Bridget Hayes’s plane left in exactly two hundred and eighteen minutes, and her suitcase sat open and empty on her bed. A giant black hole mocking her. It wasn’t like she didn’t know how to pack. Years on the road made her an expert. But this trip wasn’t about a basketball game or a business development meeting. Nothing that simple.
“I have nothing to wear,” Bridget mumbled. Hangers clattered into one another as she rejected every option.
“You have more clothes than the average New York City boutique in that massive closet,” Kal said, laying across Bridget’s bed, sorting through the romance novels on Bridget’s nightstand.
Bridget deflated into the oversized reading chair tucked into the corner. “I give up.”
Kalisha lifted her eyes and waved at the closet. “The red one is nice.”
“The one in the back?” Bridget pushed her dark-rimmed glasses up her nose and squinted. “That’s a dress.”
Kal huffed and spun into a sitting position, flipping her long braids over her shoulder. “And you wear dresses.”
“Not in front of my family,” Bridget said, pulling her legs underneath her. She absently ran her fingers over the scar that carved a deep red path from her thigh to her lower calf. If her family didn’t see her scars, there was less to trigger their sympathy. Less sympathy from them meant fewer memories for her.
“Don’t you think it’s time to . . .”
Kal’s question trailed off as Bridget’s phone blared out its familiar ringtone. Without thinking, Bridget moved toward the dresser where it sat and reached for it. Kal slapped her fingers away. Even ten years after her bestie took home the Final Four award for Most Outstanding Player, her razor-sharp reflexes were still fully intact.
“Leave it,” Kal admonished. “You’re on vacay.”
Bridget looked from her friend to the phone. She should leave it, but honestly, they both knew she’d never do that. “Hey Kristina,” Bridget said, after hitting accept.
Kal rolled her eyes and Bridget spun, ignoring Kal’s frown, and talked her assistant through downloading the financial information the Flames CEO requested. Guilt for taking the entire day off coiled in her belly. If the CEO needed budget information, it ought to come directly from her, not her assistant.
Kal picked up Bridget’s alarm clock and shoved it within an inch of Bridget’s nose. “Ticktock. The countdown is on. Wrap it up,” she whispered with a twist of a manicured finger.
Son of a Brunson. Phone calls and wardrobe indecision shrunk the time from “seasoned traveler casually boarding the plane” to “they won’t hold the plane for you, ma’am.” She despised being late, but when duty called—
Kal pulled the phone from her. “Hey Kristina, it’s Kal. Oh, yep, thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it. We all good here? Your boss lady is in real danger of missing her plane.” Kal laughed. “I know, right?”
Bridget attempted to wrench the phone back, but Kal pivoted, said goodbye, and ended the call. “What if she needed something else?” Bridget said, unable to quiet the churn in her stomach.
“You’re too available, Bri. They don’t even think before they call you.”
“It’s my job, Kal.” Bridget turned back to her closet, praying for something she hadn’t already rejected to materialize. “Preseason starts in two weeks. It’s not the best time for me to take off.”
“Bri, you’re not getting your nails done. It’s your brother’s wedding. They can manage a day without you.”
“Three days,” Bridget reminded her.
Kal snorted. “Two of which are weekend days. Do not even get me started on your weekend work schedule.”
Bridget tipped up her chin. “You work on the weekends.”
Kal’s eyes popped wide. “Because my contract requires me to. Can you say the same?”
“Sometimes,” Bridget countered. Over the past ten years, Bridget had moved through the ranks from Communications Coordinator to President of Business Operations for New York’s WNBA franchise, the Flames. An occasional league-wide trip took her away over a weekend and she attended most games, but Kal was right. Most of her job could be—or should be—handled during normal business hours.
“Fine,” Bridget said, letting her shoulders fall forward. “No more work until Monday, I promise.”
“Unlikely,” Kal muttered, pushing off the bed and walking to Bridget’s dresser, pulling open the top drawer. “Start here.”
