Jessica McWilliams tightened her fingers around the bridge railing. Jumping was her only choice. She sucked in a breath and crab-walked to the opening.
One. Two. Three. She squeezed her eyes shut, released her grip, and stepped off.
She hit the surface with a grunt, the colors of the rainbow dancing in front of her eyes. It hadn’t killed her.
But the smell might.
“First time in a ball pit?” a disembodied voice on her right asked.
“First time in a ball pit this small,” she muttered in the voice’s direction.
The decidedly masculine voice snorted. “You’re too young to know that commercial.”
“The internet is an amazing place,” Jess said, sitting up, balls smeared with years of child juice sliding off her chest. A foot to her right, a little girl in sparkly pink barrettes and pigtails stacked balls higher and higher over a bulky, nearly submerged form. A large man bun connected to a smooth brown forehead was the only clue that something human lurked beneath.
The voice had clearly emanated from the buried blob, because even with at least fifty other people—mostly not using their indoor voices—in the ball pit, the lump was the only adult within a six-foot radius.
“Mommy!” Jess’s four-year-old son yelled from one of the foam “rafts” strategically placed throughout the enormous pit, “you jumped!”
Yep, true dare devil that she was, she’d “jumped” from the bridge into the sea of balls. She had no problems with heights—if you can call three feet a height—but a ball pit full of kid germs? That gave her pause.
But Wyatt wanted her to do it, and when she volunteered to represent her employer, Voss Design, at this event, she promised to give Wyatt the best day possible. If that meant swimming in a sea of microbes, then so be it.
“The things we do for kids, huh?” the voice attached to the man bun said, reading her mind.
Sensing movement, Jess turned toward the voice, and her stomach seized, causing an involuntary gasp to escape her lips. Attached to the man bun was a wide, excruciatingly handsome face. He smiled, revealing a perfect set of dazzling white teeth and a pair of dimples that sent a buzz racing through her.
Jess rubbed the base of her neck. Had she hit her head? The only other plausible explanation involved some sort of crazy autonomic response to this man. And that never happened. Not with the average guy and certainly not with celebrities.
Yep, celebrity. If the hair or the slight bend in his nose didn’t give him away, the thirty-eight plastered across his chest made an introduction unnecessary. She’d seen that face every Sunday for the last ten years.
Crowded around the small television in their base housing, Jessica’s family never missed a Nashville Knights football game. It was one of the few things the entire family did together. Even though things were different now—Daddy was gone, they’d moved from Oklahoma to Tennessee, and Amy-Lynn’s TV was four times the size of their old one—Sunday afternoon football remained a constant.
Jess opened her mouth to respond as the pigtailed little girl flew between them, jumping into his arms. He laughed and caught her mid-air. “Amelia, you are getting too heavy for me.”
Jess snorted. Not likely. This man ate receivers and running backs for a living. He could handle a preschooler, no matter her velocity.
He flipped the little girl over his shoulder, and she squealed in delight as she slid down his broad back, sinking into the bright balls.
Jess tried again. This time when she opened her mouth, nothing came out but a short, high-pitched wheeze. Seriously, what was wrong with her?
He, legendary Nashville Knights strong safety, certified football royalty, the I’m-just-stopping-by-this-ball-pit-on-my-way-to-the-Hall-of-Fame guy, cocked an eyebrow and his lips quirked. “Delayed response to getting the wind knocked out of you? It is a pretty high jump,” he said, pointing a thumb at the swinging bridge.
Jess pushed up on her knees and found her voice. “No, I just don’t like to breathe too deeply in these things.” She motioned to the balls surrounding her.
He nodded, biting back a smile. “I take it you don’t come here often?”
She placed a hand on her hip and gave him her best disinterested expression. “Is that some sort of pickup line?”
He tipped his head back and laughed, his dimpled smile back on full display. “I usually introduce myself before trying to pick up someone.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Usually?”
He shrugged. “I don’t really know ball pit etiquette.”
Her control started to waiver, and she bit back a smile. “Didn’t read the fine print on the waiver, Mr. Lanuola?”
Mischief danced behind his chestnut eyes. “You know my name.”
Jess smothered an epic eye roll. Of course she did. If you lived in Nashville—even if you weren’t a sports fan—you knew his name and his mane. Not that she’d admit it. They handed pro ball players outsized egos the moment they entered the stadium for the first time. And she was not about to pad his.
She tapped the back of her shoulder. “It’s written in big black letters on the back of your shirt. I’m a pretty skilled reader.”
He chuckled again and stuck out his hand. “Mick. That’s the part not on my jersey.” He pulled the numbers away from his chest. “This shirt is called a jersey.”
Jess looked from his face to his hand and back again. Mick Lanuola was flirting. With her. And if men hadn’t fallen to the bottom of her priority list, she might even like it.
He glanced at his hand and sobered. “Are you really a germaphobe?”
