Playing to Win by Autumn Reed

Chapter 1

Shane wrappedan arm around my waist, then checked his watch. “Um, which one of us gets to kiss you at midnight?”

Cole stepped forward until he was standing close enough to do just that. The candlelight reflected in his dark eyes, making them flash gold. “Since I was the first to accept Emma’s proposition, I vote me.”

“But you were the last one to get alone time with her,” Nicholas argued, “so you should go to the back of the line.”

Shane squeezed my hip. “Based on that logic, I’m first.”

Though their competitive natures were on full display, I couldn’t wipe the delighted smile from my face. Nor did I want to. Having three gorgeous men fighting, good-naturedly, over who got to kiss me first was inching up on my favorite moments list.

Cole groaned, but amusement flickered in his dark eyes. “Fine, but only twenty seconds each so we can all get in on the first minute of the new year.”

“Deal,” Shane said as the muffled sounds of the ten-second countdown drifted outside.

Nine . . . eight . . .

Nicholas held up his own watch and gave Shane a pointed look. “I’m keeping track.”

Five . . . four . . .

Shane cradled my head in his hands and gave me the warmest smile I’d ever seen from him. “Better make this good, then.”

Two . . . one . . .

Without hesitation, he melded his lips to mine, and the shouts of celebration faded as his fingers left a trail of sparks along the sensitive skin of my neck.

It seemed like no time had passed when Shane abruptly pulled away and I found Nicholas standing in his place. Caught off guard, I gripped his waist to keep my balance and shivered when his hot breath brushed my ear. “We’ve got this, Cinderella.” I wondered at his meaning, but then he kissed me, and all thoughts of hidden messages disappeared.

When Nicholas stepped back, I was prepared for a full-on assault from Cole. Instead, he wrapped his strong arms around my waist and spun me in circles. I clung to his neck and laughed until he set me down and placed a quick, sweet kiss on my lips.

“Emma!”

I jerked my head up so fast, sharp pain shot through my neck. “Ouch,” I grumbled while throwing a nasty look at Simone. “Did you have to shout?”

She planted her hands on her hips. “Maybe if you had responded one of the three times I tried to get your attention at a normal volume, I wouldn’t have resorted to shouting.”

Embarrassed, I looked around the small office I shared with several other people at the newspaper and relaxed when I saw only empty desks. I could handle being caught daydreaming by Simone; by anyone else, not so much.

“Which scene were you replaying in your mind this time? Shane in your childhood bed? Cole on your couch? Nicholas, well, anywhere? Damn, that man is hot.”

When I stared at her instead of answering, she said, “Or maybe you’ve skipped right to fantasizing about all three. I know I have.”

“Simone!” I flicked a paperclip at her, and it hit her in the stomach. “Those are my boyfriends you’re talking about.”

She picked up my mug of paperclips and held it out of reach. “True, and if you were only dating one of them, I would at least try to keep my imagination under control. But, come on, Em! Your love life is juicier than all the heroines combined in those scandalous novels my mom keeps hidden under her bed. What do you expect?”

“Fine,” I huffed, “but that doesn’t mean I need to hear about whatever is going on in that dirty little mind of yours. And, if you must know, my thoughts were drifting back to New Year’s Eve. At midnight.”

“Oooh, that’s a good one,” she said with a wink.

Starting to seriously regret telling Simone practically everything that had happened between me and the Ts (also known as the triple triple threats), I glanced at the clock. Almost one o’clock. Sheesh. I’d been in the office for over an hour and hadn’t even made a dent in the article I was editing.

Deciding it was a lost cause for now, I shut my laptop. “Have you eaten? I can’t keep talking about this without lunch and caffeine.”

“Nope, let’s go.”

After packing up my things, Simone looped her arm through mine and proceeded to tell me all about her “smexy” philosophy professor. I interrupted to point out that she could easily say “smart” and “sexy” rather than combining the two into a ridiculous non-word, which only got me an eye roll. Big surprise.

By the time we reached our favorite café, she’d almost convinced me to drop an elective and add philosophy to my schedule. Not that I needed another distractingly attractive man in my life. I had more than enough of those already. Seriously, how had I drifted off to Shane, Cole, and Nicholas dreamland in the middle of the newspaper office? Of course, New Year’s Eve was the best night of my life . . .

“Emma!” Simone snapped her fingers in front of my face and gave me thelook.

And I’m doing it again. Great. Just great.

“Sorry, sorry! Let’s get in line.”

Once we picked up our food and found an open table, I racked my brain for a topic that would divert Simone’s attention away from my boyfriends. It was a hopeless cause; she wasn’t exactly going to forget I was dating three men anytime soon.

