I’m so excited to share with you the cover of LESSONS IN LETTING GO by Jessica Peterson, the third installment in the Study Abroad series!
“Ten minutes ago, I was just an American student studying abroad in Spain. But now? Now I’m a professional soccer player’s muse. His good luck charm…”
Soccer star Rhys Maddox’s recovery from an injury isn’t going well—until one night with a beautiful American and a few terrible pick-up lines changes everything. With Laura at his side, he plays smarter, runs faster, and fights harder than he ever has on the pitch. She’s just the good luck charm he needs to turn his flailing career around.
Laura Bennet begins her semester in Madrid with plans to ditch bad habits and worse boyfriends. But when she unexpectedly gets caught up in Rhys’s A-list life, her plans are put on hold. Who wouldn’t skip class to fly on a private jet with a studly Welsh footballer? It’s a no brainer, or so she thinks. Turns out Rhys’s glamorous lifestyle hides an obsession with appearances—an obsession that makes her totally miserable. Determined to take back her happiness, Laura decides to dump Rhys and tackle a “Spain Bucket List” on her own.
But Rhys isn’t letting his good luck charm go without a fight. He’s spent his entire life trying to earn his way into the big leagues, and he’ll do anything to win—even risk his carefully crafted image to help Laura with her bucket list. Will he be able to let go of his ego? Or will he and Laura ultimately let go of each other?
Chapter 1RhysAugustMadrid, SpainIt’s just after nine A.M., and the air is thick with arid heat. The Spanish sun, a white-hot pinprick in a huge, cloudless sky, bears down on my face and shoulders. I’m only on my first lap around the football pitch, and already I’m sweating bullets.As if my recent performance—or lack thereof—hasn’t made these training sessions brutal enough, now I’ve got hundred-plus-degree heat to contend with. When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait to escape the near constant drizzle and shivery damp of Wales. But now that I’ve lived in Spain for a couple years, I’d give my left nut for one of those rainy Welsh days.A drop of sweat lands in my eye. I wince, wiping it away with my shoulder. I wince again at the low throb of pain in my left leg. It radiates down my hamstring and settles in my knee. Motherfucker. It’s been more than a year since the surgery. My knee should be feeling better. Much better.It’s not. It hurts. But then again, so does everything else. My legs, my lungs. I feel sore. Tired. Worn out. Not an auspicious way to start the season that’s supposed to save my career. My play has been absolute shit for months now, pretty much from the moment my surgeon cleared me to play again. I’ve got to do better.I pick up my pace, trying to push through the pain. I don’t care how much it hurts. I’m not going down. Everyone—fans, media, my teammates and managers, people back home— keeps waiting for me to follow in my infamous father’s footsteps. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they whisper behind my back.I can’t end up like him. Not with so many people back home depending on me. He let them down, but I won’t.I pump my legs harder, faster. I’m the first one on the pitch this morning— practice doesn’t usually start until ten—in the hopes that some extra dedication will make up for my embarrassing performance as of late. I can’t help but think that maybe this will be the practice where everything changes. Where I play like the superstar I want to be, the superstar everyone thought I’d mature into when Madrid first traded for me. Maybe today is the turning point.But judging from the stringent burn in my quads, it’s not looking good.“Ah! Mon petit chou! My little cabbage, what is he doing all alone on ze pitch? So very early today!”I start at the sound of a familiar voice. I close my eyes in an attempt not to roll them. The last person I want to see right now is Olivier Seydoux, our squad captain. Yes, he’s my closest mate on the team, but he’s also a pain in the ass. It doesn’t help he’s got the entire organization—managers, trainers, even the kit men—calling me “little cabbage”. I honestly have no idea what it means, but I do know I hate it.“It’s not even nine thirty, and already you’re busting my bollocks,” I yell across the field, turning to face him. “Who pissed on your croissant this morning, you smelly Frenchman?”He stands by the goal, a shit-eating grin on his face as he tugs at the zipper of his jumper. The sun glints off his bald head, making his coffee-colored skin burn copper in the strident morning light. I get why half the women in the world want to bang Olivier’s brains out. He’s tall and has magazine-cover good looks, and is one of the best strikers in the league.That doesn’t mean I have to be nice to him, though. Not today.“Ah, ze little cabbage, he is feeling very sensitive today, eh? Is it ze women troubles?” he says, jogging over to meet me.“Listen, mate, I live off boiled chicken and broccoli and go to bed at nine every night. What woman in her right mind would sign up for that?”Olivier falls easily into step beside me. “You are a footballer! You ’ave a little blond manbun! From what ze womens tell me, zey love you and your ’airs very much.”