A Kiss by the Book by Christy Hayes
College senior Zach Chamberlain’s charmed life has always gone according to script:
Date the prettiest girl in high school, check.
Football scholarship to a division-one school, check.
Heisman contender, check.
Buy engagement ring, check.
On track to graduate with honors, check.
There’s just one glitch. His girlfriend is in love with his younger brother and breaks up with him in the middle of his senior season. Shocked, betrayed, and embarrassed, Zach turns to the only woman he can trust: his nerdy tutor.
Tutoring college athletes at Southeastern State University is more than a job for Jenna Peterson; it’s a way for her to pay it forward after long-ago tragedy struck too close to home. SE State’s golden boy, Zach Chamberlain, isn’t the first jock Jenna’s tutored with cover-boy good looks, and he won’t be the last. When he asks for her help with statistics, Jenna assumes he’s as egocentric as the other athletes on her roster. A wildly inappropriate and lackluster kiss at the worst possible time doesn’t do much to disprove her theory.
Zach will do anything to save face in front of his family, and he uses Jenna’s bleeding heart and unfortunate circumstances to enlist her help over the holidays. Jenna begins to realize Zach is more than a pretty face as his storybook life begins to unravel. When a sprig of mistletoe provides the perfect opportunity for Zach to affirm his skill, the searing kiss pits the playmaker against the rule maker in a kiss to the end. When secrets are revealed and the game’s on the line, will they follow the script, improvise, or throw the book out the window?
“What?” she asked. “No barb about me being a math nerd and a science nerd?”
“Those kind of go hand-in-hand,” he joked. “I’m kidding. You’re impressive, little Belle. You’re smart, beautiful, focused.”
“I’m not beautiful.”
She wasn’t beautiful in the traditional sense. Her features were too uneven and her eyes seemed too big for her narrow face, but she had flashes of beauty. And that giant brain of hers strangely added to her appeal.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” he said. When she moved to stand, Zach stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Do you have to get to class?”
Jenna glanced at her phone. “I’ve got a few minutes.” She bit her lip, drawing his eyes to her unpainted mouth. “Why?”
The way she sat facing him, with her arms crossed and her foot tapping, had him questioning his instincts to confide in her. But since he had no one else… “Look, you know Emily and I broke up.”
“Well, I told everyone I dumped her, and now the guys are… pressuring me to get back out there.”
Her mouth fell open, and her tongue was as pink as if she’d been sucking on a lollipop. “Are you asking me out?”
“No. God, no.” When she narrowed her eyes, he realized how that must have sounded. “You’re my tutor. And you know too much. It would be… weird.”
She held up her hand. “Stop. Please, before my ego explodes.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“What did you mean?”
He leaned forward. He didn’t want to speak loudly and take the chance someone would overhear through the paper-thin walls. “I have a date.”
The line between her brows deepened, and she frowned. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you, but this is where you come in.”
“I’m confused. Are you tutoring your date in statistics?”
He ignored her sarcasm. “She’s a cheerleader. Tall brunette with a killer body. She asked me out.”
“That’s great, but why are you telling me this?”
“Because I’m…” He leaned in farther, willing her to do the same.
She inched forward, her eyes wide. “You’re what?”
“Nervous.” There. He’d said it. That hadn’t been so hard.
Jenna flopped her hand over his. “That’s understandable. Will this be your first date since the breakup?”
She nodded. “I think this is good. Jump back into the pool and take a couple of laps. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m not worried about the date, per say. I can entertain a female for a couple of hours. I mean, dinner and a movie is a piece of cake. It’s the after I’m worried about.”
“At some point, I’ll have to kiss her, and that comment you made on the beach about my kissing, about how I molested your face, it’s… bothering me. I mean, I know it wasn’t my best effort, but it couldn’t have been that bad. Was it?”
She took a long time studying her fingernails before she gave him a tight-lipped smile. The look in her eyes told him he didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
“It wasn’t good.”
Okay, that hurt. “On a scale of one to ten?”
“I’m not rating you on a scale!” She tried to push her chair back, but he held firm. “Zach, this is ridiculous.”
“Jenna, please. How in the hell am I supposed to go out with other girls when I’m worried about something as simple as kissing?”
“Don’t kiss them?”
“That’s fantastically helpful.” He rolled his eyes. “Thanks a lot.”
“Look, you asked me what I thought, and I told you. Don’t get mad at me because you didn’t like the answer.”
“Fine. I’m a terrible kisser.” He pushed his chair back, and she put her hand on his arm.