She shook her head. “No, sorry.” She placed her hand in his and watched it disappear. Heat flared in her fingers and streaked up her arm. What was it they said about the size of a man’s hand? Damn, Jessica, pull it back. You don’t have time for men . . . and heat . . . and tingling . . .
“Jessica,” she said, introducing herself. “And no, I don’t come here often.” She mentally slapped herself on the forehead. Clearly, pre-I-need-to-get-my-life-together-Jessica was dying to flirt with this man, otherwise she wouldn’t be saying such stupid things. “That’s my son, Wyatt,” she added, pointing at her little boy. Mentioning a kid generally stopped flirting in its tracks, thus saving her from herself. She waited for the furtive glance at her ring finger or the bolder, “You’re married?” question. But neither came. Maybe he wasn’t flirting. Maybe she’d completely misread the situation. Was she so out of practice? Did it matter? Sadly, only to her ego.
Her thoughts stopped swirling and her gaze dropped when Wyatt snaked an arm around her thigh. Wyatt stood stock-still, staring at Mick. Was her little man afraid of the big man? Even sitting, covered in the colors of the rainbow, Mick was an imposing figure. Wyatt cocked his head, and a smile bloomed across his chubby cheeks. He leapt toward Mick and yelled, “Tackle!”
Jess groaned inwardly. Nope, not afraid.
Wyatt dipped the crown of his head, pushing it into Mick’s chest, his feet trying to find purchase in the sea of balls.
Yep, not afraid. At all.
Mick’s lips tugged upward as he stared at Jess over the top of Wyatt’s head. The little boy pushed with all his might and Mick didn’t move a fraction of an inch. “I take it he’s a football fan?”
Jess bit down on the side of her lip. He really needed to dim that smile.
“No, he does that with all men in ball pits. It’s embarrassing, really.” She waved off Mick’s question with a what-can-you-do expression. “It’s the real reason we don’t do this sort of thing often.”
Wyatt lifted his head. “Go Knights! Wrap him up, you idiot!”
Jessica pushed two fingers into her temple. Momma. Though, knowing what Isabel usually yelled at the screen, Jess should be thankful Wyatt only said “idiot.”
“I like this kid,” Mick said, ruffling Wyatt’s curls.
“Me too,” Jessica mumbled. She put a hand on Wyatt’s shoulder just as the little boy jumped up. In a fraction of a heartbeat, Jess stumbled, falling into Mick’s lap, flipping a dozen balls into the air. Her face pressed into Mick’s chest, and it felt like she’d hit a brick wall. A brick wall that smelled like orange blossom and sandalwood. He probably showered in some fancy Tom Ford cologne that cost as much as her electric bill. Her yearly electric bill. Something she’d probably never smell again, so she better take another whiff.
He gently cupped her shoulders and pushed her upright. “Are you sniffing me?”
“No,” she scoffed. She opened her mouth and closed it. No witty retort came to mind. A witty retort always came to mind. “No,” she said again, proving that she had, in fact, hit her head when she landed in this stinky pit. Nothing else excused her behavior.
“Well, since we cleared that up . . .” He circled a corded forearm around her waist and lifted them both into a standing position. With zero effort.
A lesser woman would swoon. Good thing she wasn’t a lesser woman.
His chest rose and fell against hers and, much as she tried to stop them, her eyes flickered upward. When she connected with his melted-milk-chocolate gaze, she swayed, her feet wobbling beneath her.
She blamed it on the balls.
The plastic balls.
The ones she was standing in, not the ones she was leaning against.
She inwardly rolled her eyes. She really needed to pull herself together.
“You’re wanted,” Jess breathed out.
“Really? Wanted, huh? Now who’s being bold with the pickup lines, Jessica?” He smirked, giving her an exaggerated wink.
Her pulse fluttered in her throat. Whether from his insinuation or the way his voice dropped when he said her name, she couldn’t be sure. She drew a shaky breath and pointed toward the little girl pulling on Mick’s hand.
“Amelia, I think you called her. Your . . .?” Jessica’s voice faded as she chastised herself. His relationship to this little girl was none of her business.
“Niece,” he explained, not breaking eye contact. “She’s my niece. One of six. Well, two are nephews. I try to bring one or two along whenever I have to do one of these things.”
“Have to?” Jess said, trying to feign ignorance. Which likely made her look even more like a nutter.
He released his hold on her, placing a finger on her chin, feather light, and turned her head, gesturing toward the event poster. His gorgeous face smiled back at her from the middle of the sign, a Nashville Knights logo plastered next to it. The Voss Design logo a mere dot at the bottom. Seemed fitting.
She snapped her fingers, a smirk playing at her lips, and poked him between the numbers. May as well play this charade out. “Oh. That’s why Wyatt said all those things to you. I thought you looked familiar. You’re a football player. The back-up quarterback, right?”
He chuckled. “Third stringer, actually.”
