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Game On

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An NFL player, his fake girlfriend, and a family camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. What could go wrong?

Tired of his family giving him a hard time about his lackluster love life, NFL running back Tyler Brandrick tells them he has a girlfriend. When they ask him if she’ll be coming with them on their annual Yellowstone camping trip, he says yes. Too bad she doesn’t exist.

Brielle Hanson is in desperate need of a job. Recently let go, she doesn’t have enough money to make rent, so when the dog she’s walking gets away from her and races to the handsome stranger in the park, she strikes up a conversation. Good thing he makes an offer she can’t refuse.

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Chapter 1

“Slow down,” Brielle said to the cream-colored Golden Retriever at the end of the leash she gripped with both hands.

Luna ignored her, pulling hard as she sniffed everything in her path.

They were at the park near the small apartment Brielle shared with her best friend Cara, and as Brielle blew a wayward strand of hair off of her forehead, she wondered if taking Cara’s beloved dog on a walk while Cara was at work had been such a good idea after all. 

It’s not that she didn’t love dogs—she did. Luna in particular. It was just that she knew she should be spending every spare minute looking for a job. It was bad enough that the company where she’d been a receptionist had gone under without warning two weeks before, but if she didn’t come up with money for her share of the rent—which was due that very day—she would be forced to move out. Cara couldn’t afford the rent on her own, and Brielle didn’t want to be dead weight. Her savings weren’t exactly robust, and though she’d gone on two interviews, no job offers had come her way.

Even when she was employed she lived paycheck to paycheck. Now the little money in her bank account was rapidly running out. To stretch it she’d decided to end the one luxury she’d been indulging in—getting her nails done every two weeks. The sad state of her nails could attest to that. And she’d stopped going out to eat as well. There wasn’t much else she could cut. Yes, she could sell her car, but it wasn’t worth much, and she needed a reliable form of transportation to get around Sacramento.

Sighing with a mix of despair and frustration, she plodded on, wondering why she’d decided to take Luna on a walk in the afternoon. The heat of the August day was stifling. But she knew why. She needed a break from the desperation she was feeling. Better yet, she needed a vacation—from her worries. Shaking her head, she shoved down the sad laughter that wanted to erupt. A vacation was the last thing she could afford.

With every step she took, the desperation she’d felt earlier notched higher and higher. If she didn’t get a phone call with a job offer in the next thirty minutes, she would have to tell Cara to find a new roommate. Not a great way to start the weekend. But hey, maybe Cara would have time to help her pack.

Sighing in despair, Brielle did her best to control Luna as they marched along the pathway while at the same time thinking about what would happen if she had to move out. She would have to move in with her mom, that’s what. Something she wanted to avoid at all costs. Not only had she lived on her own for five years—since she was nineteen—but she knew her mom was barely making ends meet herself. Besides, she loved her independence and was loathe to give it up. Not to mention that her mom lived in Colorado. California was Brielle’s home now. In love with the sunny days and warm weather, she had zero desire to live in the snow ever again.

“Heel, Luna,” she called to the dog, who completely ignored her. Silently acknowledging that Luna was still a puppy, even if she was nearly fifty pounds, Brielle murmured, “You really need to learn some obedience.” She would point that out to Cara, even though she knew Cara would say Luna was perfect just as she was.

Another dog on a leash approached them, and Luna tugged harder, yanking the leash right out of Brielle’s hands.

Groaning out loud, Brielle took off at a run. If Luna got away, Cara would kill her.

* * *

Leaning against the picnic table, his legs stretched out in front of him, Tyler wondered how he’d gotten himself into this predicament. Well, he knew, he just couldn’t believe the way his mouth had run ahead of his brain. Sprinted, actually.

Rolling his eyes, he replayed the conversation he’d had with his parents two nights before.

He’d gone to their house for dinner, excited to discuss their annual camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. Though most of Tyler’s time was taken up playing for the Sacramento Vipers as a running back, he still loved to camp. And his absolute favorite place to camp was Yellowstone. He’d gone there with his family every year since he was fifteen—eleven years now. And despite his busy schedule, he’d never missed a trip.

When he’d arrived at his parents’ house two nights before, everyone had been there—his parents, his younger brother Rob, and his younger sister Mia. All there to plan their trip, although it hadn’t taken them long to start harassing him about his love life—or lack thereof. 

Why this seemed to be a favorite pastime of theirs, he had no idea. Yet it was. And why they expected him to have a steady girlfriend, he couldn’t quite understand. Maybe it had something to do with his mother dying to have a grandchild, and since he was the oldest, somehow that responsibility had fallen on him. And he was sure his younger siblings were happy to help take the heat off of themselves.

That night he’d had enough, which is why he’d blurted that they could stop bugging him because he had a girlfriend.

“You do?” his mother had asked, her eyes alight with pleasure. “When can we meet her?”

“Soon,” he’d said.

“Is she coming to Yellowstone?” his sister had thrown in, obviously just as excited to meet her as their mother was.

“Of course.” Tyler had heard the words coming out of his mouth, but it was like someone else was speaking, someone he wanted to slap upside the head so he’d stop talking.

“Does she like to camp?” his mother had asked, her hands clasped together and her eyes bright.

“Uh, she’s never been before, but she said she’s up for the adventure.” Who was this person talking? It was as if Tyler’s mouth had been possessed by an idiot who liked digging deep holes for him to fall into. Or maybe an idiot who was letting his own wishful thinking get the better of him.

“We’re so excited to meet her,” his mom had said. “She sounds like a lot of fun.”

Yeah. She sounded like a lot of fun to him too. Except for the small detail that she was a figment of his imagination.

Shaking his head in disgust, he watched the people as they enjoyed the beautiful summer morning at the park. What would his family say when he showed up in Yellowstone the next day all alone? The thought of admitting to his family that he’d lied, that he had no girlfriend, left him feeling mortified. Then again, he could go and tell his family that his “girlfriend” couldn’t make it. But he had a feeling his family would see right through him.

Maybe he should beg off from going at all, claim he had a workout with the Vipers that he couldn’t get out of. But Yellowstone…

Sighing in frustration and focused on his dilemma, Tyler barely saw the flash of cream-colored fur before it practically leapt onto his lap, its tongue lolling out in a huge doggy smile. A leash trailed from its collar, but no one was holding onto the leash.

“Hello there,” he said, gently pushing the dog off of his legs. “Who do you belong to?”

“Luna! Luna, come!”

Tyler looked up to see an angel approaching. An angel who was out of breath and whose silver-blonde hair was sticking to her sweat-dampened forehead. He watched her approach, appreciating the way her shorts and tank top displayed her athletic build. As she got closer, an embarrassed smile on her lips, he couldn’t miss the startling green of her eyes.

* * *

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