Well Played by Vi Keeland
“So, have you at least run into one of those southern gentlemen the movies always show? Like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook or Matthew McConaughey in…well, anything?”
I sighed and set my cell on the bed so I could get undressed while I finished my call with my best friend, Harper, on speakerphone. “No. But I did speak to a man at the post office yesterday named Huck. He spoke with such a heavy accent that I initially thought he was speaking a foreign language. I apologized and told him I only spoke English. He wasn’t too amused. I don’t sound like that, do I?”
“Only after a few drinks. Some people start to drool after too much liquor. You start to drawl and say things like howdy.”
“I do not say howdy. But I definitely met a man this week who does. Atticus Musslewhite.”
“Is that seriously a person’s name?”
“Sure is. He’s a mechanic at the gas station in town. We went to high school together, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t recognize me. When I got here on Sunday, I pulled up to the pump, and he was standing there like the welcome wagon. He looked me up and down with a piece of actual straw hanging out of the side of his mouth, lifted his hat, and said, “Howdy, pretty lady. Welcome to Beaufort. If you need anything at all, you just give Atticus a call. I’ll buttah your biscuit.”
“Oh my God. I demand you pack up and move back here immediately.”
I laughed and sat down on the bed to untie my sneakers in front of the air conditioner. “Yeah, no Ryan Gosling yet. Though I am happy to be home. When I made the decision to move back down here, I worried maybe I wasn’t cut out for small-town life anymore. But I feel like my shoulders are relaxed for the first time in years.”
“Hmmm… Then maybe I should move to Beaufort. My massage therapist just raised his rate to a hundred and fifty an hour.”
“Pretty sure your head would explode after more than a few days. It’s definitely a slower pace than you can handle.”
Harper sighed. “I hate that you’re so far away. But I’m glad you’re finding peace. How’s The Palm Inn?”
I looked around the bedroom I was staying in, which was in better shape than most of the other rooms in the B&B. Paint was peeling from the walls, the carpet was worn so thin you couldn’t make out the pattern anymore, and a termite-damaged wood-framed window held the world’s shittiest air conditioner. “Ummm... It needs some TLC.”
“How long do you think it’ll take to get it fixed up?”
“I’m not sure. I’m working on a budget to figure out what we can afford to have done. I’ll figure out a timeline after that. But it’s going to have to be before I start my new teaching position.”
I’d lined up a part-time job teaching art and photography at the local high school. It wasn’t the glamorous life I’d had back in New York where I managed a gallery and had shown some of my own photography and artwork. But I wasn’t a glam girl at heart anyway, and I was looking forward to teaching something I loved.
“You’ll get it done,” she assured me. “My girl can do anything.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“And how’s the best boy in the world?”
I’d had to pull my seven-year-old out of the last few weeks of classes in New York when my lease was up and we made the move to get things started down here. School in Beaufort was already out for the year, but he still had a few things to finish up, so I was trying my hand at homeschooling—just to finish up second grade.
I smiled. “Alex is happy. He made some friends right away. I was worried it might be difficult for him until he starts school here in the fall. But my mom took him to lunch with her friend and her friend’s grandson, and they really hit it off. They’ve been hanging out the last few days playing football. They’re both planning to join the junior peewee team, and they’ll be at the same camp this summer. Once the kid heard who Alex’s father and uncle were, he became sort of an instant celebrity.”
“What team does his uncle play for again?”
“Is that the same team Alex’s dad played for?”
“No. He was with the Jets. That’s how I wound up in New York, remember?”
“Jets, Mets, Nets—I have no idea where any of the teams are from.”
I laughed. That was another thing different about living in a big city versus how things were down here in the South. In New York, football was a sport that played in the background at bars. Here it was more like a religion. The whole town came out for Friday nights under the lights—not just the family and friends of the kids playing. Before his injury, my ex, Tanner, had been a second-round pick in the NFL draft eight years ago. His brother had been a first-round pick two years before that, and their dad had played in the NFL for fifteen years, too. When I left to go to New York with Tanner almost a decade ago, our little town had already sent fifty-two kids to the NFL. I was sure it was more by now.
“How am I supposed to do this?” Harper said. “I miss you already, and you’ve only been gone six days. You know I don’t like people enough to make a new friend.”
I smiled. “You have plenty of friends.”
“Not real ones like you.”
I sighed. Harper wasn’t wrong. She’d been the one thing that had kept me up north the last year or two. Lord knows, in the six years we’ve been separated, Alex’s dad didn’t give us a reason to stay. He barely ever saw his son even though we’d lived in the same city.