Bridget reached into the open drawer and pulled out a stack of underwear and two bras, carefully placing them in the top pocket of her carry-on. Kal added a lacy black thong and a nearly transparent matching bra.
“What are those for?” Bridget asked as Kal zipped the mesh pocket.
Kal lifted a shoulder, the corner of her mouth tugging up. “They’re bored in the drawer. They need to get out occasionally. Party a little.”
Bridget cocked an eyebrow. “And Andrew and Grace’s wedding is the place to let them out?”
Kal strode to the closet, pulled the red dress off its hanger, folded it, and placed it in the empty suitcase. “I think it’s the perfect place to clear out the dust and cobwebs.”
“Dust and cobwebs, Kalisha? Seriously? It’s not been that long since I’ve dated.”
Kal tipped her head and stared at her with the intensity she historically saved for referees—an incredulous, you can’t be serious glare. “It’s been over two years since you broke it off with Steve, the boring have-you-seen-my-skyscraper engineer—”
“And that wasn’t even a euphemism. He really wanted to show me the building his company had just completed.” Bridget shook her head. Was it possible that she hadn’t noticed not having sex in over twenty-four months? Maybe. Her job required her full attention. Especially since she’d launched two new community programs and set the goal of having the league’s largest season ticket member base.
“I can hear you thinking, Bri. Busy is an excuse.”
Bridget slid her favorite jumpsuit from its hanger and exchanged it for the red dress in her bag. “Wow. Where is all the tough love coming from today?”
Kal ignored her question. “Your brother’s wedding is the perfect place to give your vajayjay some playtime. And you know exactly why it’s perfect. Do not act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
An image materialized in Bridget’s mind. A vision of the only thing she’d never been able to control. A crush that, no matter how old she got or how many people she dated, never fully subsided. And she hated that. She played by the rules, in control of every aspect of her life—except this one stupid thing. Plus . . .
Bridget lowered her voice as deep as it would go and said sternly, “One does not hook up with any member of Storyhill.”
Kal rolled her eyes. “Is Andrew the boss of you?”
Bridget folded a pair of black leggings and a tunic and tucked them neatly on top of her jumpsuit. “No,” she scoffed. “But it’s likely still good advice.” While her personal life was none of her big brother’s business, she didn’t need to go looking for trouble.
Kal held up a pair of shoes to the tunic and, evidently satisfied they matched, tucked them in Bridget’s suitcase. “How would Andrew even know? He’ll be far more interested in his own wedding night than anything you’re doing.”
Bridget dropped to the bed with a sigh. “Why are you not letting this go?”
Kal lightly tugged at the ends of Bridget’s hair. “Because you’ve had this crush for YEARS. Maybe a good shag would get him out of your system.”
Bridget rubbed at the tension gathering between her eyes. “And how do you propose I do that? Walk up to him at the rehearsal dinner, tap on his elbow, and say, ‘My best friend thinks it’d be a good idea for us to sleep together. You in?’”
Kalisha laughed. “I would pay so much money to hear you say that.”
Old Bridget might have done something like that, but today’s Bridget? No way. Current Bridget understood that most risk was not worth the reward. “Yeah, well, that is not happening. For so many reasons. Not the least being, he’s one of my brother’s best friends.”
“Aren’t half the romance novels you read about a brother’s or sister’s best friend?” Kal said, gesturing to the stack of books on the bedside table.
“Yes, but my life is not a romance novel.”
Kal snorted. “You can say that again.”
“Enough,” Bridget said, swatting her friend with an empty hanger. “Crush or not, it’s not worth the drama.”
“But . . .”
“No ‘buts,’ Kal. Help me pack. My ride will be here in a few minutes.”
“Fine.” Kal flipped through Bridget’s garments. “Keep it simple. You need one outfit for the rehearsal dinner tonight, one for tomorrow, one for Sunday, and an extra. You’ve got two already in your bag. I’ll pick out the other two.”
