Gladiators of the Gridiron, Book 3
Release Date:

Aug 31, 2021

ISBN:

978-1-954894-94-5

More From C.R.  →

Handful

by

C.R. Grissom

Scoring is the best part of the game.

Family lore about falling in forever love made for fun fireside fairy tales, but Kirsty Durnin isn’t interested. After spending her high school years washing baby vomit out of her hair and rerouting her college plans after her mother’s surprise pregnancy, she’s finally ready to finish her undergrad degree before pursuing her master’s. No more distractions…until she indulges in an impulsive, mind-melting New Year’s kiss with Gladiators offensive lineman, Everest.

Everest McBride oozes chiseled, mountain-sized masculine perfection and dominates on and off the field. Everest thought he had his life plan lined up like hash marks on a football field before he met Kirsty. Suddenly, he can’t get the pint-sized pixie out of his head. Everest’s go-to game plan to win Kirsty’s heart involves charm, but getting ghosted isn’t in his playbook.

Kirsty refuses to let a single smooch, no matter how hot, detour her path. By ignoring Everest, she’ll forever fracture her family’s “love at first kiss” fairy tale, but Everest plays to win, and, besides, he gives really good text.

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Cross-country travel during the week between the holidays requires stamina, patience, and an emergency pair of underwear tucked in your carry-on. I have zero patience, but according to my dead granny Kay, I’m as full as a tick when it comes to stamina.

The two-story wall of glass allows sunlight to illuminate the area inside the Arrivals Terminal at San Jose International Airport. The brightness highlights the frenetic motion of people. Baggage claim can only be described in one word: chaos. People jostle each other for space around each carousel like cash is about to roll out instead of luggage.

I’m about to meet a lot of people I’ll be going to school with next September. It’s exciting, but I’m nervous, too. This week will be my opportunity to become friends with all the people in Faith’s world. In a way, it’s surreal. For the longest time it was just me and my best friend, Faith. The two of us against a bunch of buttheads we went to school with. Now there’s an entire group of people in her life.

A pang strikes my heart. I hope I still have a place in my bestie’s life by the time I transfer here.

Someone snorts behind me, then I hear a few hushed giggles, which makes me glance over to the other baggage station. What appears to be a sex toy wiggles its way around the carousel. I’m not sure if the thing happened to turn on—or if some baggage handler with a sick sense of humor decided to flip it to live mode—but I’m mesmerized by its frenzied gyrating.

I’m puzzled by the numerous squid-like tentacles on the apparatus, but not in a judgey way. I mean, I can’t see the need for that many appendages, but I haven’t made self-pleasure an Olympic sport.

That device is out of my league—belonging to a gold medalist if I’ve ever seen one.

“That’s so unsanitary. Stan is ruined,” a gorgeous brunette behind me cries out. I do a double take when I recognize the young woman. She’s a beauty influencer on KickBack. Is it Stan the squid or STAN the sex cephalopod, her most zealous fan? I roll my lips inward because I don’t want to laugh. Stan looks like a comfort animal of the finest sort. My respect for the beauty diva goes way up.

“Whatsat, Mama?” a little girl about my baby brother’s ripe age of five asks in the hushed lull.

I glance at the little girl’s mama waiting for her answer. I’m interested, too. Since I might need a fast comeback if I ever find myself in a similar situation.

“It’s a bath toy, Brittany.”

Nice save.

“I want one. I want one. I WANT one.”

“Don’t we all, sweetheart,” another woman near us agrees, tongue-in-cheek.

Truth.

My banana-yellow director of pleasure—named after my favorite minion—remains safely at home. No chance of Kevin buzzing down the conveyor for all to see. I’m grateful for the spared indignity.

The influencer’s friend or assistant scrambles to retrieve Stan. Poor squid. That’s just wrong. I glance away. No one touches Kevin except me. And my baby brother—but that was only one time, before I learned to store Kevin out of Collin’s reach. He hadn’t learned to talk yet, so Mom never heard about his discovery. Small blessings.

It’s impossible not to stare at the spectacle.

Someone squeezes next to me on my right. I can’t glance away from the person valiantly fighting to stuff the sizeable squid into her laptop bag, while the diva flaps her arms, doing her best to direct the proceedings.

The person who scooted in next to me might have done so for a front-row seat to the Stan show. At least that’s my assumption, since I haven’t glanced their way. Meanwhile, the poor gal trying to wrestle Stan into her bag reminds me of my own frustration trying to wrestle Collin—affectionately nicknamed the turd—into pajamas back in his toddler days. No small feat.

The person beside me says, “The most interesting people can be found at the airport.”

His voice seems to float down from far above me. There are two things that feed a crush for me: a distinctive voice and the shape of a man’s hands. I have a thing about hands. I have no idea why—I know it’s silly—but it is what it is. The voice makes me pause. His voice is deep and smooth like a shot of top-shelf tequila. Tangy. Delicious.

“Totally,” I agree. Still not glancing in his direction. Inevitably his voice and face won’t match, or he’ll be old enough to be my father.

