Cut Above The Rest
#UofJ Prequel

Eric

CHAPTER 1

Sonofabitch!

 

Sunlight does its best to dig into my brain, and I’m cursing both myself for not shutting the blinds and that last shot—or four—of tequila I accepted.

 

“I’m never drinking again,” I vow, rolling over with a groan only to end up on the floor.

 

What the hell?

 

The pounding in my temples intensifies like I was tackled by an entire defensive line. I wiggle my nose like I’m that chick in those old episodes of Bewitched I used to watch with Moms Taylor when she was sick. Good. I don’t think it’s broken.

 

Flopping an arm around, I mutter another curse when I rock my hand against something hard. What the…

 

With the least amount of movement that is physically possible, I peel one eyelid open to find a Solo-cup-riddled coffee table. Why am I in the living room when I have a room upstairs?

 

My cheek makes a saroompf sound as it peels away from the sticky beer-coated hardwood. Gross. After a party, the floors of any frat or sports house on campus are a literal ground zero of disgusting-ness. I’m going to need a tetanus shot or penicillin after getting up close and personal with things no human being should.

 

Planting my hands under me, I push up into a plank position, flipping around onto my ass with zero grace. If my sister Kay were here, she’d be bent over laughing at me. The brat lives for torturing me and any chance to see me knocked down a peg. It’s a damn good thing I love her.

 

Little pinprick-like brushes trickle down my face and into my nose, causing me to sneeze. I swat away the sensation, jerking around with another stab of pain to the brain, trying to find what is falling on me.

 

With a groan that sounds more like a tortoise trying to get jiggy with it than an elite Division 1 athlete, I fold over, cupping my face in my now-grime-coated palms and massage my temples.

 

The fuck!

 

With a jolt, I slap around the left side of my head, convinced it’s my hangover manifesting itself into physical delusions. The roaring inside my skull rivals that of the crowd in Beaver Stadium yesterday. The Penn State Nittany Lions crushed the Ohio State Buckeyes in last night’s conference matchup—hence the hangover from hell.

 

That’s not the point.

 

Gentling my movements, I obsessively smooth my palms over my head, the left side most definitely shorter than the right.

 

Acid and those tequila shots swirl in my gut dangerously, and I cover my mouth in a futile attempt to hold back Mr. Jose Cuervo from making a reappearance. I’m on my feet and two steps toward the downstairs bathroom when it registers that my palm is coated in…fur.

 

NO!

 

Not fur.

 

HAIR.

 

My palm is covered with inch-long blond hairs.

 

MY HAIR!

 

Somebody is going to die.

 

Rage and the aftereffects of overindulging make my vision blurry as I stumble my way down the hallway, my bulky frame knocking into the walls like I’m in a game of pinball.

 

I’m momentarily blinded as I flip on the light, the sharp edge of the vanity’s counter offering zilch in terms of comfort as I stagger into the small powder room.

 

Spots dance in my vision before I finally get it to focus. “AHH!” I scream, followed by a crash. I let out another shout, and this one sounds like it should have come from Kay’s pint-sized body and not my massive six-six, collegiate-football-playing self.

 

Cold and wet, my ass is officially stuck in the toilet—literally.

 

Eric

CHAPTER 2

“Oh em gee, E!” The tinkling sounds of my little sister’s laughter instantly soothe my anger at Hector to a mild simmer. “I gotta say”—she circles a finger in the air before bringing it to her right eyebrow—“this is at least better than the last time you were shaved in your sleep.”

 

I slap a hand over my own, and the video of our FaceTime call goes wonky as Kay falls over. When it straightens out, it’s JT, her lifelong best friend, who is the one holding the phone.

 

“Did you ever look up if we could return her?” he asks, also touching his eyebrow.

 

Two years ago, while our families were vacationing together in Mexico, JT and I had the brilliant idea to collect a few of the miniature lizards we saw around the resort and stick them under the covers of our sisters’ beds. We thought it was hilarious. Kay and Tessa…not so much. It took five months—count them: FIVE—for our eyebrows to grow back after the girls shaved them off.

 

I’m almost two whole feet bigger than my sister, but that chick scares me.

 

I shake my head. “You know Dad would never let me get away with that.”

 

JT sighs. “Neither would Pops.”

 

We may not be blood, but that doesn’t make us any less of a family. Our dads were best friends growing up, and that tradition is carrying on into the next generation.

 

“Suck it, losers.” Kay pushes herself off of JT, sticking her tongue out at the screen and batting JT’s arm away when he goes to pull her into a headlock.

 

I probably video-chat with my family more than your average college freshman, but it’s times like these, seeing the teasing and virtually participating, that I feel homesick.

 

“Please tell me you’re going to use your one day off to get that”—Kay circles her finger at me again—“fixed today? It’s embarrassing enough being your sister when you’re Becky with the good hair.”

 

Any bit of irritability lingering around from this morning melts away. “You’re such a smartass.” I’d question why she would even know the Lemonade reference, but she’s always been up to date on her pop culture references given that her teammates on her cheer team The Admirals range from thirteen at the youngest (Kay and JT) up to high school seniors. “And…umm…how am I an embarrassment?”