“No time for girls,” I grunt, trying to keep up as Olivier quickens his pace. He’s a full head taller than me, and his stride is enormous. “I’ve got to focus on my footy.”“Fo-kus. What a boring F word. I zink you should fo-kus on a better one. Like—”“Frozen yogurt?” I almost jump when I see Fredrik Ohr’s giant blond bulk trotting behind us. His German accent, usually quite slight, thickens when he’s out of breath. “And is training starting early now? Where did everybody go?”“No, our petit chou is fo-kusing on his footy, so he comes early to the pitch,” Olivier replies. “But I think he should fo-kus on other things, too.”“Frozen yogurt really does it for me,” Fred says. “Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me through that last hour of training—knowing I will have a giant cone of vanilla chocolate swirl on the way back to my flat. It’s like my good luck charm.”I blink. “Seriously?”“Seriously. You should try it.”“I’ll do anything at this point to find a good luck charm. Do either of you know a shaman? Maybe a practitioner of voodoo?”“Me, thinking of having ze naked fun with my lady is very motivating,” Olivier says. He spins around to face us, still keeping pace even though he’s running backwards.“I wish I could find a lady to have naked fun with,” Fred says.“You wish you could find a lady, period,” I say.“Ha bloody ha,” he replies. “But it is true. You know I am fucking shit at talking to girls. They’re just so…pretty. And they smell so good. I sniff their perfume, and poof! My brains spill out of my ears and I forget how to speak.”“Maybe you should give my pick-up lines a try,” I say, smiling.“Thanks but no thanks, Cabbage,” Fred huffs. “I think silence works better.”“Silence definitely works better,” Olivier says.We round a corner of the pitch. My legs feel like lead weights. Keeping up with the lads didn’t used to feel so hard; I used to be one of the fastest guys on the squad.I am one of the fastest guys on the squad. I just…I don’t know. For a while I thought it was my knee that held me back. I mean, it definitely hurts. But I’m starting to think that the pain is part of a bigger problem.I’ve got to keep pushing. Maggie’s waiting on the education I promised her, and she and mum are still living in Splott, the inner-city ward in Cardiff where I grew up. Mum refuses to leave until her sisters and all my cousins can leave, too. No one else is going to get them out of there.It’s up to me. It’s up to me to get the help Aunt Kate needs with her elevenyear daughter, who requires round-the-clock care. And then there’s my cousin Will, who is too much like my father for his own good and really needs to go to rehab, but no one can afford to send him. My cousin Rachel is expecting her first kid, my other cousin Lydia just dropped out of school to help support the family but can’t find work—God that’s a lot. But considering my aunts helped to raise me after my dad left—considering how dirt poor they all are—taking care of them is the least I can do. We are one big, unhappy family.“You all right, Cabbage?” Olivier asks.“Stop showing off.” I wave him and his backwards running away. “I can outrun your ass any day, backwards or forwards.”Olivier smirks. “Not with zat bum knee of yours.”“I’m going to jam this bum knee into your bollocks. Then we’ll see who’s faster.”“I put my money on Cabbage. Meaning no offense, Olivier,” Fred says.“None taken.” Olivier turns his attention back to me. The beautiful bastard, he hasn’t even broken a sweat yet. “I know you ’ave worries about ze future, Cabbage. You ’ave much talent. You will get your rhythm back, I know it. Maybe ze womens, zey will ’elp you find it? I ’ave been in love before, and I played my best footy zen. Sometimes, ze love, it can focus you. Remind you of ze love you felt for football before all ze moneys and ze crazy parties.”I shake my head. “Not worth the risk. You saw what happened with Alessandro—he fell head over heels for that Italian chick, what’s-her-name, and now he can’t pay a football club to take him.”“She was really hot,” Fred says.“Idiot, that Alessandro,” Olivier says. “In my mind, it is up to ze man to decide whether ’e will be distracted by love or inspired by it. If you are with ze right woman, you will make ze right choice.”I glance over Olivier’s shoulder at the mountains in the distance. Spain may be hot as Hades, but it is a beautiful place, especially if you’re taking it in from the practice pitch of the most valuable sports franchise in the entire world. I used to dream about training here. When I was thirteen and skinny and living with my two aunts and five cousins in a tiny, run-down flat, I’d spend hours imagining what it would be like to play for Madrid’s famously dominant squad. I remember wanting very, very badly to be a part of something so special.Wanting to right the wrongs my father made on this very pitch. Now I’m here. Building a career in professional football is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be, but I still don’t want to lose my place—I don’t want to leave. I have too much to lose.And I am a very sore loser, if the number of red cards I have is any indication.