29 Years Old
“GARETH!” MY SISTER’S LOUD VOICE echoes through the phone as soon as I answer the call. “You need to call Camden. He’s absolutely going mental because he had to take a train to the stadium since Tanner and Booker left for practice without him and Dad’s out scouting a new player and, oh my God, I’m going to lose it! These are grown men!”
The speaker on my mobile rattles from the shrill tone of her voice. I have to pull it away from my ear to prevent my eardrum from rupturing. I silently apologise to the hair stylist attempting to gel my hair.
It’s not Vi’s fault, though. Our three younger brothers are far too similar to the Three Stooges. If they weren’t full-grown, professional athletes, I swear they’d be in a case study for how apes could function in society.
I take a deep breath. My reply is slow and controlled because I know that’s exactly what Vi needs to hear. “Vi, just hang up on them when they get like that. I’ve been telling them for years that they need to move out of Dad’s house. They are still too dependent on you, and you have to stop helping them solve all of their problems.”
Vi groans. “I know, Gareth. But it’s hard. They are a special brand of stupid.”
I have to fight back a chuckle. “That they are, but you know they’ll figure it out. They have to grow up eventually.”
“I know, I know,” she sighs deeply. “Thanks. This is exactly what I needed to hear.”
“It’s no problem,” I reply with a smile.
This is a routine between me and Vi that’s as old as we are. Even now as adults, she continues to break up the ridiculous battles our brothers get into down in London, and I have to talk her off the ledge from up here in Manchester. She’s like a sergeant on the front line of a battlefield, and I’m the commander calling the shots from the safety of the King’s palace. Control is my middle name.
“I keep reminding myself that this is exactly why I finally moved out of Dad’s house,” Vi replies. “To get some space from those idiots. But somehow, they still make all of their problems my problems.”
“Well, that’s a Harris for you,” I grumble into the phone. “You going to be okay?”
“Yes, I’m better. Thank you, Gareth,” she coos, her tone ten times more relaxed.
“Are you at your photoshoot?”
I nod. “They are trying to put makeup on me as we speak.”
“Eep! Okay, I’ll let you go. Call me after!”
We hang up and I glance up at the male makeup artist coming at me with a sponge. “Don’t go crazy with that thing,” I warn.
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t.” He giggles and flirtatiously adds, “You don’t need it. Now close your eyes, handsome.”
I close them and try to relax, but a female voice with an American accent sounds off behind me. “Hi, my name is Sloan Montgomery. You can call me Sloan. Can you tell me your name, please?”
The makeup artist stops touching my face, and my eyes open as he steps back. He drops the compact on the counter and slips out of the cosy hair and makeup area where I’m situated, leaving me alone with a brunette who’s swiping furiously on an iPad.
The woman says nothing more, clearly engaged in whatever is on the digital screen, so I take a minute to look her up and down. She’s tall with long, chestnut waves cascading around her shoulders. She’s wearing a demure black dress, and her long, dark lashes fan her pale cheeks. I have to bite back a laugh because she still hasn’t looked up from the damn screen.
I narrow my eyes and clear my throat. “Are you addressing me?”
Her brows knit together for a brief second, then smooth. Painting on a polite smile, she finally looks up and stares at my face in the mirror. Her mouth is a bit too big for the delicate features of her face. Her lips plump but natural-looking, unlike some of my teammates’ wives. Her honey-coloured eyes are big and sparkling in the warm glow of the LED bulbs. She’s pretty much all lips and eyes with a tiny slip of a nose.
And she does not look impressed by me.
Arching a perfectly plucked brow, she responds smoothly, “Yes, I am speaking to you.”
“And you’re asking me my name?” I cross my arms over my chest. “You really don’t know who I am?”
Her smile remains even as she licks her lips. “I don’t like to assume I know who anyone is.”
This gives me pause because, from the second I arrived on set today, every single person I’ve come in contact with has gawked at me like a treasured artifact they want to steal from a museum exhibit. It’s what comes with the title of being a seasoned footballer for a Premier League football team.