 

“Thank you.” She winks and dusts her shoulder off. See what I mean? Even the outdated ones she knows. “And you fumbled yesterday.” Her expression turns serious before cracking into a smile. “Em-ba-rrass-ing,” she adds with a singsong lilt.

 

My phone dings, the notification banner dropping down to remind me of the haircut appointment I was able to snag at the local salon. “Listen, Squirt.” I smooth a hand over my lopsided hair. “I gotta go.”

 

“Oh, wait!” JT grunts as she drops the phone and jumps over the back of the couch, running out of the room. By the time JT has the phone in hand, Kay is back. “I got you this.” She opens a blue t-shirt and spreads it out in front of JT’s face, the words Cheer Bro written in white with the O printed as a football.

 

“I love it.” Genuinely I do. Funny shirts are her thing. No one is better at picking one to match a person’s personality than Kay. If Dad is guilty of spoiling her in any way, it’s indulging the punny wardrobe—though, in his defense, he probably ends up buying more articles of clothing for other people than for Kay herself. Exhibit A: my new shirt. I can only imagine what she’s going to end up getting Hector for his haircutting prank skills.

 

Bette

CHAPTER 3

Hair and makeup have been my life since I was given a Styling Head Barbie by my aunt when I was six. Even before I had the emotional maturity to understand, it was the joy of helping others feel like their best self that attracted me to it, and my course in life was set—I wanted to be like Aunt AnnMarie when I grew up.

 

Like anyone with a dream, I did everything I could to make sure it would come true one day. I shadowed my aunt in her salon and worked every job I could from receptionist to shampoo girl until I earned my cosmetology license when I turned eighteen.

 

I have the foundation; now all I need is the business degree. It’s why I moved across the state and enrolled as a freshman at Penn State University.

 

Though I miss the familiarity of my aunt’s salon, it’s been easy for me to transition into Mane Event, where I work now. Located close to the PSU campus and with a majority of the staff fellow college students or recent graduates, it’s been a mostly ideal situation.

 

There is one thing that can suck—Sundays. The day can be hit or miss thanks to the bulk of our clientele sleeping off their hangovers if there was a big party the night before.

 

From the gossip this morning, I learned the Nittany Lions won their football game, but outside of understanding that they play on a field and score touchdowns, I don’t know a thing about football. Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh, my dad will tell you that’s a crying shame.

 

Despite the general lack of clients, the morning flew by into the early afternoon. Guy, the other stylist with appointments in his book besides myself, has kept both me and Laura, the salon’s receptionist, entertained with some of his more outlandish stories from his night out. I honestly don’t know how he does it. I’m tired just hearing about how he partied it up at one of the fraternities on campus.

 

Miss Dottie, the feisty eighty-year-old in a hot pink velour tracksuit with hair to match, is one of Guy’s regulars and is currently dishing out advice on how best to “catch the eye of a young stud”. She comes in after church every Sunday, claiming she prayed there so now it’s time to sin vicariously through “us youngins”.

 

“What about you, Bette?” Miss Dottie asks, waving a hand at the empty coloring chair next to her for me to join her.

 

“What about me?” I return cautiously. Don’t let her age or her churchgoing ways fool you—Miss Dottie lives for raising a little hell.

 

“Have you taken a ride on the Bony Express lately?”

 

My sinuses burn as I snort coffee out through my nose. “Miss Dottie,” I sputter, as if scandalized. I’m not. I’m more than used to her lack of filter. I’m also beyond thankful for the all-black dress code that will hide the mess I’ve made of myself.

 

“What?” Her shoulders shrug underneath the Penn State-blue salon cape. “Honey, if I looked the way you do”—she makes a point of checking me out—“I’d be banging my way through those fine-as-fuck athletes at your school.”

 

Thankfully I refrained from taking another sip of my coffee. If I hadn’t, my nasal cavity would have suffered another assault. I don’t know what is more amusing: the fact that I’m being encouraged to “sow all the wild oats” or that an octogenarian used the phrase fine as fuck.

 

The bell on the front door jingles as someone enters the salon. I jump out of the chair like I’m a damn jack-in-the-box, grateful for the fortuitous timing of my next appointment.

 

“Oh, honey…our prayers have been answered.” Miss Dottie clasps her hands in front of her faux piously.

 

“Ask and you shall receive.” Guy tacks on the proverb like they’re two peas in a perpetually horny pod.

 

“Bette, sweetheart, you better go climb that boy like a tree.” I’m sure Miss Dottie thinks she’s whispering, but it’s a stage-whisper at best. Thank God we turned up the volume on Spotify earlier when we switched over to Michael Jackson.

 

I can’t tell if it’s the potential of somebody overhearing Miss Dottie or the current trigger of inappropriate behavior that’s making my cheeks heat. Holy crap! Miss Dottie had the tree reference correct, but this purveyor of hotness is anything but a boy. Nope, he’s all man.

 

At five-nine, I’ve always found myself drawn to taller guys, but this one? Damn if he wouldn’t tower over me.

 

Busy speaking with Laura, he’s completely unaware of the inappropriate lusting he’s inspiring. Oh my damn. Every one of my girly parts—and few others not wanting to be left out of the action—swoon like my favorite black and white GIF when he smiles. He should have to carry a license for that thing.