“Heads up, lads, gaffer’s coming out,” I say, nodding at the lean figure in smart trousers and a scarf making its way towards us.“Oh, Christ,” Fred says. “I wonder what William Wallace is going to bludgeon us with today.”I bite back a grin. Our manager’s elegant outward appearance hides a very angry, very feisty Scotsman with a mouth that’ll put hair on your grandmum’s chest.“Bring it in, ye tits, it’s time to get goin’!” he shouts.Olivier turns back around and starts to sprint. I take off two steps behind him, pumping my legs harder, harder, my lungs burning as I pass him just as we reach coach at the top of the pitch.Olivier arches a brow as we hustle to a stop. “See?” he pants. “We just talk about ze womens, and already you run faster.”“Women?” coach says. “What fecking women are you two bawbags gettin’ on about?”“Bawbags?” Fred asks.“Scrotums,” Olivier replies.“Oh,” Fred says.“It’s nothing,” I say, turning to coach. “We weren’t talking about anything. What’s on the schedule today?”***A few hours laterFred comes flying down the touchline, his bright orange singlet flapping against his beefy build as he dodges Sergio. He almost decks Ignacio before passing the ball to me, the shouts—most in Spanish, a few in incomprehensible Scots—of the lads and our coaches filling the air as I move toward the goal. My pulse throbs in time to the frantic refrain inside my head: don’t mess this up don’t mess this up please God don’t mess this up. We’ve got a big match in two days against our rival team in Madrid, and I’d like to prove to coach that I’m worthy of quality playing time.I see Olivier waiting from the corner of my eye. He darts across the pitch, trying to elbow aside two very big, very insistent defenders. Sweat drips into my eyes and makes them sting. The sun is so hot I feel like I’m being roasted inside an oven. I’m exhausted; I keep waiting for the coaches to blow their whistles and end this interminable practice session, but so far, no dice.I remember, vaguely, how much I used to love playing footy. Just playing for playing’s sake, running around the muddy pitch in Splott with my mates and a halfdeflated football. I lived and breathed the game because I loved it, almost as much as I loved my mum and mashed potatoes. Football was an escape. When I was on that pitch, it didn’t matter that I was poor, that everyone thought I’d end up in the gutter, just like dad. All that mattered was how I played—and because I played well, I felt important. Wanted. Strong. Some nights I couldn’t go to sleep because I was so excited about playing football the next morning.Now it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed when I have to play.Panic electrifies my limbs as I dribble the ball closer to the goal. It’s just so hard to focus; so hard to clear my mind and let my instincts take over. I’m trying, I really am, but I can’t do it.I bloody hate it.Frustration blurs my vision before I’m even in the box. The voices of my mates and the managers press in on me, my feet stumbling beneath my unsteady stride. I try to forget the slight twinge in my knee and keep going.It’s getting harder and harder to just keep going.In the split-second that Olivier manages to untangle himself from the defenders, I launch the ball across the pitch, aiming it a little in front of him. I watch, heart in my throat, as Olivier leaps into the air, scrunching his eyes shut as he anticipates nailing a solid header.The ball soars more than two meters behind and four meters above his head and hits the sideboards with an audible thwack. My heart drops; my face burns.Shit.The pass wasn’t even close. It was awful. Not worthy of an amateur, much less Madrid’s Great Welsh Hope. (That’s what the press called me when I first came to Madrid. The Great Welsh Nope has appeared in a headline or two over the past few months. I wish I could say it didn’t rankle.)Coach holds his hands behind his head and blows out his cheeks. The lads look away. Fred claps me on the back, telling me to keep my head up. I feel like burying it in the grass.I bungle one drill after the next. My passes are laughably inaccurate. My attempted goals soar above or past or way outside the net, so much so that our goalie, Alexsandr, yawns not once but twice as I work inside the box. My footwork is messy and my speed is nonexistent.The whistles sound. Training ends. I hit a new low—this is the lowest I think I’ve ever felt on the pitch. I make a beeline for the showers and don’t say a word to anyone in the locker room. I can’t wait to hole up in my penthouse suite—my flat is currently being renovated—and lick my wounds in private.I’m doing everything I’m supposed to. I’ve rehabbed my knee, I put hundreds of hours of in at training, I take care of my body—all in the hope that my hard work will pay off, and my luck will change.How bloody long do I have to wait for my luck to change?It won’t be long before I’m benched, or, worse, cut from the squad altogether. William Wallace’s patience with me is wearing thin; there are countless other lads rearing to take my place, and prove their talent. My agent has gently warned me that if I don’t show improvement in the next few matches, I may not have any future at all in football.So