Blindsided

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Prologue

Emma Maxwell was the first to admit to being a hopeless romantic. She believed in love at first sight, and she believed when she saw “The One,” she’d know it. Birds would sing. Harps would play. Her heart would recognize its soul mate. And Emma suspected she’d found him.

For that very reason, she fought off several Greeks to get a front row seat in the student section right behind the players’ bench. Pleased at her rare display of aggressiveness, she settled into the plastic bleacher seats at Husky Stadium, ignoring the glares of the Sigma Pi whatevers. Next to Emma sat her twin sister, Avery, who’d been rendered speechless after witnessing Emma’s triumph over the frat boys. Even in their drunken state, they dared not mess with a woman on a mission.

The sun glinted off the boats bobbing in the small bay off Lake Washington. A slight breeze kept the late summer day from being too hot, but Emma wasn’t here for boats or a water view.

She was here for him.

She raised her binoculars as the team ran onto the football field for their home opener and spotted him immediately. Tanner Wolfe, quarterback, was last year’s freshman sensation. He’d led the University of Washington Huskies aka Dawgs to a Bowl game and third place in the conference. Everyone expected big things this year of the boy who was barely a man. He carried a lot of weight on those broad shoulders of his, and he did it with a confident smile and easygoing attitude.

Emma had always been intuitive. While she’d never claim to be psychic or clairvoyant, she knew things. After what she’d been through with her first love, she’d thought a harmless crush on a campus celebrity might be the best thing to happen to her. Yet when her infatuation on the quarterback continued through his freshman year—her senior year in high school—she began to wonder.

What she was feeling didn’t feel like a crush, if felt like—

Love.

Emma followed Tanner’s every move through his warm-ups. When he came to the sidelines for the kickoff and removed his helmet, he turned to squint up into the crowd. Their eyes met briefly, and Emma knew.

Yes, she knew.

From that moment forward, Tanner Wolfe held her heart in his big hands.

Even if he didn’t know it and never would.

Chapter 1—Avoiding the Rush

Five Years Later

Tanner Wolfe lived in fear every single day, a fear no one saw, a fear that haunted his dreams, and crushed the life out of his happiness.

Tanner was a fraud. A big, fat fucking fraud. Not that he was really fat. Instead he was six-foot-four of pure muscle and crazy-good athletic talent. And sometimes—most of the times—he hated himself for it.

People thought he was amusing and charming and completely unflappable. He wasn’t—not deep down where it actually counted. Instead he was the total opposite, hoping like hell the word never got out that his devil-may-care attitude was as fake as his come-on lines and broad smile. Women didn’t seem to mind the fake part, and most of the time Tanner told himself he didn’t give a shit either.

Most of the time.

But what about the other times? What if he was exposed for the fake he was and his protective outer layer was skinned down to the raw, black ugliness that dwelled inside him?

His teammates and fans would hate him, and his on-going campaign to make everyone love him would crash and burn just like the rest of his life had lately. He’d survived a lot of stuff in his twenty-four years, but he didn’t think he could survive being exposed. His charm was all he had, that and an overabundance of fake arrogance and contrived confidence most people couldn’t see through. It’s no surprise in the age of texting and tweeting, that no one cared enough to look beyond the surface. Everyone was wrapped up in their separate lives—just like Tanner.

Or at least like he once was.

Then things changed. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t know exactly when, but if he had to pinpoint the why and the when, he suspected his world shifted the day he’d heard his hockey-playing brother had been traded to the Seattle Sockeyes, the same town where Tanner played professional football. Even worse, he’d found out about Isaac the same day he’d thrown an interception with ten seconds left on the clock to lose the last game of the Steelheads’ umpteenth losing season. Possibly Tanner’s last game as a starting quarterback. He’d had two years to prove himself, and he’d done a piss-poor job of it.

On that day, the scales fell off his eyes, and he saw the light. His carefully constructed life was all a façade. His goals, his dreams, his future, once taken for granted, were getting more and more out of reach, like one of those nightmares where the harder a guy runs to escape the monster, the deeper the quicksand gets, and the slower he goes. It didn’t help that team management drafted a hotshot rookie quarterback in the first round on the same day big brother signed a huge, long-term contract with the Seattle Sockeyes. Tanner had just been served notice by his team and by his life.

