Gil Davis couldn’t believe it had been ten years since he’d last walked through these doors. Where had the time gone?
When the invitation to his class reunion had come, he’d almost tossed it out, just as he had with the notice of his five-year reunion.
He was not into reliving his high school years.
No way, no how.
But something on the invitation had caught his eye. This time they were holding it at the school. So instead of immediately pitching it, he had thrown the invitation on his kitchen table. Unfortunately Katie, his best friend and roommate, found it and hounded him relentlessly until he agreed to RSVP.
And, of course, Katie insisted on being his date.
Which thrilled him to no end…not.
Now he wasn’t so sure if he wanted to go in.
He wasn’t sure he was ready for a night of teasing from his former schoolmates.
Yet, here he stood, just inside the double doors of his old high school, staring at the registration table by the gymnasium doors.
Someone grabbed his elbow. Firmly.
“You’re not chickening out, are you?”
Gil shook his head and swallowed hard. “Did you find the restroom all right?”
“Fine,” Katie said in her little no-nonsense tone. “Let’s go.”
The harder she tugged on his arm, the more he dug in his heels. He didn’t want to leave his little corner of safety yet. “Hold on.”
“No, Gil. It’s not going to get any easier. You look fine. We’ve—okay, I’ve worked really hard to get you to this point.” She smoothed the hair back from his eyes. Gil was surprised she hadn’t spit on her fingers first like a hovering mother hen.
The problem was, he was still a nerd at heart.
“Now, get your shit together and let’s go!” She gave his arm one last hard yank and dragged him over to the table.
Sucking in a breath, he steeled himself for what was to come.
The two women sitting at the table wore big predatory smiles.
“Gilbert? Gilbert Davis, is that you?” the toothy piranha on the right asked. “I swear I didn’t recognize you without your bottle-bottom glasses and pocket protector.”
Those glasses were long gone, thanks to Katie forcing him to the optometrist for contacts years ago.
Gil leaned forward to read her name tag. Bonnie (Trusk) Smith.
Bonnie Trusk. He remembered her. She had been part of the homecoming court their senior year.
And had accidentally run over his foot one day in the parking lot with her Eddie Bauer Explorer. Why? Her excuse had been she hadn’t seen him. Yeah, he had been the invisible man, “invisible” to all the popular kids.
“Just Gil,” he corrected her.
She laughed and waved a hand toward him, clearly dismissing him.
The other woman, Patti Petroski-Harrison, shoved a Hello! My name is…Gilbert Davis sticker at him. “And your hair! It looks…” Gil expected the next word out of her mouth to be normal. Her face showed her internal struggle. “Nice.”
He was a geek. He knew it. He had been one ever since he could remember. And his classmates had always teased him about it.
She sized up Katie. “Are you his wife?”
Katie laughed and patted Gil’s arm. “Oh no.”
Gil shot her a quick warning look.
Katie gave him a sugary smile and a noisy kiss on the cheek.
“Well then,” Patti said. “When you go through the doors, Gilbert, there will be a table with place settings. Find your name, and that will tell you where you’re seated.”
“Just Gil,” he corrected again, but by then both women were flashing their beaming smiles at another couple who had come up behind them.
Katie tugged him to the side to avoid being crushed by the new arrivals’ hugging and squealing. Gil didn’t recognize the newcomers. But then they had probably been a part of the “in” group.
Gil had been a full-fledged member of the “out” group, but not the “out of the closet” group.
A woman’s shrill scream shot a bolt of pain through his head.
“Did you hear Rip Cord is going to be here? Can you believe it?” Patti asked, her question ending in a squeal. She looked as if she would bust a vein.
Gil stumbled back a step from the table, barely avoiding Katie’s toes.
Holy hell, he never should have agreed to come to this thing. Especially if he’d known Rip would be here.
Gil had a crush on Rip since high school. Unfortunately Rip was definitely of the heterosexual persuasion. Being captain of the football team, he’d had every girl in school chasing after him, one way or another.
So Gil had admired the well-built, handsome jock from afar. Very afar.
Hearing Rip’s name brought all those old feelings back to the surface.