My phone trills with a text. I check the screen. It’s from Faith, who patiently waits for me in the cell phone lot:

Do you have your bag?

I glance at the carousel to my left and don’t see my bag. Bright orange and turquoise tends to stand out among the blues, grays, and blacks of standard-issue suitcase colors. There are fewer bags on the conveyor. My eyebrows pinch together with worry. Hiking my heavy backpack higher on my shoulder, I type a reply:

No sign of it yet.

The girl wrestling the vibrator gives up and braces Stan under her arm. It starts to gyrate again, making her jump. I clamp my hand over my mouth as soon as the snicker escapes. Damn. That is one formidable sex toy.

The guy beside me coughs to cover his laugh. The sound tugs a grin from me.

I watch the dynamic duo weave their way through the crowd at the terminal, turning back to my own carousel once I lose sight of them. My heart sinks. I realize that while I’d been watching the squid showcase, only four suitcases remain circling my baggage carousel. My bag isn’t among them. “Shit.”

“Problem?”

I glance up, and farther up, and finally make eye contact with the person next to me, who happens to be the finest specimen of man flesh I’ve seen in real life. In the grand scheme, twenty isn’t all that old, but it’s still a significant amount of time. My breath hitches.

He’s age-appropriate. His hair is a light cinnamon brown that probably bleaches to a more gingery color in the summer sun. He reminds me of a younger version of the actor who plays Jamie Fraser in the Outlander series, but this guy looms even larger.

I happen to glance at his hands. Holy shit—I shouldn’t have. His hands are large. Long fingers with scrapes along the knuckles add ruggedness to his almost elegant hands. When our eyes meet, his navy-blue eyes resemble the color of the deepest part of the ocean, an abyss that renders me incapable of glancing away.

A shiver works its way down my spine. My phone buzzes in my back pocket, distracting me. I break eye contact to check the screen. Faith sent another text:

Keep an eye out for Everest. He went inside to find you.

Then it hits me. The exemplar of male beauty standing next to me has a Fortis University Gladiators hoodie on with the motto fortis fortuna adiuvat screen-printed under an icon of a sword. Hilt positioned between his pecs, blade pointing down toward nirvana. I force my gaze not to drop lower. His arms are huge, the circumference certainly bigger than my thighs. “Everest, I presume?”

“At your service.” He smiles at me.

Something deep inside my core pulls tight. “Climb Every Mountain” sung by the Mother Abbess to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music plays in my head. Full volume.

This could be a problem. Everest is Faith’s friend and her boyfriend’s teammate. Unacceptable. He’s so pretty, a voice inside my head whines.

No. No. No.

Men are off-limits—even a gorgeous man who looks like one of my favorite actors. Didn’t Daniel teach you anything? I shake my head to clear my thoughts, then I breathe deep.

“I’m Kirsty. It’s nice to meet you,” I murmur, shoving my right hand at him.

When his hand clasps mine, the current travels up my arm and down my chest, settling low in my core to zap my lady bits. Holy cow. It’s like his hand is a lightning rod. One touch and he nearly blasted off the latch to my jewelry box. I release my grip before my underpants combust.

His pupils dilate and the side of his mouth lifts in a grin. “Likewise.”

He’s freaking potent. Knock it off, I scold myself, shoving my tingling hand into the front pocket of my jeans. “My suitcase seems to be missing in action. I need to find the airline’s baggage desk.”

“It’s this way,” he assures me, leading me to the far side of the terminal.

He’s tall. Like basketball player tall. I have to take two steps to one of his just to keep pace with him. I’m careful not to walk too close in order to avoid getting knocked off my feet in both a literal and figurative sense.

Finding my luggage is a higher priority than the hottie next to me. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. It contains all the clothing I need for this week-long visit with my bestie. Normally, missing clothes wouldn’t be a super huge issue. But this week is different because of the wedding. It’s formal and I need my dress. Ugh.

“How was your flight?” Everest asks.

“Long day for me. I had to wake up at three this morning, Boston time.” Mentioning it makes me fight back a yawn. “I’ll need to caffeinate soon.”

“I can take care of that.”

I bet you can take care of many things, the voice inside my head purrs.

He walks me to the airline claim desk but doesn’t go up to the counter. His respect for my privacy surprises me. My ex would have tried to take over—assuming that being male made him genetically qualified to take the lead—which would have forced me to elbow him out of the way.

Maybe Everest didn’t take control because we aren’t in a relationship and haven’t had sex. Dang. The thought shoots prurient images into my brain about having him naked and under me. Stan’s twin joining us for added fun and frolic. Everest embodies the sexual Olympian type. Heat spreads low in my belly.

Stop. Focus.

I step up to the counter and wait for the airline employee to acknowledge me.

Dammit. Why didn’t I pack my dress into my backpack? Because it would have arrived in a tight, wrinkled ball of fabric, that’s why. Shit. Shit. Shit.

My phone buzzes again. Any updates? Faith asks.

My bag didn’t make it! I add the sad face emoji three times to properly convey my current emotional state.

Faith adds the dislike reaction to my text and sends a sympathetic: NOOOO!