Thank you, throwing arm, and thank you, asshole big brother. In their screwed up, uber-competitive sibling rivalry, Isaac had beaten him to the punch once again.

Tanner was an involuntary member of the Wolfe Pack—the nickname the press used when referring to the three brothers who played professional baseball, football, and hockey. Damaged souls every last one of them, rooted in their proverbial dysfunctional family in which what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. They were all strong on the surface, and weak as newborn babies underneath.

But Tanner never exposed his belly, not since his mom died, not since he’d learned that weakness angered his father and got him either the belt or running laps until he threw up and/or passed out from exhaustion.

Isaac’s move to Seattle had been months ago, and things hadn’t gotten better as winter gave way to spring. Early June in Seattle proved to be a warm, sunny one, but Tanner couldn’t shake the ominous feeling his life was about to change, and not necessarily in a good way. As his buddy Hunter liked to say, adversity and change force a guy to grow and become a better man.

Whatever.

When his agent Mark Beedle called to report the breaking news, Tanner put on his game face even as his insides churned, while those two bacon burgers he ate for dinner plotted their escape from his stomach.

“Are you sitting down?” the bastard said. His agent had a well-deserved rep as a ruthless jerk, though his wife and business partner was even scarier.

“I am now,” Tanner said as he sank his butt onto a plush couch in his Seattle high-rise. He stared out the wall of windows, but the beauty of an early Seattle summer escaped his notice. Not even the orange and purple sunset over the Olympic Mountains reflecting on Puget Sound caught his attention.

“The Steelheads have been sold.”

Tanner stopped breathing as he attempted to process what this meant for him and his team. Everyone knew the slimy owner and his fat-assed, lazy sons had bled the team dry then attempted to move them out of town. The league had been not-so-secretly trying to oust them from ownership for the past five years. When the Steelheads drafted Tanner in the first round two years ago, he’d cringed even though he put on a good public face. Playing football for the Steelheads was like being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The city not-so-affectionately dubbed the team the “Headcases” in honor of the drama and dysfunctional surrounding the perpetual losers. Tanner hadn’t helped matters any with his partying and outrageous antics which had nothing to do with football and everything to do with selfish attention-whoring. He’d been the starting quarterback since the fourth game of his rookie season, and he’d be the first to admit he hadn’t been much of a leader.

“What’s the word on the street? Is this sale good news or bad news?” Tanner asked, wondering if he was leaving the rain for sunny California. Years ago, the thought would’ve thrilled him, but not so much now. He’d played his college ball at the University of Washington, and he’d grown fond of the Northwest. Being an outdoorsy guy, he loved the fishing and hiking opportunities and the laid-back, informal lifestyle. Hell, the people of Seattle wore their best jeans to five-star restaurants, understood good coffee, and drank microbrews by the gallon. Yeah, his kind of city, even if his play sucked as much as the team did.

“Both.”

“Who bought them?”

“A group of wealthy Seattle businessmen known as the Seattle Gridiron Group, led by the Reynolds family.”

“So what’s the bad in that, Beed?” Tanner knew all about the Reynolds family. They’d been in Seattle before it was called Seattle. Starting out as timber barons, they’d moved onto dabbling in just about everything. The real estate crash caught them with their pants down, but they’d recovered, and he understood savvy investments in various real estate ventures and IT companies were building their fortune once again.

“They’ve already cleaned house. All of the former owner’s people are gone right down to the coaching staff. Make sure you don’t get yourself swept out with the trash.”

“Are you calling me trash, Beed?” Like he hadn’t been called worse in his twenty-four years, especially by his father.

“Nah, but I’m cautioning you not to act like trash.” Beed laughed. “The Reynolds family prides themselves on family, community service, and a stellar reputation for honesty. They’re going to expect the same from you.”

“I can deal with all of it but the family crap.”

