Excerpt Not My Romeo by Ilsa Madden-Mills

Apr 182020

Not My Romeo (The Game Changers Book 1) by Ilsa Madden-Mills

Wall Street Journal bestselling author Ilsa Madden-Mills delivers a smart and sexy contemporary romance about a smoking-hot professional football player and the small-town girl he can’t resist.

We start off with a lie on Valentine’s Day.

My blind date isn’t the studious guy I expected: he’s a drop-dead gorgeous player with sinful amber eyes. Somehow we end up at his penthouse. I blame the gin and tonic.

The next day I learn he’s Jack Hawke—bad-boy professional quarterback with a murky past. The NDA he has me sign should be a warning that he isn’t a regular person. Please. I sign it Juliet Capulet, so goodbye, famous football player with abs of steel, and good luck tracking down this small-town librarian.

But Jack keeps showing up in places I least expect him. Just when I’m sure he’s gone, he waltzes into my community theater and wins the part of Romeo to my Juliet. How’s a plain, mostly innocent girl like me supposed to resist a man like him?

Is Jack my real Romeo…or will this gorgeous football player only break my heart?

Excerpt Not My Romeo by Ilsa Madden-Mills

Chapter 1
If I smoked, I’d have one in my mouth right now. Maybe two.
But I don’t, so I settle for chewing on my thumbnail as I whip my little Ford Escape into Milano’s jam-packed parking lot. Glancing around, I take in the stone-and-cedar exterior, the flickering gaslights by the door. It’s a five-star restaurant, one of the best in Nashville, with a monthlong reservation wait, yet my date managed to get us one on short notice. Points for that.
A long sigh leaves my chest.
Who, tell me who, agrees to a blind date on Valentine’s Day?
Me, apparently.
“I’m breaking the seal!” I announce to no one.
That’s right. Tonight, I’m meeting Greg Zimmerman, the local weatherman for the NBC affiliate here in the Music City. Supposedly he’s tall, dark, handsome, a little nerdy, and fresh from a breakup. Perfect for me. Right?
So why am I so anxious?
For a brief moment I contemplate a pretend headache. Dang it. I can’t do that. For one, I promised my roommate, Topher, I’d follow through; two, I have nothing better to do; and three, I’m starving.
And this is just a quick dinner, no matter what Topher says. I recall him in the library today. He’d been wearing his Grateful Dead T-shirt and skinny jeans, bouncing up and down in the romance section as he mimicked riding a horse. Straddle him like a thoroughbred, Elena. Take those reins, dig your spurs in, and ride him until you can’t walk the next day. Pound him so hard he can’t even say “Cloudy with a chance of snow” the next day.
I blow at a piece of hair that’s fallen out of my chignon, then tuck it neatly behind my ear. No horsing around tonight. I’m here for a nice meal. Italian is my favorite, and I’m already picturing a nice bowl of pasta and garlic bread.
Just say hi, be nice, eat, then get out.
Besides. What can go wrong from meeting someone new?
I pull down the rearview mirror and check my appearance. Pale as paper. After scrambling around my bag, I pull out my cherry red and roll it over my full lips, then blot them with a tissue. I sigh, studying my features as I adjust my pearl necklace and matching earrings. The truth is there’s nothing spectacular about me. My nose is a hair too sharp, and I’m annoyingly short: five feet, three inches and a quarter in bare feet. That quarter is very important. Floating somewhere in between a true petite and the “standard” size, I’m stuck with clothes either too long or too short. If I want something that fits well, I make it myself.
Another glance in the mirror. Another sigh.
I hope Greg isn’t disappointed.
I get out of the car and approach the beautifully stained oaken double doors, where a doorman dressed in a black suit gives me a smile and opens the door. “Welcome to Milano’s,” he murmurs, and I swallow down my qualms as I step into the foyer and squint around the dark interior.
Dread inches up my spine.
Why did I insist on not seeing a photo of Greg before the date?
Mostly I just wanted to be . . . surprised. When your existence is as boring and mundane as mine, it’s the little things that spice it up. Instead of my normal coffee, let’s try the peppermint latte. Mind blowing. Instead of wearing my hair in a bun, let’s make it a messy topknot. Amazing. Instead of seeing a picture of your blind date, go anyway, and look for the guy wearing a blue shirt. Sounded exciting at the time, but I’m cursing myself as I check out the interior. There’s no one waiting for me in the foyer. I did text him to let him know I was caught in traffic, yet I got no response back. Perhaps he’s already seated and waiting for me.
The hostess whisks a lovey-dovey couple to their seats in the back of the restaurant, leaving me alone and fidgety. I brush down my black pencil skirt. Maybe I should have changed into something flirtier? I do have a closetful of slinky dresses Nana left me—
This is the real me, and if he doesn’t like what he sees, then, well, he can suck it.
I am who I am.
After five more minutes have passed and the hostess still hasn’t come back, my nerves have ramped up, and I’ve broken out in a small sweat, the nape of my neck damp. Where did she go? Is she on a break?
I take a seat on a long bench, whip out my phone, and send him another text.
I’m here in the foyer, I send.
No reply comes back.