much rides on me turning this thing around. And time is running out.Chapter 2 LauraA Few Days LaterMadrid, SpainMaybe it’s the man bun.Maybe it’s the tattoos that cover his arms from neck to wrist and curl beyond the collar of his jersey.Maybe it’s his baby blue eyes. Or his ferocious, angry-Welshman style of play. Or the way his lips twitch into a confidently wicked smirk—oh, that smirk, it slays every vagina in a thousand mile radius—after the ref makes a call that shouldn’t go his way but does.I don’t know what it is about Rhys Maddox, studly soccer superstar, that’s got me reaching inside my yoga pants while I watch the highlights from this afternoon’s game. All I know is that he does it for me in a big, orgasmic, toe-curling way. Yeah, he’s having a rough season, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s smoking hot. I bet his skin audibly sizzles upon contact.My hand slides lower, my middle finger dipping between the slippery lips of my sex. Jesus, I’ve been watching these highlights for, what, three minutes, and already I’m this hot and bothered? Rhys has to be my most potent celeb crush I’ve ever had. I love a good celebrity crush. It’s pure, delicious fantasy.Orgasms are the name of my game this semester, and fantasy Rhys is all too happy to help me out there. The hookup culture back at Meryton University bred this kind of sick double standard when it came to sex. I always got the guys I was with off, but they never, ever returned the favor. And I finally realized that I’d been so obsessed with what turned on my boyfriends, I had no idea what actually turned me on. So now I’m doing a little—okay, a lot—of masturbating to figure out what I do and don’t like when it comes to fantasy, touch, and…well, pleasure.I suck in a breath as the tip of my finger grazes the slick, swollen nub at the top of my sex. Sensation, tight and hot, bolts through me. My finger strokes my clit again and again, circling, slow, insistent caresses that have my back arching off the fluffy expanse of my giant hotel bed. My apartment for the semester won’t be ready for another few days, so my parents put me up at this five-star spot in the meantime. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I wasn’t about to turn down two nights at Madrid’s ritziest hotel.I watch Rhys slide tackle a guy on TV, sweat pouring down his face as he rips off his shirt when the game ends. My eyes settle on Rhys’s bare chest and torso. He’s got a leanly chiseled body, broad shoulders that move into a sculpted chest and washboard abs, his smooth, tan skin slick with sweat. An athlete’s body. A trail of dark blond hair arrows down the flat plane of his stomach, disappearing into the waistband of his shorts.Yum.Even in his anger he moves gracefully, forcefully, the muscles in his biceps bulging as he clasps his hands at the back of his head in defeat. Digging his teeth into his bottom lip, he yells something to no one in particular.Something that looks a lot like fuck.I almost come, the first stirrings of my orgasm slithering through my body, tightening the muscles in my legs.Fuck me, I plead.My eyes flutter shut and Rhys is there. Shirtless. Sweaty. Smirking his deadly smirk.With pleasure, love, he murmurs in his gorgeous Welsh accent.My orgasm hits me hard, a wave of potent, throbbing sensation.I smile. I’m getting there—I’m figuring it out, my sexuality, my likes. I’ve come more in the past few weeks than I have in the past few years combined.I’ve always had a boyfriend. I wouldn’t say I’m boy crazy, and I don’t intentionally seek out long-term relationships. But I dated a guy pretty much all through high school, and when we broke up my freshman year of college, I kinda fell into another relationship with the brooding music major down the hall. We split sophomore year. A week later, the cute dude I’d flirted with at a fraternity mixer showed up at my door, and a week after that, we were exclusive.I don’t regret dating any of those guys. Well—maybe I regret the music major, he was pretty douchey. But now that I’m single for the first time in, like, forever, I recognize how much of myself I sacrificed while I was in those relationships. I’m a bit of a people-pleaser, so whatever I thought my boyfriend at the time wanted, I made sure to give it to him. I put aside my own needs—orgasmic and otherwise—to make sure he was happy.My boyfriends never got me off like this. But delicious orgasms like the one I just had are, like, the best thing ever. Way better than fumbling my way through a hookup in a frat house.Speaking of orgasms, the one I just had was good. Really, really good.I close my eyes, let out a sigh of contentment.My semester of self-love and sexual awakening is off to an excellent start.***After a post-orgasm nap and shower, I make a quick call to my bestie for the restie, Emily. She’s studying abroad, too, but she’ll be in London for a full year; her classes don’t start until late September, so she’s still at home in the states.“Why hello you world traveler,” she says after picking up on the first ring. “I miss you already. How is Madrid?”“I mean, I’ve only been here for a couple hours. But already I’ve had some awesome cheese at the airport and an orgasm, so I’d say Madrid is pretty great so far.”