All the insecurities.
Gil certainly had never expected his secret crush to come back to town for a ten-year class reunion. Rip had become way too famous for that.
Gil grabbed Katie’s arm and, with her squeaky protest, dragged her through the double doors into the gym.
“Jesus, Gil. What’s going on?” she asked as he pushed her against the wall just inside the doors.
“Did you hear that?” He struggled not to hyperventilate.
“What?” Katie peeled the backing off Gil’s name tag and slapped it onto his chest. Not so gently either.
“Rip is going to be here.”
“Rip?” She wrinkled her nose. “What the hell is rip?”
“Not what. Who!” Gil swallowed hard and blew out a long breath. He realized then he was squeezing her upper arms. Way too hard. He relaxed his fingers.
“Okay, okay. Calm down. And let up a little more please.”
He released her and wiped his sweaty palms along his slacks. He never should have worn slacks. Slacks were nerd wear.
Why didn’t Katie talk him out of wearing them? He should have worn torn jeans or leather pants or—
“So is Rip a band? I would’ve thought they just would’ve hired a DJ. It’s cheaper.”
“Wait. What?” Gil shook his head. “First of all, why would they need music?”
Katie pointed a finger upward. “Hear that, nerd-o? Music. You know, it creates atmosphere and gives you something to dance to.”
“Dance?” Gil swallowed hard. He cocked his head. He did hear music. He hadn’t noticed it because he’d been too panicked about Rip being there. “Okay, just don’t ask me to dance.”
“No can do, Gilly. We will be dancing. I didn’t come along to be a wallflower.”
“Katie, you know I can’t dance,” he hissed, inches from her face.
She had the nerve to laugh. As if his lack of rhythm was something to laugh about. His coordination left something to be desired. Gil considered it a handicap—maybe not one recognized by the government. But no one should make fun of the handicapped!
Gil frowned. “I didn’t see anything on the invitation about dancing.”
Katie sighed. “Gilly, don’t worry, we’ll fake it.”
“Don’t call me Gilly here. It’s bad enough people will be calling me Gilbert.”
“Okay, Gil. So if Rip isn’t a band, then who or what is it?”
A low murmur throughout the room behind him caused Gil to look up. Coming through the doors…
Gil pressed a hand to the wall to steady himself. His legs had suddenly lost all strength.
Coming through the doors was…
“Him,” was all Gil could get past the lump in his throat.
“Him?” Katie turned the direction Gil was staring, and her mouth made a little O.
Gil had expected Rip to walk in with a tall, leggy blonde on his arm—one who was enhanced in various places. He hadn’t expected Rip to come…alone.
Ripley “Rip” Cord was just as tall as Gil remembered. Around five inches taller than him, not that Gil was a squirt. The football player was at least six foot two.
And every inch of him was muscle. Not lean muscle, but heavy muscle. Heavy, rounded, lickable muscle.
Gil glanced at Katie. “You’re drooling.”
Katie wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “As if you aren’t.”
Gil snagged her wrist and backpedaled until he rammed into something hard. It was the table with the place settings.
Gil peered over Katie’s shoulder to see if his klutziness had caught Rip’s attention.
Luckily it hadn’t. The man was completely surrounded by their old classmates clamoring for his attention.
Throughout the years, he’d followed Rip’s career in the newspapers, on the evening news, on ESPN.
And in the tabloids.
Rip was well-known. Unfortunately it was as the “bad boy” of the National Football League. He started out with a great career in the NFL, drafted straight out of college. He was one of the best wide receivers in the league, but it was all his rumored problems that kept him in the spotlight, not his stats.
And that famous wide receiver was here. Now.
“C’mon, Katie! Don’t stare.”
“Jesus, Gilly, because you have a crush on him!”
Heat crawled up Gil’s neck. He was glad the lights were turned down in the gymnasium. He didn’t want anyone seeing him blush.
Hell, he was twenty-eight years old. He shouldn’t be blushing. He felt seventeen all over again.
He pulled away from Katie to study the name cards remaining on the table. Of course, he read the same card over and over before Katie squealed.
“Oh. My. God. Here he comes!”
