When I was eighteen years old, I took a surprise right hook to the jaw during an amateur match that sent me sprawling to the ground. Every boxer takes a bad one early in their career and learns something from it. I learned that I didn’t like having my head snapped back without warning.
But before that hook? I didn’t think you could take a punch that had you seeing stars.
That one made me a believer. I laid flat on my back that night in a world of pain, and the entire solar system spun around my face.
Tabitha Tyler falling into my lap at Benny’s Bar had me believing again.
One minute I was studying the screen, pissed off at the loud guy next to me. The next? A gorgeous redhead toppled into my arms. And even though I hadn’t seen her in years, the very second she aimed that shiny smile my way, I was nothing but a dazed teenager again.
“Of all the laps in this damn city, I had to fall into yours,” she said in her low, melodic voice.
I blinked at her. Blinked again. My mouth went dry as a desert. My body shivered with jittery nerves. I didn’t want to stare, could only take in quick glimpses of her—pale skin, freckles and delicate tattoos, dark red hair, those big brown eyes.
“Tabitha?” My voice came out strangled, like she was an illusion I couldn’t trust.
She winked at me. Tabitha Tyler, former head cheerleader and popular senior girl, the source of my long, hopeless crush, winked at me.
Stars exploded across my eyes. So did the planets, the moon, the sun. I wasn’t prepared to take a hit like this. Could only try not to let my jaw hang open at the shock.
“The one and only,” she said, still smiling. “Nice to see ya, Dean Knox-Morelli.” Her body shifted in my lap, wiggled around, and I learned the true meaning of the word willpower. “Although word on the street is you go by Dean the Machine now, and I have to say, that nickname is awesome. Is that what I should call you? Or something more formal like Mr. Machine?”
I was speechless.
“So…Mr. Machine it is, then?” She brushed her hair over her shoulder. I did not stare at the curve of her throat. “I like it. It’s formal. Respectful. Commands a certain amount of authority. Though I’ve known you for, like, a million years so maybe it’s a little weird. But this is South Philly. Who haven’t we known for our entire lives?”
An embarrassing memory floated up—a dozen exchanges like this one, in school hallways or walking down the street or after the support group we’d attended together. Tabitha talking to me as if she had no idea who she was—and no understanding of how I wasn’t deserving.
“Hi,” I managed to say. It was the one word I could rescue from the chaos of my thoughts.
She bit her lip, looking almost shy for a second. “Hi.”
A beat of silence passed between us. One where the door of a bizarre reality opened and I was just a regular guy at the local bar, sitting with his very pretty girlfriend in his lap. A girlfriend with bare skin warm against mine, the tips of my fingers grazing the top of her thigh, her smell of sweet oranges all around us.
“Not that I don’t appreciate you catching me, but uh…you can…you know…” Her eyebrow was lifted, teasing, and then her fingers pressed against my arms. The arms locked tight around her waist.
I cleared my throat and quickly released her. “I’m…so sorry. I don’t—”
She slid easily from my legs to the chair right next to me, her bare knees pressed against me in the crowded space. “One of my dreams has always been to fall into the lap of a famous athlete. I should be thanking you for making a girl’s dream come true.”
The solar system drifted across my face again. I felt like a fried circuit breaker.