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But that’s the story of these last few days. I’ve been trying not to think about him.

When Tanner took off for the All-Star game, I went wall to wall all day, running longer than usual in the mornings with Cruz, hitting the gym for afternoon workouts with some of the other Leopards, then having dinner with Mom and Lucy each night after barely catching my breath all day.

I could hardly stand being alone in my apartment, or in my head, so I kept myself busier than a colony of bees.

Now, with Nate and Hunter down one end of the hall, and Gunnar and Rafe down the other end, maybe being pensive is wise.

Tanner and I will have to be careful at dinner, like we talked about. We don’t want to let on. We don’t want to take away from the grooms. Is that why he’s a little distant? Because it’s necessary for our rules?

Probably.

Maybe he needs to know I’m on board too.

Once he’s dressed, I rub my palms together, like a coach prepping a fighter for the ring. “All right. We can do this. I’m sending in the play for dinner. It’s called the No-Eye-Fucking route. That also means no dirty jokes, and no flirt-fucking either,” I say as Tanner grabs his phone from the nightstand.

“It’s a plan,” he says, but he sounds so far away that my chest squeezes with an unfamiliar ache.

Is this what it’s going to be like after Christmas?

I swallow past the weirdness I feel and ask, “Are we good?”

He snaps his gaze up from his phone, his brow knitting. “Why wouldn’t we be?”

I shake my head, confused. “I don’t know, Tanner. You seem off…”

For a few seconds, he’s starkly quiet, looking like he’s weighing what to say in his mind. But then he flashes me his winning grin. “Everything’s great. Let’s hit it,” he says, then swaggers his way toward the door, opening it first and striding down the hall like the sexy motherfucker he is.

As I watch him go, I tilt my head, briefly wondering what it would be like to have that sort of confidence and certainty.

The man knows what he wants in life.

And he damn well intends to get it.

Me? I’m just wanting too much. I’m wanting him and wanting football and wanting security and wanting friendship and wanting sex and wanting that damn early renewal.

I draw a breath and try to shove some of my want into a corner as I head to dinner.

At a nearby restaurant, we eat like kings. Or, more precisely, like kings whose nutritionists have taught them how to dine for power, speed, and resilience.

Kale and risotto. Seared salmon and sautéed veggies. Sweet potatoes and rotisserie chicken.

It’s a feast for guys who obsess over milliseconds and muscles, and the difference they can make in a close game.

Tomorrow is for family but tonight, Jason and Beck wanted a night out with close friends, and they’ve got that. Jason and his dude are seated next to Nate and his hubs, Hunter, on one side of a big round table in a private room. Tanner and I are between the other couples—Gunnar and his suave British beau, Rafe, and Zane and Maddox, the quieter of that pair.

I’m antsy to pull Maddox aside and ask how his meeting with the GM went this week. If he’s made any progress with the Leopards.

But it’s probably not the time or place. He’s here as a friend of the grooms, and I’m sure it’s tough to straddle the line between agent and buddy.

He’s not the only one straddling a line—I’m riding the fence between friendship and sex with Tanner.

And between champagne and temptation.

Who thought it would be a good idea to seat me next to Tanner? No clue but I’m trying valiantly not to let my knee touch his under the table.

When Tanner takes a bite of braised Brussels sprouts, leaving a dollop of sauce on the corner of his lips, I nudge him with my elbow.

He turns to me in question right as Nate clears his throat. “All right, let’s toast. To the next dudes to take the plunge,” Nate says, raising a glass of bubbly, his wedding band shiny under the soft light of the room.

Perfect cover. Turning toward Tanner, I tap the side of my mouth.

“Oh,” Tanner says quietly, then lifts his napkin and imitates me.

“To Jason and Beck. When Jason met this guy,” Nate continues, gesturing to Jason’s fiancé, “he didn’t know what to make of his rival.”

“Because Beck’s a better QB,” Zane cough-whispers.

“Shut your mouth,” Jason says, pointing at Zane with the hand that shows off his Super Bowl ring.

Beck clears his throat and lifts his glass, showing off his ring. “Got mine first,” he says dryly.

“I’ll get the next one first,” Jason says.

“We’ll see about that,” Beck retorts, and it’s damn cute how they thrive on competition.

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