“Yeah, well, unless you want to be playing third-string in the arena league, you’d better play ball with them and make nice with that hockey-playing brother of yours. After all, Brad Reynolds is VP of the Sockeyes, and rumor has it, Carson Reynolds will be president of the Steelheads.”

“Not that tight-ass.”

“Yup, that tightass.”

“Shit.” Tanner leaned his head back and closed his eyes, but nothing stopped the pounding in his temple.

“There’s more.”

Tanner groaned.

“Carson himself wants to meet with you tomorrow morning at 6:30 A.M. at the Bridge.”

Everyone called the combination training facility/team headquarters the Bridge because it had this weird bridge connecting the two sections to circumvent a salmon stream which flowed into Lake Washington.

“Are you f—uh, nuts?”

Beed laughed. “Call me and let me know how it goes.”

Tanner growled and hung up the phone. Shooting to his feet, he paced the floor, full of nervous energy and concern for his future. Carson Reynolds was a hard-assed, straight-shooter of a businessman with the Midas touch. He’d make the team into a contender or die trying, while taking no prisoners.

If Tanner didn’t clean up his act, he’d be out on his ass, and at the least relegated to an obscure third-string position elsewhere; at the worst, he’d be out of the league altogether.

Tanner wasn’t ready to give up on his pro football career. Not ready to prove his father right—that he’d never amount to anything but one predictable failure after another.

Tanner couldn’t think of anything worse in his life than giving the old man that satisfaction.

 

* * * *

 

Emma Maxwell’s sisters and friends were having a raucous girls’ night out.

Emma, not so much.

Nothing unusual there. Emma dreaded this kind of stuff because she was like a fish out of water. The other women at the table knew it wasn’t Emma’s thing, but unfortunately, they’d all imbibed beyond the point of no return and ceased to be cognizant of their own mouths, let alone notice Emma’s growing discomfort.

Since Emma didn’t drink, middle sister Bella, the family wild child, coerced her into going out with them so they’d have a designated driver. Emma was no match for Bella’s persuasive and manipulative talents. Faster than she could concoct a reason to stay home, they’d piled into Izzy’s huge SUV and headed for the local sports bar.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, Emma lectured herself. She’d find a way to enjoy the evening hanging out with her sisters and a few friends, even though she wasn’t drinking. Only enjoy didn’t quite cover it. As the night wore on, she felt like she always did, as if the others were part of some secret club for which Emma didn’t have a key. They talked about everything from who was the hottest guy, who had the biggest dick, and who had the most orgasms in one night—Bella, of course, won that one.

Meanwhile Emma stood on the outside looking in. Being the sober one in a bunch of outrageous, wasted females was like being the only person going the right way on I-5 and doing your best to avoid a head-on collision while making sure the others didn’t crash and burn.

“Good thing we brought Emma,” Avery, Emma’s twin, pointed out as she took another swig of wine and giggled. She tapped something out on her phone and giggled some more. Bella leaned over and peered at her phone, which Avery immediately covered.

“You’re sexting with Isaac. Way to go, Ave. I taught you well.” Bella patted Avery on the back and belched. Manners didn’t mean crap to Bella.

Avery grinned, not denying what she’d been doing. She’d just gotten engaged a few weeks ago to Isaac Wolfe, a defenseman on the Seattle Sockeyes hockey team, and they were madly in love.

Oldest sister Izzy glanced up from her own phone and slipped it into her purse, most likely fearing being caught doing the same thing with Cooper, her fiancé and the captain of the hockey team.

“What would girls’ night out be like without Emma on her pedestal glaring down at the rest of us?” Bella pointed out and erupted in a series of drunken giggles.

“I’m not glaring. You’re all very entertaining,” Emma fibbed, cringing at how self-righteous she sounded. She forced a smile, tired of being the uptight, straight-laced one of the bunch, but no one was paying attention. Instead every head turned to look at something behind Emma. Emma twisted in her seat to see who caught their attention, knowing it had to be a hot guy.