“I never said terrible,” she said. “Look at it this way: you’ve got lots of room for improvement. Go out with a bunch of girls and practice. That’s like a guy’s dream come true.”
After a pitiful pet on his hand, she smiled at him as if she hadn’t just insulted him. Go out and practice. Perfect. And let word get out that he’s a dud? Just what he needed.
“Never mind. Just forget I said anything,” he said.
She stared at him, tapping her fingers on the table. “Okay, fine. You’re a five, okay? A solid five. That’s middle of the pack. Go forth and plunder your stacked cheerleader.”
He blew out a breath. He couldn’t stand to be placated. “That’s not true, and we both know it.”
“Look, you’re going to be fine. You like this girl, right?”
He sat back and fiddled with his pencil. “I guess. Sort of.”
“I mean, she’s pretty. She’s nice. I don’t really know her.”
“That’s what the date is for. To get to know her. To see if you click.”
“I know that, but… I haven’t been on a date since high school. I knew everyone in high school. I knew their families, where they lived, where they went to church.”
“So ask where she’s from and let it grow from there.”
“But what if we don’t click?” How could they click when he was more than a little bothered about her asking him out? “I should just cancel and wait until I feel some sort of connection with someone.”
“Zach.” Jenna set her hand over his, and he felt everything inside of him settle. “You’re overthinking this. You think she’s pretty, she thinks you’re hot. Share a meal and a movie and see what happens. You’re not committing to anything, and if you don’t like her, you don’t have to kiss her.”
“What if I do like her, and I want to kiss her? I’ve got all of your crap floating around in my head.”
“Look, I wasn’t expecting your kiss. I was completely caught off guard—not to mention we were in your girlfriend’s apartment.”
“I know. That was stupid.” He still wasn’t sure why he’d done it.
“So this will be different. If you like her and want to kiss her, just relax and let your instincts take over. Take it slow—no head grabbing and no slamming your lips on hers—and ease in nice and slow. You’ll be fine. It’s that simple.”
If it were that simple, he wouldn’t feel so unsure. “I’d feel better if I had some practice before the actual date. I think since you’re the one who got me all screwed up over this, you owe me.”
“I’m not kissing you.”
“I’ll pay you,” he offered. “Consider it a lesson.”
All warmth and sympathy vanished from her face. “That’s insulting to both of us.”
“You won’t even kiss me if I pay you to do it?” he asked.
She shook her head, her scent wafting toward him.
“Well, that’s insulting.”
“You can do this. It’s like riding a bike. If you’re really into her, it can be magical.”
“What if I’ve been a bad kisser all along? Emily never complained, but she never complained about anything. Apparently that’s one of the reasons she dumped me for my brother.” He could tell he’d snared her with that one by the way she puckered those incredible lips.
“Kissing is a physical act,” she said in her overly-enunciated teacher voice. “I’ve seen you play football. Not in person, but I’ve seen you play. You’re a gifted athlete. You’re sure of yourself. The ball—the game—is in your hands, and you perform like a master because you don’t overthink. You go with instinct and muscle memory. Kissing is the same. Trust yourself.”
He’d heard accolades about his athleticism all his life, but never had he felt more proud than when Jenna analyzed his skill. Then something she’d said hit him. “What do you mean you’ve never seen me play in person?”
She lifted her shoulders and averted her eyes, taking a sudden interest in a scratch on the table. “I don’t go to the games.”
“Why not? They’re not intellectually stimulating enough for you?”
Her whiskey eyes shot up to his. “I have my reasons.” Her voice was laced with steel.
Okay, apparently that topic was off-limits. “So you’re not going to help me?”
She huffed and shot her arms through her coat. “I just did. And it didn’t cost you anything other than a pumpkin latte.”
“That you barely drank,” he said when she tossed it into the trash.
“It was too sweet.”
“I’d say you could use it.”
She stopped short and turned to face him. “You can’t insult me into kissing you.”
She slung her bag over her shoulder. “You’ll be fine.” She lifted a finger to his temple. “Just shut off this.” She dropped her finger to his stomach. “And turn on this. The body is a wonderful instrument. Yours can perform in more than one sport.”
He grabbed her hand before she could pull away. “This conversation is just between us, right?”
“Of course. My lips are sealed.”
“Yeah,” he said, studying her lips, all naked and lush and kissable. “And that’s too damn bad.”
Christy Hayes writes romance and women’s fiction. She lives outside Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two children, and two dogs.
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