“I miss you, too. But you’re going to come down and visit soon, right?”
“Of course. I can’t wait.”
“Alright, well… That’s how we’ll get through this—looking forward to vacations and visits. But listen, I gotta run. Alex is down the block at his new friend’s house. I just finished cleaning out the attic in the B&B, and I really need to jump in the shower. It was so hot and dirty. I think I might smell. The heat down here is enough to roast a lizard.”
“They roast lizards down there?”
I chuckled. “Not that I’ve ever seen. But my mom said that the other day, and Alex looked at her like she had two heads. The lingo is going to take some getting used to for him.”
She laughed. “I’ll talk to you in a few days, my little buttah biscuit.”
After I hung up, I peeled my yoga pants down my clammy legs, unstuck the thong glued to my ass, and stood in front of the unimpressive air conditioner in my bedroom. The thing was producing the equivalent of me filling my cheeks with hot air and blowing out. I needed to add find an AC repairman to my mile-long to-do list if there was any hope I was going to make it through the summer heat.
A Bose SoundLink speaker sat on the nearby nightstand. I’d turned down the music when my cell phone rang, and the low sound of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” wafted below the loud clanking of the dysfunctional AC. I walked over and cranked it up, pulled the tie from my ponytail, and returned to let the air blow my blond hair back, Beyoncé-video style. Shutting my eyes, I began to move to the rhythm of the song.
It felt like forever since I’d danced. I used to love it. In high school, I’d been the head of the dance squad, and Harper and I liked to go out dancing on occasion. But really dancing? Dancing like no one was watching? It had been years. So I went with the urge. Why not? I was the only person in the B&B, and the blinds were shut.
I started slow, swaying back and forth, until my hips decided to join in on the fun. By the time the chorus came around the second time, I was full-on shaking my goods all over. Tanner had been an ass man. Years ago, after the Miley Cyrus VMA twerk had gone viral, I’d caught him watching it on his laptop. So I’d surprised him and learned to twerk. Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, I wasn’t sure I could move like that anymore. But when Justin asked to see what I was twerking with, I obliged. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t still have it. So I went to town—twerking my jiggly, naked ass like nobody’s business while the air conditioning continued to blow my hair back.
When the song ended, an odd, euphoric feeling came over me, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Maybe being back in Beaufort, South Carolina, would be good for me after all.
And maybe naked dancing was just what I needed.
Or maybe not.
I turned around to head to the shower, and my heart leapt into my throat as I found a man leaning casually against the bedroom doorframe.
I jumped and let out a blood-curdling scream. My self-defense mechanism kicked in, and I picked up the nearest thing I could get my hands on and hurled it across the room. Fortunately, I’d grabbed the Bose SoundLink, and that thing packed a wallop. The hard plastic connected with the intruder’s head, and he went down for the count.
Shaking, I looked around for another weapon, but the room was pretty sparse. So I grabbed my cell phone from the bed and called 9-1-1, hoping they’d arrive before he came to.
The operator asked my name and address and then said the police had been dispatched. “Is the intruder breathing, Presley?”
My eyes widened. Could I have killed him? Oh my God. I thought I might throw up. “I don’t know. But he’s not moving.”
“Okay. Just stay on the phone with me. The police are en route. Can you make your way outside safely?”
I shook my head, though the woman obviously couldn’t see me. “He’s lying in the doorway, and there’s no other way out. There’s an air conditioner in the window.”
“Okay. Try to stay calm. Let’s just keep talking until the police arrive.”
I nodded, but couldn’t focus on anything else the woman said. What if I killed him? My heart ricocheted against my ribcage as if it were trying to escape. I peered over at the man. He was dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, but his face was turned away from me, and I couldn’t get a good look from where I stood huddled in the corner.
Though something struck me as odd. An intruder didn’t usually dress that well, did he? Shouldn’t he have a stocking over his face and filthy clothes from his years of doing drugs and living on the streets?
I pushed up on my tippy toes to get a better look. His crisp, white shirt had a little horse embroidered on it. My intruder wore a hundred-dollar, Ralph Lauren dress shirt?
A bad feeling settled into the pit of my stomach. I needed to see this man’s face. “Are you still there?” I asked into the phone.
“I’m here. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. I’m going to take a few steps toward him. He’s still out, and I want to see his face.”
“Okay. Stay on the line, and see if it’s safe to maneuver around him and get outside.”