 

I haven’t moved, and if I thought a drive-by smile was enough to have me wanting to toss my panties like I’m a groupie at a Birds of Prey concert, when he lifts his crazy light eyes my way, I know I’m officially screwed. A voice that sounds suspiciously like Miss Dottie cackles in my subconscious at the idea that I might mean that literally.

 

Eric

CHAPTER 4

Before my impromptu haircut, I had been long overdue for one. Between trying to prove myself on the team to earn a starting spot as a freshman and all the other requirements that come with football, not to mention managing my academic responsibilities, little things like hair maintenance fell to the wayside.

 

Mane Event is nothing like the simple barbershop I frequented back in Jersey. It was only thanks to a Google search that I was able to find this place. It’s not overly girly or anything. The black, white, and chrome decor feels more unisex-modern with its occasional pop of Penn State blue in its accents.

 

Still…a part of me feels a bit out of place standing here with my hands shoved into the front pouch of my PSU Football hoodie.

 

I get myself checked in by the receptionist, dutifully following her as she waves me in, only to come to an abrupt stop at the sight of the woman she explains will be my hairstylist.

 

Holy fumbles, Batman!

 

While the receptionist is pretty, this woman…is…exquisite. She’s tall and toned, with long limbs I yearn to have wrapped around my body. Her legs…fuck, her legs are shown off to perfection in painted-on black skinny jeans, the denim ripped strategically above her black leather knee-high boots. A simple black V-neck tee hugs the curves of her torso, giving just enough of a peek at her cleavage to tempt, and the way it’s tucked into the high waist of her pants only emphasizes how much it nips in.

 

As I work my way back up to her face and past the shiny lips with the perfect teardrop in the center, I realize I’m not the only one transfixed and frozen in place—except she seems more deer-in-the-headlights versus my you-can-have-anything-you-want-all-you-have-to-do-is-ask.

 

“Bette, your 12:30 is here,” the receptionist says, breaking us out of our stare-down.

 

Bette.

 

Somehow the name seems fitting for the beauty blinking denim-blue eyes at me.

 

“Thanks, Laura.” Bette smiles at the receptionist, holding out a hand for me to shake as she officially introduces herself.

 

“Nice to meet you,” I return, stroking my thumb across her knuckles. “I’m Eric, but everyone I’m close to calls me E.”

 

“Ooo, honey, you better call him E if it means you get to be close to him.”

 

Bette’s cheeks flame red as I drop my gaze to the woman having the Pepto Bismol color of her hair refreshed in a salon chair nearby.

 

“Yup,” the man applying the hair dye agrees with a flourish.

 

“You two stay out of this,” Bette hisses out of the side of her mouth, that blush working its way down her neck.

 

“There you go again…ignoring my decades’ worth of experience.” The gentle smile and deepening of the crinkles near the old woman’s eyes soften the scold into grandmotherly affection.

 

“It’s why she Netflix and Jills”—the male stylist holds up his gloved hand and wiggles his pink-dye-coated fingers—“on the weekends instead of Netflix and chills.”

 

I cough. I’ve spent a good portion of my life inside locker rooms, but this sly innuendo about the beautiful Bette masturbating has me close to choking to death on my saliva.

 

“Jesus,” Bette mutters, massaging the tips of her elegant fingers into her forehead.

 

A surge of protectiveness flares inside me at the sight of her embarrassment, and I’m thinking a change of subject is in order. “So…” Lifting the blue ball cap I put on earlier to hide the train wreck on my head, I run a hand over the wonky locks. “I’m hoping you’ll be able to fix this clusterfuck.”

 

Bette’s blue eyes go cartoon-character wide, and like earlier with my sister, a smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. A hum of She’s special sings in my veins.

 

“Oh my god!” The sweet scent of apples invades my senses as Bette steps into my personal space, my body coming alive at her nearness. She lifts her arms, bringing a hand to either side of my head and combing her fingers through my uneven hair. The soft scrape of her nails along my scalp has sparks of awareness chasing down my spine and straight to my dick. Instantly I regret wearing joggers instead of jeans.

 

“Being a freshman on the team has its pitfalls.” I shrug, shifting back to avoid any accidental body brushes.

 

Those eyes drop to the football screen-printed over the center of my chest, eyebrows winging up when they do. “You’re saying one of your teammates did this to you?” I nod. “I’m tempted to give you a shampoo bottle filled with Nair. It’s a crime to cut hair this gorgeous all willy-nilly.” She hasn’t stopped combing her fingers through said hair, not that I’m complaining. “We can’t allow this to go unpunished.” The utter seriousness in her tone is adorable.

 

“We?” It’s my turn to arch a brow, and I’m not sure which I like more: the way that blush blooms again across her skin or how she automatically made us a we. It’s the latter—definitely the latter.

 

“Umm—that’s not—I mean…”

 

“Don’t backtrack now, honey. Own that shit and maybe let him own you too.”

 

“Miss Dottie,” Bette hisses, now full-on Jersey-tomato red. Me? I’m seconds away from raising my hand and volunteering myself as tribute, fully on board with that plan.