I’m screwed! I text back.

She types: Do you need me to park and come inside to help?

No. Everest found me. I’m waiting to talk to the baggage dude. I type while my heart careens inside my chest like a pinball racking up a million points. I don’t share my obvious attraction for Everest with Faith, confident I’ll have my traitorous body under control soon.

The middle-aged and harassed-looking man scrambles behind the desk, toggling between two computers and muttering something under his breath that I can’t quite catch.

I clear my throat. “Excuse me, sir.”

He glances at me. Annoyance draws his eyebrows together and compresses his lips into a flat line. “Help ya?”

“My bag didn’t arrive with my flight.” Saying it out loud makes my hands shake, and I press my palms against my denim-clad thighs.

Both his index fingers peck at the keyboard. “Name?”

“Kirsten Durnin.”

He barks at me for different things. The flight number, my ID, the receipt for the bag I received when I checked my bag with the airline at Logan this morning. I drop my backpack to the counter and start rummaging through the front pocket for the ticket I never thought I’d need again.

Ever since Collin was born, my backpack became second storage for age-appropriate paraphernalia. Extra wet wipes, a snack-sized packet of fish-shaped crackers, an eight-pack of crayons, and other stuff. I’d cleared my backpack before the trip, but I missed the front pocket.

I finally find the slip stuck to the back of a crushed box of raisins and pass it to him.

“Your bag missed the connection in Dallas-Fort Worth.” He makes eye contact with me. “It’s being routed here. We’ll call you when it arrives. You can choose to come back here or give us the address where you’re staying and we’ll deliver it.”

“Call me, please.” I fail miserably at not sounding desperate.

He repeats my mobile number to me after I recite it to him.

I breathe a sigh of relief. “That’s correct. Thank you for your help.” Stepping away from the baggage desk with my backpack hiked on my shoulder, I send a text to Faith:

No luggage. We’ll be outside soon.

Everest joins me. “Any news?”

“My bag didn’t make the connection. I’ll have to come back here when it arrives.”

“Bummer. No worries, though,” he assures me. “We’ll add it to our to-do list for the day.”

“Thanks.” I ask the question that’s at the top of my mind: “I don’t mean to sound rude, but why are you here?”

“Not rude, reasonable.” He nods. “I had to drop off my ride for a smog test this morning. Tags are due.”

I’m tired, but I think he left something out. I don’t ask him to clarify. I need to rethink, regroup, and harness my hormones. My breakup with Daniel is only two weeks old. I’m not looking for a rebound. Not with a friend of a friend. Someone I’ll be linked to once I transfer to Fortis next August—since he’s definitely part of Faith’s circle at Fortis—and by extension mine.

I have to stay focused on my degree or my dead granny Kay will haunt me for the rest of my life screaming, “Don’t be like your mama, Kirsty. Don’t trade your education for a wedding ring and a newborn.”

My shoulder blades twitch.

We step outside and make our way to the far right. It feels more like spring than winter here. It’s about forty-five degrees warmer than back home. My sweater feels too thick for the weather, and I regret not dressing in layers for my flight. The early afternoon sun shines bright enough for me to hunt through my backpack for sunglasses and sliding them on my face reduces the glare.

The airport remains busy with post-Christmas travel. It’s my second trip here courtesy of Faith’s dad. I’m part of her Christmas gift. Ever since Faith moved here to attend Fortis, she’s asked her dad to fly me out to spend the week after Christmas with her.

I now like to remind Faith I’m the one gift she can’t return.

There’s a definite advantage to Everest’s height. He’s hard to miss even among the crowds of people and luggage clogging the curbside. Faith pulled over almost as soon as he lifted his arm.

“You should sit up front with Faith,” he offers opening the passenger door.

Grinning at him, I ask, “And you’ll shoehorn yourself into the back?”

“I’ll sit behind you—it’ll give me plenty of space.” He ducks into the car to move the front seat forward while Faith runs around the car to capture me in a tight hug.

“You’re here.” She rocks me in her arms. “It’s been forever.”

I squeeze her back. “Missed you. Merry belated Christmas.”

“Happy Boxing Day.”

Channeling Granny Kay I wail theatrically in an exaggerated drawl, “Sugar, your gift’s in my missin’ luggage along with my dress for the weddin’.”

“Damn. That’s good.” She grins. “I can almost smell magnolias. Never fear, we have five days until the big day.”

“Let’s hope it’s enough time for the airline to cough it up.”

Faith’s hair falls past her shoulders, shiny and blown out. She’s changed so much since she first came to Fortis. She’s stunning and confident it makes my heart swell. After third grade she wouldn’t wear anything except oversized hoodies that hit her knees and joggers that were equally huge to hide her real shape.

Systematic bullying will do that to you.

I hear a grunt and glance around Faith at the car. Everest has managed to stuff himself into the back seat. His knees are up around his ears, but he shoots me a wink. “Okay, ladies. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to hold this position without splitting my pants.”

“Damn, Everest.” I try to hold back the giggle and fail. “You do a great impression of a cinnamon roll.”

End of Excerpt