“Um, why do you get to pick the other two?”
“Because you’ve been standing in front of the closet for like twenty minutes, stymied.” She shooed Bridget away. “Go pack your other necessities.”
“Okay,” Bridget said, her shoulders sagging with a sigh. “But no dresses.”
“While I disagree, you’ve made yourself clear.” Kal tapped her chin. “Now, what to pack for a woman committed to hiding her amazing figure and miles long legs underneath pants?”
Bridget grabbed a pillow from her bed and pitched it at Kal. She skillfully batted it away while simultaneously pocketing Bridget’s buzzing phone. “Defensive player of the year,” she said. “Twice.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bridget said, reaching toward Kal’s back pocket. “Give me my phone, superstar.”
Kal swiveled her hips away from Bridget. “You promised no more work stuff until Monday.”
Anxiety propelled Bridget’s heart into her ribcage. A buzzing phone was her kryptonite. An unhealthy attachment for sure, but one she’d address on a day that didn’t include navigating family dynamics and unwanted crushes.
“What if it’s Grace or Andrew?” she said, trying to conceal the anxiety racing across her nerve endings.
Kalisha sighed and pulled out the phone, eyeing the screen. “It’s your mother.”
Bridget’s eyebrows rose. “My mother?” If she was a betting woman, which she wasn’t, she’d have put all her money on the text being from her assistant.
Kal turned the screen toward Bridget. The name “Mom” filled the bubble on her lock screen, followed by three words: Call me ASAP.
Bridget pinched the bridge of her nose with one hand and waggled her fingers at Kal with the other. “Hand it over. You know she won’t stop until I answer.”
Bridget dropped into her seat, scanning the larger, comfier chairs in first class. Someday she’d splurge on a better ticket. But not today. Today she’d spend the three hours from JFK to Minneapolis in coach. She shifted in her seat, trying to settle her six-foot frame into the small space while extracting her laptop from the bag at her feet and balancing a 16 x 20 white bakery box on her lap.
A box of three dozen lemon cookies.
Apparently, her soon to be sister-in-law decided at the last minute that she wanted Curtis, Grace’s best friend from childhood and one of NYC’s most popular chefs, to make his “special” cookies for the rehearsal dinner. That’s why her mother had texted. To inform Bridget a courier was on his way to her apartment to deliver the baked goods. Sylvia Hayes, always the master of ceremonies—didn’t matter that no one asked—explained Curtis’s travel itinerary didn’t allow time to make them in Minneapolis, and he was carrying another food item in his lap.
“Can I help you?” the man across the aisle asked, extending his hands.
Bridget turned with a smile. “That would be great. If you could hold this for a moment,” she said, handing the cookies to him.
After she’d tucked her laptop in the seat pocket and stowed the bag under her seat, he handed the box back and said, “You look familiar.” Or more accurately, you look familya—clearly a native, not a tourist.
She never knew if people meant that as a question or a statement and learned through the years to wait and see what they said next. As every year ticked by since her playing days, she got recognized less and less. And she was totally okay with that.
He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “UConn,” he said, smirking, clearly proud of himself.
She turned in her seat and smiled at him. If he remembered her from her college playing days, he was a genuine fan, and women’s sports, at every level, needed every fan they could get. “That’s right. I played for UConn and then briefly for the New York Flames.” She’d prefer to leave the second part off, but as a representative of the team that had given her a job when her entire world fell apart, she owed them her loyalty—even if it came with painful memories.
He shook his head knowingly. “Too bad about your accident.”
The air rushed out of her lungs, but she held her smile, even as it wavered at the corners. “Thank you.”
Every time someone alluded to her career-ending accident, she wished for a better response. It never came. Probably because the minute someone mentioned it, the sights and sounds of shattering glass and bending steel hijacked her thoughts. In sports years, it qualified as ancient history, but the ache in her muscles and bones meant the memories lived just under her skin. Her wounds had healed, but the scars—visible and invisible—remained.