 

Slender fingers wrap around my wrist, my skin prickling at the skin-to-skin contact when they slip under where the cuff of my sweatshirt’s sleeve has risen up my forearm. If Bette notices how my pulse races like it’s game day and I just ran in a sixty-yard touchdown, I wouldn’t know; she only tugs at my arm, and I follow obediently to the bank of sinks in another section of the salon.

 

Bette instructs me to take a seat, suggesting I remove my hoodie first to avoid it getting wet. The bottom of the t-shirt underneath lifts with the removal, and I have to bite back a smirk at the way her gaze tracks to the strip of exposed skin. She’s all coy with Miss Dottie’s naughty suggestions, but I recognize desire when I see it.

 

I may have started this day off minus a chunk of my hair, but I’ll be damned if I end it without the addition of the beautiful Bette’s number in my phone.

 

Bette

CHAPTER 5

If it were possible to die of mortification, my family would be writing up my eulogy right now.

 

It’s one thing dealing with the inappropriateness that is Miss Dottie and her life advice on the regular. When the subject of that advice is standing mere feet away while it’s being dished out, it’s an entirely different ballgame. If it were physically possible to sustain injuries from the heat of a blush, my cheeks would be sporting third-degree burns.

 

I’ve met my share of athletes—the PSU campus abounds with them—but there’s something different about Eric, or E as he suggested I call him. Sure, he’s hot in a way some would sell their souls for, but it’s the effortless charm that practically oozes off him that has every cell in my body going haywire.

 

Don’t even get me started on the way he fills out his Nittany Lions football tee, the gray cotton looking almost suctioned to all those bulging muscles of his. Then there’s the could-be-airbrushed-they-are-so-perfectly-shaped abs I got a glimpse of when his shirt rode up, along with the light blond happy trail tempting me to follow it beneath the band of his joggers. Thank you Jesus for the invention of gray sweatpants.

 

For as much as it would have Miss Dottie whacking me with one of her wooden spoons—never underestimate the power of that utensil in the hands of an Italian woman—the thick, soft, could-run-my-hands-through-it-all-day-and-never-get-bored hair might draw me to him the most.

 

I wasn’t kidding—mostly—about the Nair shampoo. The culprit responsible for the hack job deserves to suffer some kind of consequence. I have no idea if E is any good at football—well, outside of what it takes to earn a scholarship for a top-tier program like PSU—but if he is one of the few who make it to the big leagues, he’s a perfect candidate for a shampoo endorsement.

 

He leans back, the chair shifting to allow for a comfortable angle while I wash his hair.

 

I use the extendable hose on the small sprayer to soak his head. I force myself to focus on working the shampoo into a lather and not the way his lashes, which I notice are a few shades darker than his hair, fan across his cheekbones when his eyes close as I start to scrub his scalp.

 

It’s a miracle I don’t end up drowning him as I rinse the suds away until there’s that satisfying squeak that only comes from super clean hair. A quick round of conditioner and another chance to watch the light dance over the golden and amber highlights in the strands, and then I’m gently wrapping a towel around his head and rubbing to soak up the excess moisture.

 

Thankfully Guy is still in the process of applying the color I mixed for him to Miss Dottie’s head, giving me a small reprieve from the peanut gallery’s comments since my chair is in another section. The salon isn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination, but the troublesome twosome would have to shout if they wanted to offer up any of their unwelcome opinions.

 

Keeping my hands steady enough to actually cut E’s hair is going to be difficult enough without them prodding at my hormones with their suggestions.

 

The sound of giggling has my attention snapping to the side to see Guy wiping at his chin while waggling his eyebrows and mouthing You’re drooling at me. It’s only then that I realize I’ve been captivated once again by E’s movements as he folds himself into my chair. Geez, he’s graceful. Must be an athlete thing.

 

Snapping myself out of my daze, I remind myself I’m a freaking professional dammit and whip open a blue cape to drape it around E’s muscular body then secure it behind his neck. It would be comical how much less of his body it covers compared to Miss Dottie’s except all I can think is Hot damn he must be strong given that I need to use one of the last snaps of the strip to not choke him.

 

With one last rubdown of the towel, I toss the terrycloth onto my station and shamelessly take another opportunity to run my fingers through the wet locks. It’s purely a professional action—promise. How else am I supposed to loosen the tangles before using a fine-toothed comb to work out the rest?

 

Once again, his eyes are closed, and if I’m not mistaken, I think he’s purring as he pushes into my touch.

 

My nipples tighten painfully against my bra, a bolt of heat settles into my core, and I have to lift a foot to the pedal I would normally use to raise the seat but don’t have to because he’s so large just to ease the pressure building in my clit. Praise all things Paul Mitchell—why does this feel like foreplay?

 

“Do you have a preference on the style of your cut?” Is that my voice sounding all husky?

 

E opens his eyes, those light, not-quite-hazel-but-not-quite-gray irises meeting mine in the reflection of the mirror. I shift my weight, cursing under my breath at the pink hue I see my skin take on as the air sizzles between us.

 

“As long as I don’t look like I let a drunken toddler cut it, I couldn’t care less.”