“An orgasm? Cheese? Holy shit, who are you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you touch a piece of cheese, much less eat it.”I laugh. “It just felt like the right thing to do. New semester, new city, new me. Or something like that.”“I approve of this new you. I still can’t believe Mr. Frat Star never made you orgasm. I mean, you went an entire year without coming.”“And I mean to make up for lost time, believe me. I’m going to come twelve times a day, and eat so much cheese I develop a lactose intolerance.”I hear Em munching on something. I smile. She always eats when she’s on the phone, usually something bizarre and condiment-oriented—oyster crackers, cornichons, mustard on a spoon, an oyster-cracker-and-cornichon sandwich dipped in mustard on a spoon.“What about making a bucket list for your semester in Madrid?” she says around a mouthful of her condiment of the day. “You know, writing down all the things this ‘new you’ wants to do. Come, eat cheese, go to all the museums in Madrid or whatever. Could be a fun thing for your newly-single self to do. Maybe keep you away from the boys for a bit. It’s about time you started treating yourself better and getting healthy again.”I nod. Back at Meryton, my people-pleasing streak bled from boys to my body, too. Part of being the perfect girlfriend is—was, it was—being perfectly pretty. Which of course meant having the perfect body. I do not jest when I say I lost my entire sophomore year to the treadmill; I think I lived off hard-boiled eggs from the dining hall salad bar and iced coffee that year. It was not fun, and it definitely wasn’t healthy.“I like this bucket list idea, Em,” I say. “I like it a lot. I don’t know what else I want to do besides eat and come, but I’m sure I can think of a couple things.”“Awesome. Listen, I gotta run, Luke is calling me—”“Say hello to him for me,” I say. Luke is Emily’s longtime boyfriend; they met at freshman orientation and have been inseparable ever since. Even if he is a little full of himself—his dad is a senator, and Luke is confident he’ll follow in his footsteps—I like him, mostly because he seems to make Em so happy. They have plans to take the world by storm after we graduate: Luke is going to run for office, and Em is going to be his economic policy advisor. I mean, how cool is that?“Of course,” Em says. “But I’m glad you got to Spain safely and that you’re doing you, literally and figuratively. Keep it up. And call me! Love you.”She makes a kissing sound. In my head I can see the crumbs that always stick to the screen of her phone when she does this. A wave of homesickness washes over me.“Love you too, Em.”I head down to the hotel bar for a bite to eat. Our program warned us Madrileños like to eat late, but I’m still surprised to find the bar empty at a quarter til eight.The bar itself is swanky to the max. Dark lacquered furniture is scattered around the high-ceilinged space, and the walls are covered in antiqued mirrors that blur my reflection into a sexed-up version of my jet-lagged self. The lighting provided by gilded sconces and crystal chandeliers is low and soft, almost like candlelight. I feel seriously underdressed in jeans and a white top, but I’m too hungry to care.The bartender politely pretends not to judge me for ordering a Midori sour. My mom, a bourbon drinker, says they are “stupid cocktails stupid preteen girls with fake IDs order”, but my Auntie Janice and I respectfully disagree. Hey, it’s the first drink I’ve (legally) ordered; the drinking age in Spain is eighteen, which is fine by me as I turned twenty last February. Glancing at the menu, I order what I think is some sort of ham sandwich. My Spanish is a little rusty, but I’m proud of myself for not taking up the bartender on his offer to speak English with me.“No gracias,” I tell him. No thanks. I’d like to practice my Spanish.He grins. “Vale,” he says, which he then explains is Spain’s awesome mashup of “cool/okay/yes/let’s do it”.“Vale,” I reply, grinning back.Maybe, in addition to coming and cheese, I should make it a point to learn to speak Spanish fluently this semester.Sipping on my Midori sour—I know it’s not cool but yikes is it good—I start to think about all the fun things I want to do while I’m here. I’m going to try octopus and maybe ride a moped and of course I want to learn flamenco guitar and I’d really like to do some community service (maybe with kids?) and I am going to masturbate twice a day to Rhys Maddox…A list. Em was so right. I need to make a list—a bucket list, if you will—of Fun Things I Shall Do While in Spain.A spark of excitement catches in my chest. I grab a cocktail napkin from the bar and dig a pen out of my tote bag. Holding the corners of the napkin between my thumb and pinkie, I begin to write.MY SPAIN BUCKET LIST
- Orgasms. Keep having them. Keep exploring what I like sexually.
- Go see Rhys Maddox play in real life.
- Learn to speak Spanish fluently.
- Eat carbs, cheese, and weird things like octopus.
- Buy jeans in a bigger size without wanting to die.I turn the napkin over.
- Community service—tutor kids? Do literacy work?
- Tour of Madrid on a moped (preferably a pink one).