She nodded sagely. “That makes sense. They wouldn’t want a star player getting hurt in a ball pit.”
His gaze traveled over the sea of balls and the foam piers and plinths. “These kids do present a real risk.”
Jessica pulled a serious expression. “You think that now, but last week Wyatt accidentally head butted me. I got a bloody nose. Their little skulls are hard.”
He ran a finger over the bump on the bridge of his nose. “How do you think I got this?”
Jessica tapped a finger on her chin and narrowed her gaze. “Got hit with a ball? I’ve heard you third stringers aren’t particularly good with your hands.”
Mick looked at his hands, turning them over before meeting her gaze. “Naw. I’m pretty good with my hands.”
Okay then. He was clearly flirting. She hadn’t misread the signals. And just like that, pre-I-need-to-get-my-life-together-Jessica was back and totally on-board for it.
He tucked his hands into his back pockets. Not that she would know because she totally wasn’t looking at the size of his hands. Totally. Not. Looking. Nope. Uh-uh.
“I could get you a helmet.”
She blinked several times. “What?”
He smirked and tapped a finger against her temple. “A helmet. To protect you from Wyatt’s” —he pointed at her son, who, with Amelia’s help, was currently constructing a towering mountain of blue-only balls— “very hard head.”
“Oh. Oh, sure,” she said, ever articulate. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll just have to do a better job watching for the blitz.”
He leaned in, inches from her cheek. “You know, people who know nothing about football don’t go around talking about third stringers and blitzes.” She shuddered as his soft words danced over the shell of her ear. “You are most definitely a fan, Jessica . . .” —he cocked his head— “I didn’t catch your last name.”
She nibbled on her bottom lip. “Hmm. Yet another problem with catching?”
“Mick,” a male voice called from behind Jess. “I need you up here to sign some jerseys.”
Jessica turned to see a man in a three-piece suit, complete with silk pocket square, standing atop a platform, puffy clouds trailing down the slide in front of him, drifting away from his expensive leather loafers. The man’s stony face a stark contrast to the dancing, primary-color birds painted on the wall behind him.
“Now that,” Jess whispered conspiratorially, gesturing to the man, “is the personification of someone who doesn’t frequent indoor playgrounds.”
Mick laughed. “Nor would they want him to.” He waded around her, scooped up his niece—careful not to disrupt the blue ball pyramid—and stopped on the first stair. “Duty calls, Just Jessica. Maybe I’ll run into you later? That twisty slide” —he pointed at the plastic, candy-cane-striped monstrosity in the corner— “has your name written all over it.” He winked at her. “Imagine the germs you could collect on your spin down.”
Jessica shuddered. “Maybe,” she lied. She’d done what she came here to do. She’d networked. She’d provided her son with a fun afternoon. And she still had a million things to accomplish before catching a few hours of sleep. She snuck a peek at Mick. Nowhere on that never-ending to-do list was “swoon at hunky professional athlete with amazing smile.”
It was time to go. Time to get back to reality.
* * * * * *
Mick’s eyes followed the beautiful brunette as she strode away from the ball pit, her sleek ponytail moving in rhythm with the sway of her hips. How was it she made a well-worn pair of jeans and a simple white tee into one of the sexiest outfits he’d ever seen?
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, pulling out his hair tie. The only words that accurately described the last fifteen minutes of his life were “hit and run.” Probably for the best. Especially after the crack about being good with hands. He groaned. That line was pure cheese, proving that proper flirting, like any other game, took practice and he’d been on the bench far too long.
“Good idea,” Jake, the Knights Chief Marketing Officer, said from behind Mick’s right shoulder.
“What’s a good idea?” Mick asked absently.
Jake pointed at his head and then at the line forming behind him. “Fans prefer your hair down in photos.”
Mick absently ran his fingers through his long curls, his gaze still locked on Just Jessica, who was currently collecting her handbag from the coat check.
“Someone you know?” Jake asked, following Mick’s eyes.
Mick turned his attention to Jake. “Not really.”
Jake smirked. “Someone you want to know?”
Yes, a little voice whispered, surprising Mick. Dating ranked well behind finishing his career strong, growing his charity, and his family duties. Meaning he didn’t have time for it until after retirement.
Mick shrugged. “Moot point. I didn’t get her last name.”
Jake smiled and elbowed him in the ribs. “This is an invite-only event. It wouldn’t take much effort to find it.”
Mick’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. “So, besides working for the Knights, you’re also a skilled stalker?”
Jake chuckled. “It’s not stalking. It’s called networking.”
Mick grunted. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
Jake turned Mick’s shoulders toward the backdrop printed with the Knights logo. “What helps me sleep at night is keeping my job, so for now, you need to sign some merch and take some photos with a few sponsors and fans.”
Mick nodded and headed toward the waiting line. Back to work. Something he understood. Unlike a chance encounter with a woman whose smile shot straight to his core. A woman he’d likely never see again.