
Me: Hey! I’m a thief, and I’m here to steal your heart.
I didn’t wait around for a reply since it was hit or miss. Some guys took the bait even though my pickup lines were shitty and better suited for a bar than an online dating app. Others didn’t bother to reply at all.
“Do you think I should ask Zara or Audrey about working at the Bean?” I asked Stacey.
“Why?” she shot back without looking up at me.
“Because I spend all day there anyway, I could make some money while I’m sitting there not writing.”
“Still stuck with that story?” She asked.
“Yeah. I can’t figure out why Cynthia and Jerry even want to be together. He’s a class-A prick and she’s completely uninterested in dating. They work better as friends, but I can’t find other love interests for either of them.”
Stacey put her e-reader aside and angled her body so she was facing me. I sat my phone face down on my lap.
“Have you tried changing their personalities or the trope?”
“No. I need to stop avoiding this book every time it gets too hard to write,” I said with a sigh. “It feels like this one is it. If I can figure it out, I’ll make more than a few hundred dollars off one of my books.”
“Mallory,” Stacey said with a hint of exasperation in her voice. “I know you feel that way, but you also feel that way about every book you’ve written so far. It’s time for you to scrap this idea and come up with another one. You’re trying too hard.”
My phone buzzed, and because I didn’t know what to say to my best friend, I picked it up. Coby had responded.
Coby: Was that a serious inquiry?
Me: Of course. My message made my intentions clear.
Coby: I’m not sure how to respond to that.
Me: Okay, how about this: If you were a library book, I’d check you out.
Coby: I didn’t think it could get worse.
Me: Oh, baby, I’m just warming up. I have so many more I can dish out.
“Why are you smiling so hard?” Stacey asked.
“I got one to bite.”
She grinned like a fool and joined me on the love seat, demanding to see pictures. Even though she thought I should get serious about dating, she was entertained by my antics and how men sometimes responded to my messages. We went through the pics he had that didn’t show us how he looked in the least. Stacey insisted on choosing the next bad pickup line, and I left my phone with her while I went to the kitchen to start dinner. She may have a point about me trying to date someone, but I couldn’t see that turning out well in the end for me. I took a couple of deep breaths in and out to clear my head before turning on the Bluetooth speaker.
“Put on my latest playlist, Stace,” I called to her.
She did as I asked as I started pulling out pots and pans. I already knew what I was going to cook: baked chicken, spinach, and brown rice. Our New Year's resolution had been to eat healthier. A few weeks into the new year and we were sticking to it so far. We’d see how long it lasted.
I stared at the blinking cursor on the blank white page of my document. I hadn’t even typed “chapter one” because I wanted to have a clever chapter title that was also eluding me.
This story was the one that’d evaded me since I started it five years ago. I always moved on to something else as soon as I got stuck, but not this time. My mentor, Valerie Quinn—bestselling, multi-award-winning author—had challenged me to write at least two chapters for a total of 2,400 words by the end of this week. I’d spent four hours on the phone with her coming up with a new plot and character backgrounds to fit my story. When I’d gotten off the phone, I’d felt invigorated and filled with a sense of hope. I decided to go to bed early last night and get a fresh start on this manuscript today.
I came to The Busy Bean as soon as possible so I could get my other work done and start on this story. At the moment, I couldn’t live off what I made from publishing my books. Because of that, I also worked as a freelance editor, a virtual assistant, and a social media manager for two authors—Emilia Court Brooks and Jaleesa Wright. I liked that I didn’t do the same thing every week and I got to read books before they were even published.
I finished all my other tasks by noon, which gave me a good six hours to work on my manuscript. Only I’d been sitting here for the last hour, staring at a blank screen. No words were flowing at all despite having outlined the first five chapters. Valerie had even sent detailed notes from our conversation, but none of it was helping. My head fell into my hands as I let out a low groan. What was it about this story—Imagine Us—that stalled me every damn time? It shouldn’t have been this hard. Stacey’s words from a couple of days ago found their way to the forefront of my brain. She had a point. This may not be that million-dollar idea that would allow me to quit all my side jobs and write full-time. But would Valerie encourage me to pursue it if she thought it was a dead-end?
I let out another groan. These thoughts weren’t getting me anywhere. I needed some sustenance and a break. I pushed back from the table, standing, and stretching out my tight muscles. I turned to head to the counter to order a sandwich and drink for lunch, but my feet didn’t take me in that direction. Instead, they refused to move as my eyes latched on the two men standing and talking at the end of the line. Zeke Armstrong and Daniel Griffin. Two men I despised.