Emma’s breath caught in her throat as Tanner Wolfe, complete with his usual wingmen, strutted into the bar as if he owned the place. Not only was Tanner as hot as they came, but his cohorts weren’t slouches either. As a huge closet Steelheads fan, Emma knew Tanner’s buddies on sight—Hunter McCoy, a six-foot-five tight end, along with Grady Powers and Cameron Swift, the team’s two best wide receivers. The other men might be hot, but Tanner held Emma’s attention.

Last year, Izzy had become good friends with Tanner, and he hung out often with the sisters, giving Emma even more fodder for her late-night fantasies. She’d barely spoken more than a handful of words to the man, but a girl could dream.

Tanner’s air of authority and supreme confidence struck her every time she saw him. She wished she could be that bold, that invincible. Tonight he wore a blue and gray Steelheads T-shirt, tight enough to reveal his muscular chest and ripped midsection. Emma swallowed and cleared her throat. His thick, unruly sun-streaked dark blond hair needed a good cut, but he looked damn sexy with his messy, devil-may-care style. He had a tattoo on his left forearm which covered his entire upper arm, an intricate swirling mass of vines and leaves intertwined with names and quotes or something. Emma longed to read each one of them and ask him what significance they had. Then she wanted to lick them and every other part of his shredded masculine body.

Bella had said he had tattoos elsewhere, and Emma could only imagine—oh, boy, could she imagine. Bella would know; she’d slept with Tanner a few times. If only Emma could be Bella for a few hours, throw out all inhibitions, and sleep with a hot guy like Tanner then never look back. But Emma wasn’t Bella. No, Emma was more like Avery, who slept with a hot guy she’d only just met and ended up falling in love with him. That hot guy happened to be Tanner’s estranged brother.

Small world.

Bella fanned herself. “Now if that fine man doesn’t make my pussy wet.”

Izzy laughed and almost choked on her wine. “Don’t let Coop hear you say that. He’ll get his boxers in a bunch if you start another affair with Tanner.”

Bella threw back her head and laughed. “Don’t tempt me. You know I love to jerk Coop’s chain.”

“You’ll be jerking Isaac’s too. He’s not overly fond of his brother,” said Avery, referring to Tanner’s brother and her now-fiancé Isaac.

“Sisters, tell me something I don’t know. As hot as Tanner is, neither of us is interested in a repeat. I was referring to Hunter.” Bella’s smile grew as she caught the men’s attention and crooked her index finger. As one, the men did an abrupt change of direction and headed their way.

“He is oh-so-hot,” Angela, Bella’s best friend, leaned forward and wiped imaginary drool from her face. Angela was more than a little drunk, and she looked ready to pounce. Angela didn’t care what anyone thought, just like Bella.

Emma ignored them all and tried to control her wildly beating heart as the men got closer. Tanner pulled out a chair between Emma and Angela, flipped it around backward, and straddled it. His buddies followed suit.

“Evening, ladies.” Tanner tipped an imaginary hat and gifted them with his trademark grin guaranteed to melt panties at fifty paces. Emma’s certainly were melting.

Tanner directed his grin at Emma. “Hey, Emma,” he said in that soft, seductive voice of his.

“Hi.” Emma ducked her head, blushing like an idiot. She caught Bella’s knowing look and hoped she’d keep her mouth shut. So far she had.

Tanner and gang stuck around for a few minutes then excused themselves to play blackjack. Emma sighed as she watched his fine backside disappear into the main casino.

“You’d like to get him naked, wouldn’t you?” Bella snorted, way too drunk to keep her voice down.

Emma’s face flamed with embarrassment. Bella wasn’t cruel, but she had a big mouth when she drank.

“Oh, my God, look at her? One mention of Tanner, and little sister turns all shades of red,” Bella screeched, holding her sides, while tears of mirth ran down her face.

The gang at the table roared with laughter, drawing curious stares from the patrons in the bar. Emma ducked her head, humiliated and angry.

Izzy patted her hand. “Seriously, Emms, I love Tanner like a brother, but he’s not a good fit for you.”

At the word fit, the table roared again.

Avery squeezed her arm and smiled sloppily at her. “Don’t be upset, Emms, this is all in good fun. We love you.”