 

A different type of excitement flows through my bloodstream. One would think it would be the female clientele that is pickier when it comes to being creative with their hair, but the male opinions on the topic would surprise you.

 

“Are you saying I have carte blanche?” It takes every single ounce of self-control I have not to bounce on my toes in glee at the possibility.

 

Those wide shoulders shrug, the material of the cape rolling like a wave with the movement. “As long as you don’t buzz it down completely…sure.”

 

I gasp. “I would never. That’s a crime against beauty.”

 

“What?” He barks out a laugh, and damn if that smile isn’t even more lethal up close.

 

“I don’t want to offend your manly prowess or anything, but you have gorgeous hair. It’s bad enough I’m going to have to cut as much of it as I do to fix this hack job.” I make scissors with my fingers, pinching the hair on either side of his scalp between them, the strands on the left noticeably shorter and barely showing through my fingers.

 

“I have a little sister,” he explains. His smile softens as it takes on an affectionate edge, but that doesn’t take away from its wattage. No, all it does is make the urge to straddle him where he sits stronger. “I learned long ago to let go of my manly prowess.”

 

“How old?” I fiddle around with my instruments, selecting my favorite pair of scissors and knocking off the excess Barbicide from a comb to keep from following through on this new unprofessional instinct.

 

“Thirteen.”

 

This time I can’t help but meet his grin with one of my own. “Oh, it can’t be that bad then. She probably looks at you with hero worship.”

 

“Hero worship….yeah right.” He snorts, shifting around until his knees are manspread. “When she saw my hair earlier during our video chat, she told me I better use my day off to get it fixed because I was already an embarrassment. Here I was looking for comfort in my time of need and the brat kicks me when I’m down, ragging on me for fumbling yesterday when it wasn’t my fault the ball was slippery as fu—hell thanks to the rain.”

 

I don’t know what’s sweeter: the fact that he cut himself off from cursing in front of me or the goofy expression talking about his sibling brings out. It’s clear his family is very important to him.

 

He’s been in my chair for over five minutes and I’ve yet to get started. Another glance to the side and the set of knowing smirks directed my way tell me I’m not the only one to make this observation. I double-check with E that he’s cool with me choosing his cut and spring into action.

 

For the next twenty minutes, I convince myself learning about my clients and their lives is typical. That I’m not latching onto the smallest detail and committing it to memory. That I’m not charmed by the way he doesn’t shy away from the more self-deprecating stories. And I most certainly don’t have to stop, pausing with the scissors about to cut to wrap an arm around my middle when I learn this wasn’t his first unfortunate encounter with a buzzer.

 

With the bulk of his haircut done, I move around in front of him, swallowing down my attraction, and step into the space between his spread knees.

 

I’ve taken this position countless times to check the hair is even, but the second I do it today, I know I’ve made a tactical error. I’m acutely aware of how surrounded I am by all things Eric.

 

Warmth and heat radiate off of him and into me. The sweet smell of soap and grass filling my nostrils causes me to shift just slightly closer. Gooseflesh overtakes my arms, each short hair on them and the back of my neck standing at attention.

 

Hands cupping each side of his head, I spread my fingers out as a reference of measurement and stretch my thumbs down to tilt his chin that much higher. The new angle makes it easier for me to gauge the haircut is spot-on, but it also brings his lips within kissing distance. It would take barely any movement from me to learn what he tastes like.

 

His lips…are right there.

 

They’re full.

 

Layered with a slight shine from when his tongue ran over them a few moments ago. That sight was almost enough for me to snip the tip of my finger off with my insanely sharp scissors.

There’s the most alluring hint of stubble surrounding his mouth that I bet would leave a burn only those lips could soothe away.

 

I blink. Then blink again as I back away from temptation.

 

His hair is perfect, but I itch to add the special touch I’m known for.

 

I wonder…

 

“She wants to do it.”

 

“Totally.”

 

“Look at how twisted her fingers are.”

 

“Do you think she’ll have the guts to ask?”

 

“Not a chance.”

 

“You do know I can hear you both, right?” I snap at the two Nosey Nellys gossiping in the corner.

 

“We know!” they singsong in unison. Typical.

 

The rustle of fabric moving draws my attention back to the instigator of the discussion to see E’s shoulders shaking in silent laughter.

 

“Something you’d like to add to the trouble twins back there?” I ask.

 

“Nope.” He punctuates his statement with a head shake. “But I am curious to learn what they think you’re too scared to ask me.”

 

Eric

CHAPTER 6

Based on both the teasing and the obvious nerves about asking, I thought Bette’s question would be something far more serious than if she could etch designs on the side of my head. Thank God that’s all she asked for because, unbeknownst to her, I would have given her anything.

 

Moms Taylor, I know you’re up there pulling all the hopeless romantic strings your fellow angels have with how easily smitten I am right now, and I also blame you for knowing to use the word smitten.

 

Despite my ass going numb, spending another thirty minutes in Bette’s salon chair isn’t exactly a hardship, and the end result is sick. My previously wayward and lopsided locks are now even in a crisp undercut that has the top just long enough to flop forward or be slicked back. What really has me gawking in the mirror is the nothing-short-of-artwork that is the Nittany Lion logo and the 87 (my number) shaved on either side of my skull.