- Go see flamenco guitarist/learn how to play?I stare at that last bullet point for a while as I slurp the last of my cocktail. There are a million other things I want to do, I just can’t think of them at the moment.Another Midori sour will probably help. So will getting my food. I’m starving. It’s been a while since I ordered—I wonder if service is usually so slow in Spain?Setting my glass on the bar, I look up in the hopes of waving down the bartender. I jump when I see a guy standing next to me; I’m so startled I knock my pen to the floor. He must’ve sidled up when I was lost in thought writing.“Pardon me,” he says, ducking to grab the pen. His British accent is crisp, cutglass. It sends a shiver down my spine.He stands, holding out the pen, and meets my eyes. His are blue, a shocking, urgent foil to his deeply tanned skin.“Here you are,” he says.My stomach drops to the floor with a squish. A starry rush fills my head.I know those eyes.I know that face. I also know the tattoos that peek through his starched white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck.Oh God.Oh God.Ohmigod ohmigod I am going to scream don’t scream don’t pee yourself play it cool ohmigod this can’t be happening don’t pee please don’t pee you are in public ohmigod.It’s the real Rhys Maddox. And in the space of three heartbeats I am more turned on by him than I ever was by his fantasy counterpart.Chapter 3LauraIt’s like something out of a dream. I reach out in slow motion and take the pen from his hand, my heart hammering inside my throat. This can’t be happening. My first night in Madrid and I run into the super hot fooballer I’ve been crushing on all summer?I mean, what are the chances?“Thanks,” I breathe. He smells delicious. The musky, clean scent of his cologne fills my head, surrounds me. A familiar heat tugs at the place between my legs. Whatever cologne he’s wearing, I want to swim in it.“Sorry to startle you,” he says.“It’s all right,” I say, my face burning.A beat of silence passes between us as his eyes search mine. I’d like to think the silence is heated, filled with sudden, passionate longing, but I know that’s just wishful thinking on my part. I’ve been getting off on this guy for a couple months— back home, I started watching Madrid matches after I was accepted to the study abroad program—so of course my brain is going to short-circuit to all things sex when I see him in real life.But those baby blues…goodness they slay me. Their translucent color is warm, liquid, less slate blue than warm-Caribbean-sea cerulean. They seem to glow in the low light of the bar.My face is so hot I’m worried I might faint. Thankfully the bartender appears; Rhys clears his throat and turns to him.While they chat, I check Rhys out from the corner of my eye. He runs a hand through his thick, dark blond hair. Tonight he’s wearing it loose, and it falls with Prince Charming-like elegance away from his face, grazing the top of his collar. His jaw and neck are covered in golden-hued stubble; his profile is strong, handsome, marked by a boyish, pert nose and invitingly full lips. I watch his lips move as he talks, transfixed by their softness, bowled over by the curiosity to know what he tastes like, how he kisses, if he’s as good with those lips as he is in my fantasies.As if his face weren’t gorgeous enough, he’s dressed to the nines. Nothing fancy—jeans, white button down, navy blazer, sneakers—but the way he wears it all makes for a devastatingly perfect whole. The jeans hug his thick, muscled thighs in just the right places. His shirt and blazer fit him so well, so snugly, they must be custom made. His woven red belt matches his pristine kicks, making him appear at once casual and sexily slick. A monogrammed Louis Vuitton roller suitcase is drawn up beside him.And don’t even get me started on the tattoos. I can only see them when he moves just so, peeking from underneath the sleeve of his blazer or the collar of shirt. A hint of script there, the bottom half of a star here. There’s something tantalizing about only getting a glimpse of his tats. Like, even though I’ve seen him shirtless and I know what they look like, I’m turned on by the tease.I also can’t help but think his tattoos are somehow incongruous with his polished, almost preppy outfit. The tats say bad boy, but the custom blazer says well-to-do businessman who also happens to be super hot.So which one is Rhys—the bad boy or the businessman? Is he both? Neither?I really, really want to find out the answer. Which is ridiculous, because— hello!—he is Rhys Maddox and I am an American nobody.I’ll just have to settle for a little after dinner sesh with fantasy Rhys. Not a bad gig, considering he makes me come, hard, every time I ask him to. I should actually thank real Rhys for providing such excellent inspiration for hours upon hours of orgasms.Rhys orders a porterhouse steak I don’t remember being on the menu to go, and vodka on the rocks to sip on while he waits. No well liquor for this guy—he asks for Belvedere.I watch him reach for his back pocket, pulling out a wallet that matches his suitcase.I should thank real Rhys.My pulse thumps, and the idea appears, fully formed and insistent, inside my head. I shouldn’t—I mean, yeah, this is my chance, I’ll never see him again, but it’d be weird, wouldn’t it?