Emma nodded. “I know. No offense taken.” Yeah, then why did she feel like locking herself in the handicapped bathroom stall and crying her eyes out? This wasn’t like her. Or was it? Maybe it was just like her—that buried part of her she kept hidden deep down inside.

They’d always thought her innocent and couldn’t resist teasing her to make her blush, especially Bella, always the naughtiest of the sisters. She loved to describe her sexcapades, just to see Emma’s face turn redder than a fire truck.

They’d never guess how she spent her Wednesday nights, and she’d never tell them. Emma Maxwell had a dirty little secret, a secret not even her twin sister knew. Of course, considering Emma’s good girl status, her secret probably wasn’t all that dirty, not compared to most women, but for Emma it was a big deal—her guilty pleasure.

For the past three months Emma became another person on Wednesday nights—the type of person Emma herself could never truly be.

Dressing up and singing karaoke at a local casino might not sound like a big deal to most people but to Emma’s sisters it would be a huge betrayal of the pact they’d made years ago. Emma never betrayed anyone; she never went against her family’s expectations.

Except on Wednesday nights.

 

* * * *

 

The next morning, Tanner chewed on a fingernail until he glanced up and noticed Carson Reynolds’s middle-aged executive assistant frowning at him as if he were a steaming pile of dog shit. He couldn’t believe she came to work this early.

Tanner smiled at her, wasting one of his most dazzling smiles on the woman, and she didn’t take so much as a breath. Leave it to Reynolds to hire an assistant who was as big of a tight ass as the man himself. The former team president—and owner’s son—always hired blonde bimbos with boobs bigger than their IQs. But not Carson. The man was all business.

“You can go in now, Mr. Wolfe,” the woman said, looking too much like the not-so-sexy librarian who shushed him back in high school one too many times.

Tanner stood, wiped his sweaty palms on his worn, faded jeans, and walked with slow, deliberate steps to the gallows.

Carson sat behind a large glass-and-steel desk left by his predecessor, the former owner’s dick of a son. He frowned at the computer screen and waved his hand in the air indicating Tanner should have a seat. He didn’t look up.

Tanner sat down and took advantage of Carson’s obvious inattention to size up the other man. Carson wore a conservative black business suit. His dark hair was perfectly trimmed and styled, in stark contrast to Tanner’s too-long, shaggy blond hair. Tanner dug his fingernails into his palms and forced an unconcerned smile on his face and waited with patience he didn’t feel.

Carson sat back and looked up. “Sorry, just putting out fires.”

“I’m guessing this organization has plenty of them,” Tanner quipped.

Carson didn’t smile. Instead he studied Tanner as if he were a scientist trying to discern why an experiment had gone horribly wrong.

“Nice to see you again, Carson,” Tanner added, not able to stand the silence. He’d met the businessman multiple times at various charity functions.

Carson simply nodded and didn’t return the small talk. At that moment the door flew open and slammed against the wall.

Carson stood so Tanner followed the team president’s lead, as a whirlwind of a man literally ran into the room, buzzing with energy and enthusiasm.

“Tanner, I don’t believe you’ve met our new head coach, Brandon Miller.”

Carson knew Miller by reputation. Everyone did. He’d been the offensive coordinator for this year’s Super Bowl winner, his long season being the only reason another team hadn’t snapped him up for their head coach.

“Nice to meet you, Coach.” The two shook hands, and all three men sat down at the small conference table in Carson’s office. Miller was Carson’s opposite. His Steelheads polo had a coffee stain on it, his red hair stood on end on one side of his head, and he sported scruffy stubble.

“I’m sorry our new GM couldn’t be here today. He had a previous commitment,” Carson explained in that infuriatingly smooth and unruffled voice of his.

Before Tanner could respond, Miller jumped in. “I’ve been wanting to meet you. I watched you in college and the last two years with the Steelheads. I don’t believe the previous offensive scheme was a good match for your talents, but mine will be.”

“What about Hernandez?” Tanner asked, bringing up a sore subject regarding the first-round quarterback drafted by the Fish—as the Seattleites so fondly called their team.