 

“Holy shit.” I’ve spent no less than an entire minute tracing around the delicate detailing.

 

“You like?” Bette’s question sounds unsure, but there’s an edge of smugness to the curl of her lips. Based on the evidence, it’s more than well deserved.

 

“Like? Fuck…if we win this week, you’re going to have most of the team in here looking for you to do them too.” It’s only after the words leave my mouth that I realize how that came out.

 

Bette blushes again and Miss Dottie mutters a “That’s what she said” while I borrow a move from my sister and roll my eyes at myself.

 

Much to my disappointment, as soon as Bette walks me to the front counter to pay, she disappears into the back of the salon. Resting my elbows on the glass top, I drum my fingers, my foot tapping as indecision wars within me.

 

Fuck it!

 

Not bothering to wait for Laura to finish processing my payment, I stalk through the salon, weaving my way through the stations until I come to the door Bette disappeared behind.

 

With more force than necessary given that it’s ajar, I push it the rest of the way open, the bang of it hitting the wall causing Bette to whirl around in shock.

 

Her wide eyes and dropped jaw give me zero pause.

 

Two steps and I’m in front of her.

 

One slide of the foot has mine sandwiched between hers, and another has my legs bracketing hers.

 

A shift forward has us breathing the same oxygen.

 

That earlier possessive thrum increases to a steady, powerful beat of mine-mine-mine.

 

Hair soft as silk cascades over my wrists as I thread a hand into her loose waves at the base of her skull until I have her gripped firmly at the nape.

 

I don’t blink as I hold her gaze, slowing my movements as I use my free hand to tip her chin until her face is angled up to mine.

 

One more breath and I seal my mouth over hers, bliss washing over me in an instant. My mind races, my heart beating a cadence I’ve never experienced as my soul is the one to recognize this for what it truly is. This is it. We’ve met our match.

 

Bette yields under my kiss, her lips pillowing against mine, opening as my tongue licks across the seam.

 

In and out our tongues stroke, the sweet taste of coffee and something inherently Bette consuming my taste buds as I swallow down her soft sighs of pleasure.

 

Arms loop around my neck, and when Bette presses up onto her toes, I drop my arm from under her chin to hook it around her middle, crushing her to me fully. She’s all soft curves to my hard edges. My ideal counterpart.

 

Just…

 

Perfection.

 

I use my teeth to trap her bottom lip and suck it into my mouth, laving across the flesh to soothe away the sting, the tiny whimper rolling in the back of her throat causing my dick to go from half-hard to full-on goal post imagining all the different sounds I could pull out of her if I had her under me.

 

On and on we kiss. Nothing outside of us matters in the least.

 

My fingers flex around her head and her side, her physical presence the only thing keeping me anchored in this moment.

 

The need for more than mere sips of oxygen has us breaking apart, and Bette slowly lowers down from her tiptoed position. Another flex deepens the cradle hold I have on her head, and I meet her lust-blown gaze with what I’m sure is one of my own.

 

Absentmindedly, I bring a hand up, running it along the swollen flesh of my lower lip as I try to find a way to process what the hell just happened.

 

Bette

CHAPTER 7

After kissing me stupid—or at least to the point that I was incapable of actual speech—in the color room, E helped himself to my phone, inputting his number and making sure to send himself a text so he would have mine, and then he left with a promise to call.

 

Now I’m sure you’re asking yourself…well? Did he?

 

Oh, boy. Let me tell you…

 

Holy crap did he call.

 

And text.

 

And sleuth out my class schedule and coffee preference in order to surprise me around campus with it.

 

Six weeks. It’s been six blissful, storybook, romantic comedy, swoon-worthy weeks of—what Miss Dottie calls—courtship. It was wholly unexpected but absolutely charming.

 

I thought I was crazy attempting to work close to full-time hours while taking a full course load, but damn…E’s schedule puts mine to shame. Between his classes, practices, workouts, team meetings, and games, I have no idea how he’s managed to find time to date me, but he has.

 

The first time E invited me over to the house he shares with a handful of his teammates off campus, I assumed it was going to be one of those Netflix and chill nights Guy loves to tease me about not having. It wasn’t. Instead of spending the night not watching whatever show we put on, I spent it wrist-deep in haircuts. It may not have been the entire roster of the Nittany Lion football team, but his roommates all needed their own custom shavings.

 

Since then we’ve gone bowling, played pool, and even on occasion shared an entire meal without any of his roommates around. At first, I thought his old-school approach to dating was a refreshing change, but after a month and a half of only making out with a side of dry-humping, I’m close to throwing myself on the fifty-yard line naked if it means we can finally get to the good stuff.

 

I think I’ve singlehandedly helped the execs at Energizer hit their yearly bonuses with the number of batteries I’ve gone through trying to fulfill the ache only Eric Dennings can satisfy.

 

I’m hoping the new step I’m taking in our relationship today—attending my first ever PSU football game—leads to that final physical push.

 

Dad was shocked when I told him I wouldn’t be spending all of Thanksgiving break at home, but he approved when he learned the reason. The fact that E FaceTimed me with his family—who rented an Airbnb in College Town to see him for the holiday—went a long way toward earning him bonus points with mine.