“So, have you seen any of them?” Simone’s tone was accusing more than questioning, and I stared down at my coffee mug to avoid her gaze.

“Not yet.”

Cole, Shane, and Nicholas had left right after New Year’s to go skiing in Colorado and only arrived home a few days ago. Although they invited me to go along, since we had just defined our relationship, it didn’t seem like the right time to take such a dramatic step. My idea or no, figuring out how to be in a relationship with all three of them was enough of a challenge. Going away with them for a week? I was so not ready for that.

Unfortunately, that meant I’d had plenty of time alone in my apartment to think, which was never a good thing. Instead of getting ahead in my coursework, I’d spent hours imagining gorgeous, tall snow bunnies following them around. How could I compete? There was only one of me and so, so many other girls. Prettier, more experienced girls.

“Please don’t tell me you’re still avoiding the Ts.”

“I’m not avoiding them. I’ve been busy. It’s not my fault they came home right when classes were starting.”

“Defensive much?”

I crossed my arms over my chest, ready to deny it, but before the words left my lips, I decided Simone was right. I’d been making excuses the last few days to get out of seeing them. Sure, I’d been busier than normal, but I could have easily made time to at least say hello. They’d been practically blowing up my phone with requests to stop by or take me out.

Relaxing my posture, I took a sip of my caramel mocha, then sighed in resignation. “Fine, I’ve been avoiding them.”

“Clearly,” she said with her best I told you so expression. “Now, do you want to explain why you didn’t jump into their arms the minute they landed?”

“I don’t know. I mean, I do know . . . I just don’t like my answer.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being scared, Emma.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“More like expected. You did this incredibly brave thing on New Year’s Eve. You followed your heart, took a giant risk, and it totally paid off. But now you’re coming down off that high and doubting yourself. It’s natural. Just don’t let yourself get sucked into a cycle of doubt. You need to keep being brave if you have any hope of surviving this relationship.”

Damn, she’s good. “Have I ever mentioned how annoyingly wise you are?”

“I’m a psychology major for a reason, my friend.”

“True.” Simone wasn’t merely a pretty face with a curvy body and confident personality. Behind all that sass was a remarkably intelligent and deep person and a great friend.

“And don’t forget about my very popular advice column.”

“Like I could.” Between Simone’s brash sense of humor and genuinely helpful advice, her column was understandably a favorite amongst the student body. It was how we became friends in the first place, and I was one of the few privy to the real identity of “Dear Snarky.”

“So, now that we’ve diagnosed your problem, what are we going to do about it?”

I lifted a brow. “We? Are you joining the ‘torrid foursome’?” I asked, quoting Xavier, a waiter at the club and one of Cole’s closest friends. “Because that would definitely change the dynamics, and we’d need a new name.”

Simone burst out laughing. “Torrid foursome. We have to start hanging out with Xavier. I’m already in love with him. And hell yes to joining the fun! Think of how much more time you would have to study if I took over some of your girlfriend duties.” She shot me a teasing grin, but I had no doubt she would be more than happy to accept if I was, indeed, offering.

“While you’re mulling that over, what are you going to do to fix things?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll make plans to see them.”

Her voice thick with sarcasm, Simone replied, “Please, tone down your excitement. It’s too much for me to handle.”

“Okay, smartass. What do you suggest?”

“I suggest you begin realizing that every unattached girl in this city, nay, this country, would give her left tit to be in your position. And most attached girls too. Start acting like it.”

“Why is it always the left one? Personally, I think it goes to society’s blatant discrimination against people who are left-handed. Scissors, notebooks, kitchen utensils

Simone threw up her hands in exasperation. “Don’t start going off about left-handed discrimination again. No one cares, and you’re not even a southpaw!”

“Ten percent of the population cares!”

“Stop changing the subject!”

Suddenly realizing our voices had risen to an embarrassing level, I glanced around and found more than one table of patrons staring at us. Awesome.

“Nothing to see here, folks,” Simone proclaimed with a winning smile while I hid my face behind my hands. Never a dull moment.

After we finished our meals in companionable silence, I checked my phone for messages and found one new text.

Shane: My dearest evasive Emma, I’m coming over to your place with dinner. 6:30. No arguments.

I couldn’t stop the grin spreading across my face, and for the first time in days, my insecurities fled.

Emma: Fine, steamroller Shane. No arguments.

“Must have been quite the text message,” Simone said knowingly.

“I have a date tonight.”

“It’s about freaking time! Call me after with the details.”

“Um, no. I’ve learned my lesson. You’re only getting generalizations from now on.”

Simone’s mouth turned down in a pout. “Please tell me you’re joking. You can’t cut me off now!”

“Can’t I?”