Gil nervously tugged Katie next to his side and threw an arm haphazardly around her shoulders.
“Ouch,” she yelped as her curly red hair got caught on the button of his cuff.
“Sorry,” he whispered and straightened up just as Rip arrived at the table.
Gil swore he saw spots. He was not going to faint. He was not going to faint.
His knees buckled, and he grabbed for the nearest solid thing: Rip.
Rip grasped his forearm and held Gil steady. “You all right, buddy?”
Gil looked up—and up—into deep blue eyes. Eyes he had never forgotten. To this day they haunted his dreams.
Dreams he usually woke up from with a raging hard-on.
Gil opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. Rip smacked him hard on the back.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Did you find your name card yet?” Rip asked, flashing him a bright, white smile.
Gil shook his head.
Rip moved closer, almost hip to hip with Gil, to study the table of white folded cardstock. Gil fought the urge to lean in and nuzzle the larger man’s neck, inhaling his manly scent. Roll around in it like a dog.
Hell, he’d probably end up sporting a black eye if he tried.
Even so, Rip’s large hands, his long fingers, fascinated Gil as he reached out to snag a card off the table.
“Here you are.” He lifted Gil’s hand, cupping it from the bottom.
Gil could feel the rough, calloused palm against his knuckles. A thrill ran down his spine as Rip tucked the tented name card into his curled fingers.
Rip remembered his name? He must have if he had picked Gil’s name out from the place settings.
Gil quickly glanced down at his own chest. Crap. He’d probably read his Hello. My name is… sticker.
Rip’s deep voice broke into his thoughts. “I’ve dreamed of you, Gilbert.”
Gil looked up at him in shock. “What?”
“I said, I remember you, Gilbert. Don’t look so surprised.”
Rip lifted one brow. “Again?”
“He goes by Gil now,” Katie butted in. “I’m Katie.” She held out her hand.
Instead of shaking it, Rip lifted it and brushed his lips over her knuckles.
“Oh, a gentleman, huh? Hard to find these days.”
“Hardly.” Rip laughed, then pinned Gil with a stare. “Is she your girl?”
Gil’s gaze flicked to Katie, who stood entranced, staring at Rip. He knew the feeling.
Rip had a strong square jaw, currently covered in a super-short beard since it wasn’t game season. He sported shoulder-length dirty-blond hair with sun-kissed highlights due to the time he spent outdoors.
His long legs were encased in black jeans, which sinfully hugged the muscles they covered. He had on a tight black T-shirt under an equally black but very worn leather jacket. A biker jacket, not a designer jacket. Heavy leather with rivets, sporting buckles and zippers.
He looked bad. So bad, he looked good.
Even so, Gil couldn’t help thinking it was way too warm out for a leather jacket.
“Where are you sitting?” Katie piped in, tearing Rip’s attention away from Gil and onto her.
Damn. Rip had always liked the ladies, and it seemed to be no different now.
Gil quickly scanned the table and found Rip’s name card. Table 15. He looked at his own. Table 13.
Hell. Unlucky thirteen. He couldn’t be lucky enough to be sitting with the NFL star. He was sure whoever organized the reunion had Rip sitting with the popular crowd—or at least the former jocks from high school.
“With you guys.” Rip plucked his place card off the table. “Have a pen?”
What the hell? Was Rip going to be hitting on Katie all night? Gil didn’t know if he could sit there and watch that.
“Don’t you wear a pocket protector anymore?” Rip asked him, running a finger over his shirt pocket. Gil’s nipples hardened instantly, and he bit back a gasp.
“N-no,” Gil stuttered. Katie had forbidden them. Even at work.
“Here. I have one.” Katie handed Rip a pen she extracted from her purse.
Rip gave her a smile in thanks and used the pen to scribble out the 13 on Gil’s name card. He replaced it with the number 15.
He handed the pen back to Katie and the name card back to Gil, the pads of his fingers lingering on Gil’s palm.
Gil fisted his hand, still feeling the tingling sensation left behind.
He had to get a grip.
Rip was a football player. A man’s man.
Too bad he wasn’t Gil’s man.