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Deadlines & Red Lines
Author: Stephanie Julian




“Hey, RJ. How’s your day going? What can I get you?”

You. I want you. Naked. On the table. Against the wall. I don’t care where. And you don’t have a clue.

RJ Mitchell made sure his expression didn’t reveal the thoughts running through his head as he handed her the menu he didn’t need because he knew it forward and backward.

It was Tuesday and The Brig’s special of the day was owner Georgie’s amazing pot roast. After the workout this morning and the ice time he’d logged this afternoon, pot roast was his reward.

And spending time with Sugar. Can’t forget that.

Nope, wouldn’t forget that anytime soon. Not when she was always here, serving him at his favorite restaurant in the entire city of Philadelphia.

Pitiful but true.

“Hey, Sugar. It’s going. You get signed up for that class you were talking about?”

Her lips twisted and her nose wrinkled in a way that shouldn’t have made him think about kissing his way down her naked body. Then again, he’d been lusting after this woman for months, so it wasn’t a surprise.

But since his personal life was in limbo or suspended animation or whatever the hell kind of life he was living right now, he hadn’t talked himself into seducing her. Yet.

He wanted to. But the situation being what it was…

“Not yet. I know, I know.” She held up a hand to stop him from responding, her smile widening. “I’m going to. I just…haven’t had the time.”

“You need to make the time.”

Her smile softened as she nodded. “I will. I just…need to find a couple of minutes. Thanks for asking, though. It reminds me that I need to do it. So what do you want tonight?”

Same answer as before.

He wanted her.

Then ask her out.

He hadn’t figured out why he hadn’t. Or maybe he knew and just didn’t want to admit it.

“I’ll take the pot roast.”

Her smile widened again. “I knew that. But you never know. One of these days you could surprise me. I’ll put the order in and bring back some water. You want anything else right away?”

Yeah. I just don’t know if I should ask for it.

“Nah. I’ll start with that. Thanks, Shug.”

“No problem”

Then she turned and walked away, back to the kitchen. Leaving RJ to watch her walk away. And yeah, he checked out her perfect ass before she disappeared behind the swinging doors into the kitchen.

Yep, he was an asshole.

Jaw flexing, he forced himself to shift his gaze to the front window, where people still crowded the sidewalk on a Tuesday in mid-August. Outside, the temperature still hovered just below ninety degrees at seven-thirty at night, but inside the diner, the air conditioner had to be cranked to subarctic. But it barely made a dent in his internal temperature, which rose every time he was near Sugar.

God damn. If he didn’t act on this attraction soon, he was going to lose his mind.

You’ve already lost that if you think you should be pursuing this woman. She doesn’t need to deal with your shit.

Swallowing down a sigh, he flipped over his phone, which had been face down on the table. Most days, he avoided opening social media sites. He had accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but he didn’t post a lot. Never had, even before the shit hit the fan last year. Before he’d transferred to the Colonials from LA.

A toxic mix of emotions churned in his gut, pushing past the mental block he’d built for the past fourteen months. Since the night a couple of asshole former teammates took advantage of a couple of drunk women at a party. And fucked the reputation of nearly the entire team. Including RJ’s.

The legal battle had been put to rest in California, and RJ had been exonerated. But the court of public opinion had already laid down its verdict: complicit. Not guilty but responsible in some way. Hell, he even thought so himself. Even though he’d tried to—

His hands clenched into fists on top of the table, his knuckles cracking audibly. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and forced himself to loosen his jaw and shove all that shit back down into the pit where he kept it locked up tight.

Giving the room a quick once-over, he decided no one had noticed his momentary freak-out and allowed himself to relax. Just a little. Something he didn’t do much of lately. The closest he got to relaxing was having dinner here or hanging with his family.

He didn’t have a girlfriend. The bullshit in L.A. had taken care of that. Marisol had barely hung on two days when the accusations went public. Then she’d bailed. At the time, he hadn’t blamed her. Mostly, he blamed himself for dragging her into it with him. Even though he’d done nothing wrong…

He heard the door to the kitchen swing open and his attention automatically shifted.

Not Sugar.

Damn. He definitely needed a hobby other than working out and stalking Sugar.

With a disgusted sigh, he tapped his phone and saw notifications for two texts. Since very few people had his number, it was either family or close friends. Turned out to be both.

You coming to dinner this weekend? Your sister wants to know.

RJ huffed out a quiet laugh. His best friend and future brother-in-law, Tim Stanton, knew him well enough to know if Tim invited him to dinner, RJ would be forgiven for blowing him off. But if he blew off his sister, well, that was just a dick move.

The other text was from his mom and, yeah, he’d be a total dick for blowing off his mom.

Your dad’s birthday is next month. We need to talk party plans!

Shit. Couldn’t say no to that either, could he?

Hell, he’d had no plans all summer. Usually, he’d spend most of July beach-hopping with friends and teammates, old and new. Tahiti, Hawaii, Jamaica. Tropical heat, white beaches, drinks with enough alcohol to dull the pain of losing out on making the playoffs, losing the playoffs, or losing the cup. And if you were lucky enough to have won the cup? Well, the alcohol was icing on the cake. Not that he would know. He didn’t have a ring. At least, not yet.

“Excuse me, mister. Are you RJ Mitchell?”

The boy stood at least six feet away from his table, probably eight or ten years old. Definitely not old enough to be here by himself.

A year ago, RJ wouldn’t have had to force a smile. It would’ve come naturally. Now, it took a little effort. Even for the kids. And that sucked. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the fans. After his love of the game, they were the reason he played. Not for fame or money, although he admitted the money was great. The fame, not so much. Especially when you became famous for something you didn’t do.

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