I became a starter for Manchester United at only twenty-one years old. Now, at twenty-nine, I’m practically their fucking poster boy, like it or not. This circumstance evokes a certain level of familiarity between me and nearly every single stranger I meet. People speak to me like a long-lost friend they had sleepovers with as a child. Like somehow watching me play on the pitch every week for the past eight years means they know me intimately. Throw in the fact that my brothers all play football for our dad’s championship league team in London and that makes the Harris Brothers a bit of a phenomenon in England. Not to mention our father was a famous Man U footballer in the eighties. Hell, even our mum’s dad played for a time in Sweden. Our family’s legend precedes us. It’s not something I’m arrogant about. It’s just a fact.
So this American acting like she doesn’t know me puts me on the defence and not because that’s my position on the pitch.
“Who do you think I am?” I ask, my tone a blatant challenge.
Her smile is pinched, like she’s agitated but trying to hide it. “Are we playing a guessing game right now?”
I narrow my eyes cautiously. “No, but I wouldn’t mind playing Twenty Questions.” I shove myself against the counter so my chair swivels to face her straight on. She’s even more striking than her reflection. A green ring loops around her pupils and turns her pale brown eyes into a stunning forest-like colour.
Her inspecting gaze drops to my legs, concealed beneath a pair of jeans. They slide up my white cotton shirt before landing on my face. A flicker of regret shadows her eyes as she replies, “I’m afraid I don’t have time for games, Mr. Harris.”
“So you do know who I am,” I reply knowingly.
She inhales and takes a step forward, looming over me in her black stiletto boots. “I asked for your name because I’m styling three soccer players for this ad campaign, and I wanted to be sure I have the correct one.”
“We’re called footballers over here, Sweets.” I shoot her a cheeky wink and add, “And you just called me Mr. Harris quite confidently, so why bother asking at all?”
“Because I don’t think footballers need their egos stroked any more than they already are,” she retorts, her tone even and firm. “And I don’t like how all the athletes I work with around here don’t introduce themselves. I find it rude.” Her hand moves to cover her mouth like she’s trying to stop herself from saying anything more.
A smile lifts my face as her cheeks flush pink. This woman is beautiful and stronger than she gives herself credit for.
My response is light-hearted—a tone I don’t give out to just anyone. “By all means, Miss Montgomery, don’t hold back.”
“I told you to call me Sloan,” she replies while rubbing her hand against her forehead.
I’m annoying her. I don’t annoy many. In fact, most people are constantly kissing my arse and trying to get something out of me, so this is a fun change of pace.
“I’m sorry,” she acquiesces, looking over her shoulder. “I’m a bit stressed. The photographer is rushing me because the lighting outside is perfect, so we really need to get you dressed—”
“No, you’re right. I’m sorry,” I interrupt and her wide eyes snap to mine. “You’re right. It is rude not to introduce myself. My name is Gareth Harris. Please call me Gareth. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sloan.”
I reach out to shake her hand. With a puzzled look, she slips her delicate hand into mine, her face heating as we touch. It’s clear that I’ve taken her completely off guard. But if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being lumped into the same category as all the other footballers in this area. This woman is just trying to do her job, and she probably gets a lot of shit from people like my teammates. Especially because she’s stunningly beautiful.
My thumb brushes over a ring on her finger. I glance down and a surprising jolt of disappointment rushes through me when I see that it’s a wedding ring.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too,” Sloan replies. Shaking off her initial shock, she looks behind her again. “We really do need to get you dressed, and I need to check a few things out with you first.”
I release her hand and grip the armrests of the chair to stand, bringing me nose-to-nose with her. In her heels, she’s just a couple inches shorter than me. Since I’m six-foot-one, that puts her around five-eight or so.
“I have a note in your contract that says you have fabric requirements,” Sloan states, but her voice sounds far away as the smell of her sugary sweet perfume invades my nose.