The man reached into the seat pocket in front of him and pulled out a small notebook. “Can I get your autograph?”
Bridget squirmed in her seat, forcing herself to maintain eye contact. The familiar cocktail of guilt and unease coiled through her chest. Refusing an autograph request wasn’t professional, but scratching her name across a piece of paper felt synonymous with writing “Has Been.” “I haven’t played in years. My autograph isn’t worth much these days.”
“My girl, my oldest,” he said, his voice softening, “she’s an amazing athlete. At least I think so. Dribbles a ball like nobody’s business, but she, ah,” —the man rubbed a hand across the back of his neck— “she’s got some confidence issues.”
Bridget nodded. “Athletics are great in so many ways but can also be hard on self-esteem.”
He nodded, his lips twisting in thought. “She’s a point guard, and, just like you, kind of tall for the position. If you sign something for her, it would give me a reason to show her some old clips of your playing days. You know, how you switched so easily between point guard and shooting guard when the team needed it. How you were a master of the pick and roll. I think it’d help her believe in herself a little more.”
Bridget’s heart pinched, and nausea rolled through her at his past tense description. Old clips. Were a master . . . Reign it back in, Bridget. She grabbed the notebook and pen. “What’s her name?”
A wide grin broke across the man’s face. “Ruby. Like the beautiful gem she is.”
Bridget matched his smile. Such a proud papa. Writing the girl’s name across the top of the page, she wrote the only piece of advice that didn’t make her feel like a fraud: The only difference between a good player and a great player is time spent in the gym. Keep dribbling, throw up at least 50 shots a day, and you’ll get there. Persistence and practice trump talent every time.
She closed the cover and handed the notebook back as her phone rang. Bridget carefully wriggled it free from her pocket, causing a passing flight attendant to stop in her tracks. “Ma’am, we’re three minutes from take-off. You need to stow your phone.”
Bridget smiled. “It’ll only take two. I promise.” She understood the rules of flying, followed them without fail, meaning she would flip her phone to airplane mode the minute they pulled back from the gate, but not a second before.
The attendant raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
Bridget turned the phone in her hands, surprised to see Kalisha’s name. “Everything okay?”
“Why is your phone still on?” Kal asked, irritation threading through her voice.
Bridget chuckled. “Are you testing me?”
“If I am, you clearly failed. And I know Bridget Hayes does not like to fail tests.”
Bridget peered over her shoulder, searching the plane for the flight attendant. “I’ve already gotten the dreaded ‘put your phone away’ warning. What do you need?”
“Just to remind you—again—to not work this weekend and enjoy the wedding and all the other things we talked about.” The tap, tap, tap of Kal straightening her papers echoed through the phone.
“I am not sleeping with one of Andrew’s groomsmen,” Bridget hissed into the phone.
“Fine,” Kalisha huffed. “I secretly hope you forgot your phone charger.”
Bridget gasped. “Do not even put that out into the universe, you evil woman.”
Kalisha laughed. “Okay, but seriously, have some fun.”
“Ma’am,” the flight attendant said again, pointing at Bridget’s phone, this time waiting and staring at Bridget.
“Gotta go, Kal. I’ll talk to you when I get back.”
“After your weekend of F-U-N. Love you.”
“Love you too.” Bridget placed her phone in airplane mode and dropped it into the seat pocket. The silver edge of her laptop winked at her over the top seam of the pouch. She could practically feel her inbox filling up. She should pull it out. But balancing it on top of the cookie box wouldn’t be easy. And she didn’t want to disappoint Grace with broken cookies. She snorted. Using baked goods as a reason not to work was a first. But, hey, whatever got results.
She pushed her knee against the laptop just hard enough to force it deeper into the pocket and out of sight. Popping in ear buds, she opened her audiobook app, let her head fall back, and her eyes droop shut. Kal wanted her to have a romance, and in Bridget’s world, listening to a romance novel was a lot less risky than attempting a real one.