Miller grinned and rubbed his stubble. “Yes, Hernandez. Well, they did draft him, but I believe in competition, and the best man at the position wins. You have great promise, Wolfe, but you haven’t lived up to it. I’m a firm believer in helping players reach their potential, and you, my boy, have great potential. Our new QB coach can’t wait to work with you.”

Tanner nodded, feeling as if he’d fallen down a rabbit hole and ended up in some make-believe world where everything was rosy and wonderful and the good guys always won. Except Tanner wasn’t sure he was a good guy.

“So, Tanner, we,” Carson included the coach in his look, “believe you’re this franchise’s quarterback of the future if you want to be.”

“Of course I want to be,” Tanner gushed, faking the same level of enthusiasm they displayed, only these two weren’t faking it.

“Good.” Carson smiled a stiff smile and leaned back in his chair. “As a competitor, I assume you’ll do anything needed to get to the next level. We can promise you’ll be rewarded handsomely before the end of your original contract if you fulfill our expectations.”

“Uh, yeah, anything.” Tanner could almost hear the trap snapping tight around his big foot.

“Good. I knew you’d say that.” Miller just kept grinning, while Carson didn’t grin at all.

Tanner blew out a breath. “Sure, fill me in on what you expect. I’m great at charity work. I visit the Children’s Hospital and the VA Hospital almost every week.”

Carson and Miller exchanged glances.

“Actually, it’s more complicated than that. All of our owners are Seattle natives. We’re family oriented, every one of us. We can’t have an X-rated face of the franchise.”

“Oh.” Tanner couldn’t think of anything to say to that.

“In addition to cleaning up your on-field performance, you need to turn around your off-field reputation. We want a good guy, a family man who goes home to the same woman every night, who isn’t seen at the hot spots with barely clad women on his arm.”

“Sure, I—I can do that. I can tone it down a bit. I just want to play football. That’s my priority.”

Both men stared at him as if he were full of shit.

“Seriously. It is. I’ve matured. I’m not that young party guy I was my rookie season.”

Carson cleared his throat, looked down at his iPad, swiped a couple times, and handed it to Tanner. Tanner blanched.

“When was this taken?” Carson asked, as if he didn’t know.

“Uh, uh, last weekend,” Tanner admitted, barely glancing at the picture taken in a back hallway of a Seattle nightclub. It was beyond compromising. He had an unknown woman backed against the wall. She had her legs wrapped around his waist. Her short skirt had ridden upward to expose her hips, thighs, and ass. Her breasts spilled out of her top. Tanner was fucking her for all he was worth with his head thrown back. The photographer had caught him in that moment before he came.

“Did you even know her name?” Carson asked with obvious judgment in his voice.

“No,” Tanner admitted.

Carson looked pissed and even Coach lost his Pollyanna smile. “Do you know what it cost the organization to keep these photos and the corresponding video from being plastered all over the Internet?”

“No, sir, I don’t, sir. It was poor judgment on my part.”

“Along with the tequila you consumed and the Jell-O shots you sucked out of another woman’s cleavage?”

“Yeah.” Tanner fidgeted and stared at his hands, feeling contrite and stupid.

“This will not happen again. If it does, we’ll cut you. No excuses. No second chance. Do I make myself clear?” Carson’s steely voice left zero doubt as to his intent.

“Yes.”

“Good.” Carson stood, effectively dismissing him. “I’ll be delivering our expectations in writing to your agent this afternoon.”

Tanner fled to the door, anxious to leave.

“And Tanner?”

Tanner froze with his hand on the doorknob. “Uh, yeah?”

“My advice to you is find a nice girl and become a homebody.”

Tanner didn’t respond because being a homebody with a nice girl was the last thing he wanted to do. He’d rather be celibate for the rest of his career than be saddled with one woman.

As he beat cleats out of there, Tanner cast one of his patented, panty-melting grins at Carson’s assistant. She glared at him, her panties fully intact and dry as a bone, no doubt.

Sketching a salute in her direction, Tanner strode to the elevator. As soon as the doors snapped shut, he ran his hands over his face and wondered how the hell he’d clean up his act. His football career depended on it, and without football, Tanner had nothing.