My body tremors involuntarily from the unwelcome memory the scent evokes. It’s an image of my mum making pancakes in our family’s Manchester flat we lived in when we were kids. My youngest brother, Booker, is only a few weeks old in a bassinet beside her. Vi is holding up toys to him, completely unaware that he’s not old enough to care about toys yet. The twins, Camden and Tanner, are wrestling on the floor in the dining area. And before I can snap out of it, an image of my dad walking up behind my mum and tickling her sides barrels in. Mum squeals and turns around to thump him with the spatula. The happy scene makes my stomach churn.
It was nothing like that at the end.
“Gareth?” Sloan’s voice is louder, like she’s been trying to get my attention.
I shake my head, the foggy memory rolling away as fast as it came in. “Yes? What is it?”
“Are you all right?” She steps closer, concern evident on her face, but the smell hits me all over again.
“I’m fine,” I bark and step back, trying to regain control of my own bloody mind. “Let’s just get on with it. Do you have a rack of clothes? I can usually pick out what works best for me.”
She frowns at my tone. “Is it a tactile defensiveness you have?”
“Tactile what?” I sigh with annoyance because I don’t want to talk about my texture issues. This is why I hate endorsement deals and anything that requires styling. People try to make all the decisions for me and I don’t like being controlled. If my manager didn’t keep pushing me to do them so much, I wouldn’t bother.
I move past her and glance around the studio for the clothing options. “Just point me in the direction of the clothing and we’ll get this over with.”
“Mr. Harris.” Sloan says my name with such firmness, I can’t help but turn on my heel to face her. She clutches the iPad to her chest and narrows her gaze. “I’m the stylist on set today, and I’m trying to understand your needs better. Then I can execute the clothing request.”
I shove my hand through my hair and grimace when I remember the hair stylist gelled it already. “It’s difficult to explain,” I murmur, wishing I was anywhere but here.
Sensing my discomfort, Sloan’s expression instantly softens and her entire approach changes. She sets the iPad down on the chair behind her and walks toward me with a gentleness to her gaze. Her black lashes fan her creamy cheeks as she looks down my body. “Are these your clothes from home?”
I nod, my jaw tight from her close proximity. She reaches out, and I wince as she places her palm firmly on my chest. Her touch is hard and pressurised, which allows me to exhale with some relief. If it was soft and feathery, I’d probably start trembling. I hate soft touches. They leave a tingling wake of sensation that’s like nails on a chalkboard. The truth is, it’s made it difficult for me to enjoy any sort of intimacy with women as a result. I’m the only footballer known to mankind who doesn’t shag everything that walks.
But with Sloan, it’s like she knows something. Something I don’t fully understand myself. Her brows lift as she strokes her hand over my pec and onto my side, continuing the strong, pressured exploration across my abs like she’s a sculptor moulding clay. It’s an odd act to experience with a stranger, but the way she touches me is soothing. My busy mind relaxes. My clenched jaw falls open as she walks around me, firmly dragging her hand along my ribs as she moves. She releases me to pull the neck of my shirt open.
“You removed the label,” she states, her breath warm on the back of my neck.
I clear my throat. “They irritate my neck…This one is still on.” I lift the hem of my shirt to reveal the silky tab sewn inside the seam.
She moves around me, her scent wafting over me as she angles her head to read. I force myself to stay in the moment and not fall back into a memory. I notice her eyes pausing on my abs before zeroing in on the label.
She looks up and half smiles. “This is a nice shirt.”
I shrug halfheartedly. “It’s just a shirt.”
She shakes her head and murmurs, “Imported from Italy and custom orders only.”
Before I have a chance to realise what she’s going to do next, her head dips down as she begins fingering the back of my waistband. She pulls on my jeans and air suddenly hits my arse cheeks. A noise reverberates from the back of her throat as she gets more than a view of my bare abs this time.
Unwilling to be scared away, she fiddles with the tab on the denim. When she releases it, her flushed face returns to mine. “I think I know exactly what you need.”
I can’t help but smile at her wavering tone of voice. “You mean besides underwear?”
Her returning smile is genuine and maybe even a bit life-changing. “Yes, Mr. Harris. I can think of a few things you need.”
I chuckle. “Then I hope I can hire you year-round because it’s kind of nice having someone tell me what to do for a change.”