I nodded. Realizing I was still naked, I tugged the sheet from the bed and wrapped it around me. Then I took one hesitant step and waited to see if the man moved. He didn’t. So I took another step, and then another until I was close enough to lean to one side and get a look at the intruder’s turned-away face.
“Presley? Are you still there?” the 9-1-1 operator asked. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh my God!”
“What’s going on, Presley?”
“I think it’s Levi!”
“You know the intruder?”
“Yes. He’s Tanner’s brother.”
“And who’s Tanner, Presley?”
“He’s my ex-fiancé.”
“What’s Tanner’s last name?”
“Okay. So the man on the floor is Levi Miller, then?”
“The same name as the football player?”
I shook my head. “No, not the same name as the football player—the actual player. I think I just killed the Super Bowl MVP quarterback.”
“I’m fine,” Levi growled at the paramedic from the other room.
The police had separated us, asking me to take a seat in the kitchen and keeping him in the adjoining living room. I peered around the police officer sitting across from me to see what was going on.
“Sir, you lost consciousness. There’s a good chance you have a concussion. Plus, you need a few stitches.”
“I’ll walk over to Doc Matthews’ house down the block. He’ll stitch me up and check me out.”
The paramedic frowned. “That’s not a good idea. We need to take you to Memorial.” She fussed, trying to wipe his head with gauze.
The police officer sitting across from me finished writing notes in his pad and shut it. “So you didn’t know it was your ex-fiancé’s brother when you attacked him? You didn’t recognize a famous football player you’ve known all your life?”
“I didn’t attack him. I told you. I was dancing, and he walked in on me. He has a full beard now, and I’d never seen him with one before. I got scared and picked up the first thing I could grab and threw it at him. It was an accident. I thought he was a robber or something.”
“And you were dancing…naked?”
He flipped open his notepad and started to write again.
“Can you…leave that part out of your report? It’s so embarrassing.”
The officer glanced up at me and then continued to write. “They’re just the facts of the case, ma’am.”
Levi again raised his voice from the other room, causing even the officer sitting across from me to turn in his chair. He towered over the short female paramedic. “Give me whatever you want me to sign. I’m not getting into an ambulance for a little cut on the head.”
One of the two paramedics who had been attending to Levi walked into the kitchen and spoke to the officer. “The victim’s vitals are stable, and he’s refusing treatment, so we’re going to have him sign our Refusal of Necessary Medical Care form and be on our way.”
The officer shut his notebook and looked at me. “Excuse me for a minute.”
While the paramedics packed up their transporter bed and all of their equipment, the officer spoke to Levi. He lowered his voice, but I could still strain to hear.
“Are you sure you don’t want to press charges, Mr. Miller?”
Levi looked over at me. His glare was icy, but he shook his head no.
“Alright, then. We’ll have to do a full report. But we’ll put it down as a domestic accident.”
Fifteen minutes later, the last of the responders walked out the front door. The paramedics and police had arrived just as Levi came to, and they’d immediately sprung into action to treat him and then separated us. I hadn’t had a chance to apologize.
“Levi, I’m so sorry I did that to you. But why were you watching me anyway? It’s creepy.”
“It’s kind of hard to not watch when I find a naked woman in my house, twerking. I had no idea it was you.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “It’s our house. And I had no idea it was you either. You look so different. Your hair is long, and I’ve never seen you with a full beard like that.” I looked up at the cut on his head and grimaced. “You should have let them treat you. You’re still bleeding.”
“Cuts to the head bleed a lot. It’s fine.”
“Please go over to Doc Matthews’ at least.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I moved back.”
Right about now, I was asking myself that very question. “Because it’s a good place for my son to grow up.”
He looked me up and down. “Why are you so dirty?”
“Oh. I cleaned out the attic. I finished right before you came in.”
“Why would you do that?”
My brows furrowed. He had a lot of questions, and some of them seemed pretty obvious. “Ummm…because it was a disaster.”
“The builder doesn’t care if the attic is clean. He doesn’t care if the entire place is a mess. He’s going to tear it down.”
“Tear what down?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
This time it was Levi who looked confused. His forehead wrinkled. “Didn’t you get the offer?”
“For the B&B. Franklin Construction made an offer of more than twice the value of the property. My lawyer said he sent it over to you. I assumed it was a done deal.”
I shook my head. “But I don’t want to sell.”
Levi put his hands on his hips. “Well, then, we have a problem. Because I do.”