 

I tried to tell E I know next to nothing about football, but all he did was chuckle in this sexy way that had all my girly bits offering themselves up for tribute and tell me he’d take care of it.

 

Now days later I still have no clue what he meant about it. This is what I do know:

 

1. There was a package with a blue home jersey and a PSU football hoodie (both with E’s number printed on them) waiting for me when I returned to my dorm.

 

2. Along with the wardrobe update was a ticket to the game.

 

3. I think the ticket attendant at Beaver Stadium questioned my sanity due to the “Are you fucking kidding?” I shouted at him when he told me my seat was actually in one of the suites and not in the student section as I assumed.

 

If I thought the reaction the attendant experienced was over the top, it had nothing on when I step inside the private suite. Well slap my ass and call me Sally. Or better yet, maybe I should slap E for not warning me. Not sure what I should have expected from his “I’ll take care of it”, but this feels-like-an-ambush was most definitely not it.

 

My eyes are bouncing from the chafing dishes and buffet of food to the framed pictures on the wall and the people filling the room when a body practically tackles me where I stand. A high ponytail whips me in the face, and a huge blue bow fills most of my field of vision when I look down to see Kay, E’s younger sister, hugging me.

 

“Eep! I’m so excited you’re watching the game with us.” Kay bounces on the balls of her feet, clapping her hands. She might be the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. How the hell E is over six and a half feet tall when she doesn’t even come close to five, I have no idea.

 

“Kay, sweetheart, why don’t you let Bette actually enter the room before you accost her,” the man I recognize as Mr. Dennings advises with a fatherly smile.

 

“Don’t even think about it, Tessa Marie,” Pops Taylor, as I’ve been instructed to call him, adds before tacking on a “You too, Savvy” so that the two ten-year-olds remain seated by the large glass wall overlooking the football field below.

 

Sure…them all being here is a shock—again, thanks a lot for the heads-up, Eric—and yes, this may be the first time I’m meeting them all in person, but with the number of video chats I’ve been present for, I feel like I’ve been hanging with these six people forever.

 

Undeterred by her father’s scold, Kay wraps both hands around my wrist, guides me over to the open seats by her best friend JT, the oldest of the Taylor siblings, and sandwiches me between herself and Tessa, the youngest Taylor. Savvy, Tessa’s bestie, rounds out our row as the dads settle onto the leather couch behind us.

 

When I woke up this morning, I thought following today’s football game would be a challenge. Who knew the pregame Q&A would eliminate any chance of that.

I’ve told E he might be the most charming person I’ve ever met. Yeah…well…that was before I spent the day with his sister. Kayla Dennings has an effervescent personality that draws you in while at the same time making you want to put her in your pocket and take care of her.

 

Thankfully, in the midst of the 1001 questions she asked me ranging from my favorite late-night snack (Oreos and peanut butter) to my ten-year plan (to open my own salon), she did teach me the basics of football. By the end of the game (Penn State squeaking out a win thanks to a touchdown from E), I actually understood things like what a first down is and at least seven other terms.

 

Guess there’s hope for me yet.

 

Eric

CHAPTER 8

It’s well after three in the morning by the time Bette and I make it back to the house I share with a few of my teammates, and I’ve never been more thankful that, for once, the victory party was held somewhere else.

 

Kay did her best—and by best I mean laid a guilt trip on me a person of her size shouldn’t be capable of—to convince me to stay at the house they rented. Not gonna lie, I was close to caving, wanting to soak up as much time with my family as possible. But with the constant sight of Bette in my jersey, long hair flowing around her shoulders, beaming smile on her face, my number stamped across her front, the urge to be alone with her grew until I could no longer ignore it.

 

“You know…” Bette trails a path of kisses down the side of my neck, her slim fingers slipping under the hem of my sweatshirt. “I should be pissed at you.”

 

“Oh yeah?” I crane my neck to the side to allow her better access, kicking the bedroom door closed with my foot at the same time. “What for?”

 

She scoffs but doesn’t stop kissing me, her hands continuing their ascent up the plane of my body. Being the gentleman I am, I reach behind my head and remove my shirts, living for the way her eyes darken and grow hazy when they latch onto my bare torso.

 

“Don’t try to distract me with your nakedness, Eric.” She goes as far as to waggle a finger at me, but the curl to her lips takes the edge off her ire.

 

“Ooo, I think I like it when you call me Eric.” I use my body to back her toward my bed, the edge of the mattress hitting behind her knees and causing her to fall backward.

 

“Don’t try to be cute.”

 

I smirk, resting a knee between her spread legs to lean over her. “Can’t help it.” I shrug. “It just comes naturally.”

 

She rolls her eyes, lips pursing in displeasure only to fall open on a sigh when I slip my hands under the jersey she has on and skim them up her sides, fingers spread along her ribs, tracing patterns on her soft skin. Her eyes fall closed, long lashes fanning across her high cheekbones, mouth opening slightly as her chin tips up, neck arching when I toy with the band of her lacy bra.

 

I shift back onto my haunches, leaning down to drop an open-mouthed kiss to the skin beneath her navel. Bette trembles, the slight vibration to her body only spurring me on.