—I can’t just come out and say—“I got it,” I blurt, reaching around my chair for my bag.Their gazes—Rhys’s and the bartender’s—snap to my face.“I’m sorry?” Rhys says.“Your drink.” I pop open my wallet and dig out my debit card. “Your dinner, too. Everything. All of it. I want to pay for all of it.”I’m about to pass the bartender my card when Rhys holds up his hand.“That’s kind of you, but I can’t let you do that.”I manage to wiggle around him, placing my card in the bartender’s hand.“Too late,” I say. “Let me buy you a drink.”“For what?” he replies. “Winning? Because we didn’t win today. I was complete shit out there, as a matter of fact.”His accent dips, softens, when he says shit. It comes out sounding more like shite. My heart skips a beat.I like it.“No,” I say, swallowing. “Not for winning.”He looks at me, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he narrows them. God he’s gorgeous. “Are you a football fan?”“Not particularly.” My face is going up in flames again. I turn to the bartender. “Another drink for me, too, please,” I say. Eff, I forgot to use my Spanish.“Then why do you insist on treating me?”I watch the bartender scoop ice into a short, wide glass. “Because.” Because I want to thank you for all the orgasms. “Um. It’s a way of thanking you, I guess?”“Thanking me?” he says. He nods his thanks at the bartender as he grabs his vodka rocks. “For what?”He’s looking at me, I feel it. I resist the urge to pick up my bucket list napkin and fan myself with it.The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.“For the good times,” I say.My eyes flick to his. Oh, he’s definitely looking at me. But his eyes have changed. I could be imagining it—who am I kidding, I’m definitely imagining it—but they’re alive in a way they weren’t two minutes ago, the blue shaded with a spark of something warm. Interest, maybe? Amusement?His perfectly kissable lips part, like he’s about to say something. But our food arrives, and suddenly we’re surrounded by a phalanx of waiters. His dinner is ready at the same time mine is, naturally, even though I ordered mine half an hour before.I pick at the french fries on my plate and watch the waiters fawn over Rhys. Would you like us to have this sent up to your room?, one of them asks, pointing to the tidy boxes of food on the bar. I’ll have all our sauces sent up as well, another adds, snapping at a busboy.“Actually,” Rhys says. He sets his wallet on the counter pulls out the bar stool next to mine. “I think I’d like to eat here, if that’s all right?”I almost choke on a fry. Uneasy silence settles over the bar, and it hits me that Rhys is waiting for my response—not the waiters’.“Um,” I say. “Sure. Yeah. Yes, of course.”“Brilliant.” Rhys sets his glass on the bar. His elbow brushes mine as he places a napkin on his lap. I think I’m going to have a heart attack. “But first, an Instagram.”“An Instagram?”“Yes.” He pulls his phone from his pocket and snaps a quick picture of his fancy steak and fancier drink. I notice he makes sure to include his designer wallet in the shot. “I get a lot of likes on food pictures. I’ve got eleven million followers, but I’m hoping to bump it up to twenty. Sponsors really love it when you have a big following like that.”“Oh,” I say. “Right. Makes sense.”“So,” he says, pocketing his phone again. “What good times are you talking about? I’d remember if we met.”“We haven’t,” I say.“I know.” He sets his knife down and crosses his right hand over his left, offering it to me. “I’m Rhys.”“I know,” I say, trying not to smile. “I’m Laura.”I take his hand, noticing the fat gold Rolex on his wrist. I grip his hand firmly, trying not to squirm when I realize how clammy my palms are. He grips me firmly, too. I appreciate that. I think it’s a little patronizing when guys handle you like you’re made of glass.His skin is warm, his enormous hand swallowing my own. His touch is confident, sure.I want you to touch me like that all over.“Laura,” he repeats. “Tell me more about these good times. I’m intrigued.”“You shouldn’t be. It’s really not that great of a story, Rhys.” Reese—it’s pronounced like the candy. Saying his name out loud, in public, feels weird.One side of his handsome mouth kicks up as he chews his steak. “Somehow I doubt that, Laura.”“Let’s see how much liquid courage that’ll give me,” I say, nodding at my fresh green cocktail, “and then maybe I’ll tell you.”He cocks a blond brow at my glass. “What is that? A sour apple martini?”“Worse,” I say. “It’s a Midori sour.”“That is worse,” he says, laughing.The sound of his laugh—genuine, deep, pleased—makes me smile so hard I feel it in my eyeballs.It makes me relax. “Midori sours may not be cool,” I say. “But they are delicious.”“As delicious as you?” he says, his smile morphing into a devilish little smirk.“Wow.” I sip my cocktail. “Wow, Rhys, that was pretty terrible.”“It was, wasn’t it?” He laughs again. “Sorry. I’m complete rubbish at pick-up lines. Like, embarrassingly awful at them. I should probably put in some practice before I send another girl running from the building like it’s on fire.”“You’ve sent girls running?”“Well, no.” He meets my eyes. “But it’s only a matter of time. You were tempted to run, weren’t you?”I bite my lip. “If the bartender didn’t have my credit card, I would’ve been out the door ten minutes ago.”“I wouldn’t blame you.”