Pink stained her cheeks as she covered herself again. “You should give a woman more than twenty minutes to get ready.”
Travis let his exasperation show. “You texted me, Georgie.”
“I didn’t expect you to want to put me in a good mood right then and there.”
“Stop telling me to put you in a good mood,” he growled, backing her against the still-open door. “Or I’m going to do it.”
“Family network,” she breathed, pushing at his shoulder.
Nice to meet you, blue balls. Travis stepped back and dragged a hand down his face. “Let’s go inside.”
He watched Georgie put a smile on her face with visible effort, moving out of the way so he could close the door. Once he’d locked the door, she reached out for his hand, leaning into his shoulder as he took it, the whole boyfriend-girlfriend dynamic feeling far too real. He held the door as she passed him into Grinders, which was mostly empty in the post-lunch, predinner no-man’s-land. With no one there to witness them together, the realness of them hit home even more, but he found himself distracted from that worry by Georgie’s pursed lips as she read the posted menu. The way she shifted around and licked her lips, waiting for the girl to take their order, so fresh and sweet looking he couldn’t help speculating on how her neck would taste. Or the inside of her wrist.
A few minutes later, they were sitting across from each other at a table.
“Do you want to see my boobs again?”
Travis almost spit out the first sip of his sea salt caramel mocha. “What?”
She laughed into her own sip. “I’m just kidding. You look all tense.”
“Okay,” she returned, mimicking his deep voice. “Would you really have taken me home and preemptively nursed me back to health?”
“I would have made you a smoothie,” he corrected her.
“That’s nursing. You would have nursed.”
He was caught between laughing and shaking his head. “I have no idea what being nursed back to health is like. Not unless it includes physical therapy or an ice bath.”
Here he was again, telling Georgie things he never expected to hear outside of his own mind. She didn’t make him regret it, though. She only looked back at him in a solemn way, as if taking it in. Taking him in. Being in the moment together without expectations or disappointment that he wasn’t the famous athlete she’d seen on television.
“Have you spoken to your parents since you came back to Port Jeff?”
“No.” Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his arms over his chest, as if to hide the sudden rattle taking place in his rib cage. “Actually, I haven’t talked to them since I left for college.”
“Almost a decade?” she whispered, looking stricken. “I was younger and kind of oblivious during the divorce and after. I’m sorry things never got better between them and you.”
Now that he’d made it uncomfortable, he waited for her to drop the subject, but she didn’t. “Did you ever wonder in the middle of a game if they were watching?”
Travis chewed on the inside of his cheek. “Yeah,” he finally heard himself admit. Out loud. It hadn’t been just once, either. “Every game.”
He heard Georgie swallow from across the table. “They should have. They should have been watching like proud parents. They should be proud of you right now, Travis. It’s not easy to start over.”
This was where he was supposed to thank her or find something else to talk about, but he had the urge to confide in her. Wanted to hand her a piece of himself, because he knew she would take care of it. “It’s him, mostly. My father.” He pressed his tongue to the inside of his cheek. “My mother was young. She got trapped in a bad marriage and didn’t know how to cope. If he played the same head games with her that he played with me, I don’t fault her for wanting to be anywhere else.”
Georgie wanted to argue, but he winked to let her know he was fine, and she relaxed.
“It’s my dad who got to me,” he said after a moment. “Who . . . gets to me. He made sure I would hear his voice in my head long past the point I should.”
“What does it say?”
He exhaled. “That I’m not as good as I think I am. That I’m a fake.”
She pressed her lips together until they turned white, then let them fill with pink again. “There was nothing fake about the way you slid into home and knocked that ball out of Ted Church’s glove to win the second game of the Series. You’re a part of history. Some people just can’t stand knowing they’re not even a footnote.”
Warmth spread in his stomach. How did she know exactly what he needed to hear? Not some tired platitude, but a real, tangible thing he could recall in his memory and reinterpret through her eyes. “Thank you.”
“Do you think I’m silly and selfish for wanting more from my pretty amazing and semifunctional family when you got nothing from yours?”
“No.” He reached across the table and twined their fingers together without thinking. “No, baby girl. I don’t. You have to fight for what you deserve. What you want is no more or less important than what anyone else wants.”
Georgie studied him for a moment. “When I walked into your apartment that first day, you told me coming back here as a supposed failure made you just like your father.” She shook her head. “You not only tell me but make me feel important . . . How can you think you don’t have the potential to be a hero, on or off the field?”
This time Travis did change the subject. He’d heard a lot of empty idioms throughout his career in sports. The kind of motivation that ends up on a poster in a high school locker room. What she’d said, though, made him think. He might have left his hovel and rejoined society, but part of him had remained in the dark. Every moment spent with Georgie brought him a little further into the light, however.
They talked long after their coffees dwindled, Georgie telling him about plans for a new advertising campaign for her business and a new zombie birthday party theme she was considering. In turn, Travis told her about the time in college his team’s bus had broken down on the way to a game and they’d had their engine serviced by cult members. It felt good to make her laugh. Felt good to laugh with her. By the time he walked her to the exit an hour had passed and he was overdue back at work.
Out in the sunlight, she smiled up at him in a sort of breathless way, a hand restless at her throat. And for the first time since Stephen told Travis that Georgie was in love with him, he actually wondered if it could be true. Did Georgie love him? If so, he should not be spending this kind of time with her. He’d hurt her when they’d both gotten what they wanted—and hurting this girl would kill him.
Travis opened his mouth, intending to tell Georgie what Stephen had told him, praying she would deny it. Right? He didn’t want her in love with him. At all.
“Do I look smitten enough?” Georgie said with a cocked eyebrow, before he could speak. “Our friend is snapping away across the street.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Idiot. Of course she wasn’t in love with him. It was just for the camera, same as it had been since their arrangement started. “I, uh . . . wasn’t sure he’d waited.”
A beat passed. “Are you going to kiss me?”
He wanted to. Her mouth looked ripe and incredible, and she would taste like caramel and Georgie. Why did it suddenly feel wrong to kiss her so it would be immortalized in a picture? “Yeah,” he rasped, leaning down and pausing the barest distance above her lips. “Yeah.”
Georgie’s forehead wrinkled in confusion, cutting a sidelong glance along the street. “Travis?”
Finally, he dropped his mouth to hers and inhaled, pulling deeply on her mouth, barely stopping himself from giving her his tongue. Claiming her. With a serious effort, he eased back, steadying Georgie on her feet. “When am I going to see you again?”
“Um . . .” She blinked. “Will you come to family dinner on Sunday?”
Remembering the vow he’d made to himself to do more to help Georgie, Travis nodded. “I’ll be there.”
She smiled up at him and he bit down on his tongue to keep from kissing her again. “What about you? Any more progress with the network?”
It was proof that his relationship with Georgie was bordering on dangerous that he’d completely forgotten to tell her about the latest call from his agent. He’d totally lost sight of why they were fake dating in the first place. “The head of the network, Kelvin, invited us to dinner at his house. Next week, in Old Westbury.” He watched her face transform with cautious excitement. “That probably means I’m the top candidate—”
“Oh my God, Travis. And this could be the final test.” Her wide eyes turned unreadable. “Things are changing for me already. For the better. If you get the job . . . we wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”
“Have to.” His nod was jerky. “Yeah.” Christ, he needed to get his head together. This dread churning in his stomach was not a good sign. “I’ll let you know the details about dinner,” he said, laying a final peck on her cheek and backing away. “Bye, Georgie.”