 

Her sweet apple scent isn’t overpowering, but it is heady, wrapping around me and sucking me further into her orbit.

 

Up and up both my hands and my mouth travel until I come to the center of her breastbone. I place a single kiss there then trap the material of the jersey in the hooks of my thumbs to hold on while I rise up to hover over her like I’m doing a pushup.

 

“You are so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it.” Eyes dark as the midnight sky outside blink dazedly at me as I lean down to press a kiss directly over her heart. “My beautiful Bette.”

 

“Eric,” she moans, hands threading into my hair, holding me close.

 

From there, everything seems to happen both in slow motion and fast-forward.

 

I finish removing my jersey from her delectable body, placing kisses along the edge of the bra before that gets tossed on the floor as well.

 

I suck on anything I can: her lips, that spot behind her ear, the pulse at the side of her neck, and both nipples until they’re pink and standing at attention.

 

I worship her, no longer able to hold back. I tried…fuck have I tried to take things slow, not wanting her to think I was just another jock looking to score only to move on the next day. Bette is so much more than a quick fuck, and I will do everything in my power to make sure not only does she know it, but also that that thought never gets the chance to take root.

 

She helps me shimmy her skinny jeans down her legs, and when my thumbs slide under the thin string of her matching panties, she sighs out a breathy “Finally.”

 

There’s a smile on my lips as I press them to the lips of her pussy, my tongue darting out to lick her from entrance to clit.

 

Wrapping an arm over her hip, I press a palm to her lower back, fingers spreading to span most of her torso, easily shifting her to lie properly on the bed, and I settle in to eat, driving her to incoherent pleasure—twice.

 

My dick feels about ready to burst through my zipper when I finally move back to a kneeling position. Bette’s hair is a tangled mess on my pillow, that pretty pink blush covering most of her body, and the sheets are wrinkled under her crushing grip on them.

 

I lick my lips, taking one last taste of her before wiping the excess off with the back of my hand.

 

Fuck I’m gone for this woman.

 

“E…” She reaches out a hand for me, and I take it. Of course I do.

 

“Bette.” I place a soft kiss on her palm before linking my fingers with hers.

 

She tugs, and I roll to lie down beside her. “Please don’t stop. I need to know what it feels like to have you inside me.”

 

“Fuuuuck, babe.”

 

She giggles, throwing a leg across my body, hooking it over my hip, and tugging me closer. “Please, Eric.”

 

Who the hell am I to deny her? “Are you sure? There’s no rush here, promise.”

 

She cups my face in both her hands, ghosting a kiss to my mouth before pulling back to rest her forehead to mine. “I was sure more than a month ago. Please don’t make me wait any longer.”

 

My balls may actually remove themselves from my person in protest, but I need to give her one last out. “There’s no going back if this happens.”

 

“Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to talk me out of this?” She flexes the muscles of her leg and grinds her pelvis into mine. “I’ve spent my fair share of time humping you. I know you don’t have a pocket rocket.”

 

“Listen, smartass…” It’s my turn to thrust my hips at her, only helping to emphasize her point. “I’m just saying…this?” Thrust. “And you’re mine.”

 

She loops her arms around my neck in an almost chokehold, lips brushing mine as she whispers, “Promise?”

 

I bring my hands to her ass, grabbing hold of each firm globe, rolling her beneath me one more time. Stretching an arm out, I fumble around with my nightstand until I find the box of condoms I keep there and fish out a foil packet.

 

Together, Bette and I make quick work of both my belt and zipper, freeing my erection, which I swear to Christ expels a sigh of relief at no longer being confined.

 

When she reaches out to help me sheath myself, I wrap a hand around both her wrists and lift her arms until they’re restrained above her head. Again I thread my fingers with hers.

 

She wraps her legs around me as soon as I’m done suiting up, and I drive myself inside her in one powerful thrust.

 

Twin groans echo in the room, and I start to pump my hips in earnest.

 

In.

 

Out.

 

Over and over I sink inside, her inner walls doing their best not to let me go when I pull back.

 

There are kisses and murmurs and holy fuck the emotion that swells inside my chest is everything I’ve been searching for and never knew I needed.

 

Bette comes on a cry, me following her over the edge a moment later, the force of my own orgasm making my legs weak and causing spots to dance in my vision.

 

With the last bit of conscious brainpower, I drop to the side, bringing Bette with me and tucking her close to cuddle against me. I need to get up to take care of the condom but can’t bring myself to do it just yet.

 

Warm breath blows across my chest, a shiver chasing down my spine at the chill of it catching on the sweat speckling my skin. Hair tickles my nose and I smooth the tangles back, cupping her cheek and angling her face up for a kiss.

 

“I love you.”

 

My heart pounds wildly behind my ribcage. Is it too soon? Will she think I only said it because we had sex? The seconds stretch into what feels like days with the weight of me never having said those three words to anyone outside my family before.

 

“I love you too, Eric.”

 

I let her declaration wash over me, and as I hold her tighter, I think, I’m going to marry this woman one day.

**Did you love E and Bette? Find out how married life is treating them in Kay’s story told in the U of J trilogy starting with looking to score  available now free in Kindle Unlimited.**