“How about this?” I say, straightening in my chair. “Practice your pick-up lines with me. I promise not to judge.”“No you don’t.”“You’re right, I don’t, I’m totally going to judge you and tell all my friends how terrible you are at getting laid. But I paid for your dinner, so I think that’s fair.”“Agreed.” Rhys sets down his knife and fork on his plate. He turns to me, resting one elbow on the bar and the other on the back of his chair. His blue eyes dance. “Ready?”“Ready.”“And you promise not to laugh?”“Promise.”“All right.” He clears his throat. His face is a mask of mock-seriousness. “Hey girl, do you know karate? Because your body is kickin’.”I suck in my cheeks to keep from laughing. Not at the line, but at him, because Rhys is trying not to laugh, too.“Hey girl. Do you work at Starbucks? Because I like you a-latte.” He leans in. “Get it? A-latte?”“I do,” I manage. “Keep going. The ‘hey girl’ part is amazing.”“I know. It never works.” He takes a sip of his cocktail. “Hey girl. Apart from being sexy, what do you do for a living?”“Total winner right there.”“Isn’t it though?” He wiggles his eyebrows. “Hey girl. I love every bone in your body, especially mine.”I bend over, clutching my waist.“Hey girl. Is your mom a baker? Because you’ve got some nice buns.” That’s it. I can’t take it. I burst out laughing, and Rhys does, too. He hands me a napkin to wipe the tears from my eyes.“Thanks,” I wheeze. “That was awesome.”“Awesomely awful, you mean,” he says.I blink the last of the tears away. Rhys’s blurry face snaps into sudden, devastating focus. It’s like I’m seeing him—the real him—for the first time all over again. He’s so freaking hot it makes my stomach flip.I look away. “Amazing or not, your pick-up lines made me laugh harder than I have in a long time.”“Then it was worth the embarrassment,” he replies. “You’ve got a beautiful laugh and even better smile. You should show them off more often.”I drain the rest of my drink. I can’t meet his eyes.I mean, seriously. If you look past the glitz and polish of Rhys the soccer star, there’s a pretty charming dude to be found.We talk, we laugh some more. I tell him that I’m studying here for a semester. He tells me about his favorite places in Madrid I should try out. Restaurants, cafés, shops.When I finally check my phone, I’m surprised to find it’s almost eleven.“Yikes,” I say, pushing back from the bar after I ask for the bill. My stool wobbles. “It’s way past my bedtime. I should get going. I have a lot I need to get done before classes start this week, so…”Rhys stands. He takes my elbow in his hand and gently helps me to my feet. Ribbons of warmth unfurl inside me from this place where skin meets skin. His fingertips linger on my bare arm.I look up at him. Whatever was in his eyes before—the interest, the amusement—it’s back, stronger now, and he makes no effort to hide it.“I’ll walk you up to your room,” he says. My pulse leaps. My hand shakes as I sign the bill.“Why are you staying here? At a hotel, I mean.” I nod at his suitcase. “You have a place in Madrid, right?”Rhys pulls up the handle on his suitcase with a snap. “I do. But my flat is being renovated at the moment, so I come here when I need a break from the noise and the mess. Plus I’ve done a few commercials for this hotel chain. They comped me a suite.”“Ah,” I say, starting to walk away from the bar. “Must be nice.”“Wait! Don’t forget your napkin. Looks like you put a bit of work into it.”Shit. In my hot-soccer-player-stupor, I’d forgotten about my bucket list. I whirl around and grab the napkin, stuffing it into my purse before he can get a closer look. I don’t know why, but I don’t want Rhys to see it.“Jotting down some thoughts?” he asks, cocking a brow again. A tiny voice inside my head says tell him. Tell him how you’re determined to live a little this semester. Tell him the list is all about becoming the happy, healthy girl you want to be.But I don’t. Rhys may be a charmer, but he’s also a guy. A really rich, really good looking guy who obviously cares a lot about appearances. The flashy Rolex and porterhouse steak and Instagram are all proof of that. I’d feel silly, telling him I’m trying to care less about superficial stuff like that; telling him I’m looking for happy and healthy and self-induced orgasms instead. I can imagine him rolling his beautiful blue eyes as he pumps the brakes on our fun, flirty conversation.I also feel like I’d be passing judgment on Rhys’s fabulous footballer lifestyle. I don’t know him; I don’t know what his story is, where he comes from. I’m sure he has his reasons for living the way he does, just like I have my reasons for putting together a wine-and-cheese heavy bucket list.Reasons I don’t feel like sharing with Rhys Maddox at the moment.“It’s nothing,” I say, zipping up my bag. “Just a little project I’m working on. C’mon, let’s head up.”Rhys smirks again, a devilish, knowing little thing that sends a shiver down my spine. “Let’s.”
Jessica Peterson began reading romance to escape the decidedly unromantic awkwardness of her teenage years. Having found solace in the likes of Mr. Darcy, Jamie Fraser (OMG love the gingers!), and Edward Cullen, it wasn’t long before she began creating tall, dark and handsome heroes of her own.
She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband, Mr.Peterson, and her smelly Goldendoodle Martha Bean.