Annoyed and running on hunger fumes, I decide I can find him myself. Feigning confidence I don’t have, I waltz out of the foyer and make a quick perimeter of the restaurant. A few minutes later I feel like a stalker as I peer at the patrons, so I move to stand in the shadowy alcove next to the restrooms, scanning for men alone on Valentine’s Day.
Topher should have chosen a different night for us to meet, considering I have a horrible history with Valentine’s Day. At my high school Sweetheart Dance, my date, Bobby Carter, drank so much spiked punch that he barfed all over my white dress. My college boyfriend’s idea of a romantic night was ordering in sushi—his favorite—then playing video games with his friends online. I can’t recall one decent Valentine’s Day in all of my twenty-six years.
Bam. My eyes land on a tall dark-haired man wearing a blue button-down, the sleeves rolled up to his forearms. He’s in the far corner, sitting apart, almost tucked away. His table has several empty ones around it, and I find it curious that he’s managed to get privacy on such a busy night. A waiter sets down his food, and my lips tighten.
He’s eating without me?
I spy his phone next to him on the table. The nerve! Why hasn’t he responded to me?
He’s taller than I expected, judging just from how he sits in his plush leather armchair—
Wait a minute. He does look vaguely familiar, like a face you’ve caught briefly but can’t put a name to. Mama and Aunt Clara always have the TV on at the beauty shop, so it’s possible I have actually seen him on the news.
I pull my white cat-eye glasses out of my purse and slide them on for a better look. My heart flip-flops as butterflies take flight in my stomach. Oh heck no. That can’t be him. He’s . . . he’s . . . freaking gorgeous, and I don’t mean regular handsome but like a movie star: dark hair swept off his face, the strands wavy and unruly with copper highlights, soft and silky brushing against his cheeks, and too long for a newscaster, in my opinion—but what do I know? I don’t own a television.
He lifts his arm to shove his hair back, and my eyes pop at the tightly roped muscles of his forearm and biceps straining through the fabric, the impossibly broad shoulders that taper to a chest.
Well, would you look at that.
And this has to be him, right?
I’m in the right restaurant. He’s alone. He’s wearing a blue shirt. He has dark hair. Odds point to yes. Usually the most simple explanation is exactly what it appears. Therefore, he must be my date.
The man in question turns to look out the window, tapping his fingers on the table impatiently, and I take in his profile. Long straight nose, full dark arching eyebrows, and a sharp, bladed jawline. Sensuous lips, the lower one decadently full. Almost wicked. He’s the kind of hot that draws your eyes over and over just to make sure it’s not a mirage. I knew guys like him at NYU—sexy, athletic gym types who played a sport. And those types never gave me a second look. I’d watch them work out while I fumbled my way around one of those god-awful butterfly machines, while beautiful, tall, svelte girls who weren’t sweating fawned over them, bringing them towels, water bottles, and sexy promises.
He isn’t beefy, though, like those brawny guys with thick necks and flushed faces. His muscles are taut and powerful, nothing too overstated, yet tight and no doubt firm—
Elena. Enough with the body. It’s to your taste. Move on.
He takes a sip of an amber liquid, long tanned fingers grasping the fragile container as his eyes rove across the room. They prowl around the restaurant, as if he’s assessing every person in sight, and I feel the sizzle of him even from twenty feet away. Prickles of awareness skate down my spine. Greg has massive raw animal magnetism coming from him in waves. I’m the alpha, his body language yells. Come and challenge me. I watch as a few ladies eye him—even some of the guys are turned and checking him out. Some are whispering. Interesting. I guess he has quite the following on the news.
His gaze drifts right over me without stopping.
Not surprised.
I duck back into the shadows.
Dang it. My hands clench. I wanted nice and nerdy, not this . . . sexy beast!
And judging by the scowl on his face, he’s grumpy. Life’s too short to be dour, Mister. And what is he annoyed about? I am here!
And he did see a picture of me. Topher said so.
Yeah, maybe he doesn’t really want to meet you.
Maybe he’s hoping you won’t show up.
I tap my foot. I should leave. Really.
I have a ton of things to do at home. Some sewing, snuggling up with Romeo—
The smells of Milano’s waft around me, spicy and tantalizing, and my stomach lets out an angry howl. I move from one foot to the next. Every place to eat between here and Daisy is going to be packed. I could always hit a drive-through on the way back home—but how pathetic is a Big Mac and fries on Valentine’s Day? Plus, I’ll have my entire nosy family to answer to tomorrow. They’ve built up this blind date so much: Oooooh, Elena has a date with a weatherman. Ask him if that’s a barometer in his pocket or if he’s just glad to see you. That nugget came from Aunt Clara. If I chicken out now, there’ll be hell to pay, because no matter the brave face I put on, everyone knows I haven’t been myself in months.
I give myself a mental pep talk.
Grow some balls, Elena.
You can’t keep living life on the sidelines.
Sometimes you have to go out and take what you want.
So what if he’s hot enough to suck the dew off a rose.
So what if he’s got a dangerous look on his face.
You are hungry. Do it for the pasta.
He is your date. Go get ’em, girl.
I gather my resolve, point my little black pumps in his direction, and start marching.

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