For a split second, I debated sitting my ass back down and waiting until they left or found seats somewhere far from me, but like hell I was going to do that. This was my town, and I didn’t know why they were here, but they weren’t going to make me cower. I wasn’t that girl anymore, the one that they’d humiliated in front of everyone in our class.
Zeke and I used to be best friends when we were kids, but when we started middle school, we drifted apart. I dated Daniel when I was a sophomore in high school, and I was naive enough to think he liked me. What he’d done was unforgivable, and I hadn’t dealt with him since we graduated. Daniel, Zeke, and the rest of the popular clique had been the main reason I hadn’t attended our five-year high school reunion. And why I wasn’t attending the next one this summer.
I let out a hard breath, straightened more, and forced my feet to take me to the line. Of course, Zeke and Daniel had to be at the end of the line. There’d be no separation between me and them as I wished, not that it mattered. Both men’s eyes latched on to me as soon as I started walking, and I didn’t miss the fact that they were checking me out. I’d changed a lot since high school. I wasn’t the dorky girl with too-big glasses and braces who only wore t-shirts with literary quotes or figures on them. There was a chance neither of them would recognize me. A girl could hope.
I got into the line, standing behind them and crossing my arms. The line moved forward but both guys kept glancing back at me. I could see the gears turning in their heads as they tried to place me. I averted my gaze, focusing on the glass display cases filled with cookies and pastries as if I were actually considering any of them.
I bristled at him calling me that and ignored him. That should have made it clear I wasn’t interested in talking to him, but apparently, it meant try another tactic.
I still didn’t acknowledge him.
I braced myself and brought my eyes up to meet his hooded whiskey-brown ones. “What do you want, Zeke?”
“I told you it looked like her,” Daniel said to Zeke.
I narrowed my eyes at him; I didn’t want to hear his voice again for as long as I lived, but we couldn’t always get what we wished for. I didn’t respond to his comment either, taking the time to get a good look at both guys. Daniel was about six feet tall with fair skin, glacial blue eyes, deep brown, wavy hair with natural blond highlights. He was still as handsome—annoyingly so—as he’d been in high school, but he’d filled out since then and was bulkier. Those blue eyes had drawn me in and cast a spell on me all those years ago, but now they made me feel as cold as they looked.
Zeke watched me as I not-so-subtly gave them each the once-over. Zeke had always been cute and became more handsome as he got older. His hooded light brown eyes, sharp cheekbones, full lips, and perfect nose had all the girls clamoring for his attention when we were in high school. I was sure being a pro basketball player meant that was still true for him. He’d grown into his body and was several inches taller than he'd been the last time I saw him in person.
Daniel cleared his throat, ending my perusal of Zeke. I had no interest in either of them, and I hoped this was a stopover for them on their way to somewhere else.
“I wanted to say hi. It's been a while since we've seen each other,” Zeke said. That deep, smooth voice of his made a shiver want to travel down my spine. I squashed that shit. I wasn’t reacting to him.
“I’d say it hasn’t been long enough,” I replied, my tone clipped.
“Come on, Mal,” Daniel stated with what he thought was a charming smile. “High school was a long time ago.”
“Think about what I just said and apply it to that statement too.”
“Ror,” Zeke implored. “We can be civil.”
“I’m being civil. I haven’t cussed either one of you out. And my foot hasn’t connected with either of your sensitive manly parts.”
Daniel whistled. “Damn, the girl knows how to hold a grudge.”
I bit into my tongue to stop from responding. I didn’t want to cause a scene right here in the coffee shop. The line moved forward, and Daniel turned back around. Zeke was watching me. He opened his mouth to say something but closed it when he registered the look on my face. I ran my eyes over his too-handsome face, over the stubble on his cheeks, taut neck, and down to his chest. The Henley shirt he wore molded to his muscular arms and chest. A hint of a tattoo peeked out of the collar of his shirt.
“It was nice seeing you, Rory,” Zeke said, and I brought my eyes back up to his.
“I wish I could say the same.”
His intense gaze bore into mine for a second longer before he gave me his back. There was a familiarity to it, if I was being honest, but this time, I welcomed it instead of dreading it like I did so many times when we were kids.