The Gifted Groom

Texas Titan Romances

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Max Moore is known as the most gifted of the Texas Titan Triplets. Having refused to sign with the Titans unless they brought on his triplet brothers, Miles and Mason, Max expected to have a few more years with his brothers to raise their 15-year-old twin sisters.

Max’s job is to protect the quarterback from his blindside, but Max is unable to protect himself from being blindsided when his brothers are traded and cut from the team. When a striking woman purchases a date with him at a benefit auction, he knows his life is about to change.

Rosemary White, a columnist with the popular sports’ tabloid The Daily Sun, is given the assignment to purchase a date with the strapping NFL football star Maximillian Moore with the anticipation of uncovering his dark secrets in a sensational exposé. She needs her job to keep her family from losing their home, but when she finds herself falling in love with the handsome football player, her obligations to her family and employer are put to the test. Will she write the family secrets she’s uncovered, or will she choose to trust that Max’s love will protect her own heart from being blindsided?


Excerpt

Chapter 1

“Max Moore,” said Rosemary, her fingers resting on the black keys of her keyboard. The guy’s photo took up her entire computer monitor. The NFL football player was the size of the Hulk. Were girls really attracted to that?

If she looked past his bulk, he wasn’t all bad. She leaned in on her elbow and rested her chin on the palm of her hand as she examined his face. In most of the photographs she’d scrolled through over the past half hour, he had a plastic smile on his face, but there was one photo she kept coming back to—an action shot where he was plowing through two of the other team’s defenders with a competitive smile that said, “Try to get past me to sack the quarterback and see what happens.”

In his photos off the field, his red hair was cut just long enough for soft curls to form, and his green eyes weren’t hideous. She’d imagined him as a troll of sorts when she’d first been given the assignment to write a piece on him. She couldn’t deny that his face was handsome, but there had to be something menacing in that beautiful head of his that she could write about. Everyone had a dark side, especially pro athletes. She had to find and exploit that corrupted part of him for her article to make it past her editor.

Rosemary had always dated the artsy type—the guy who played the guitar at lunch or starred in the high school play. She’d never spent more than two minutes in conversation with a guy on the football team during high school or college. How did her editor expect her to write a compelling tabloid about this guy when Rosemary had never even spoken to a conceited jock like him before?

“Why didn’t Ginger ask me to write about Maximillian Moore?” Cassie asked with a sultry whistle as she glided to a stop behind Rosemary’s office chair. “I have all his stats memorized.”

Rosemary twisted her swivel office chair around to face Cassie. “Maybe because you’re infatuated with the man and could never write an honest piece about him.” Cassie was thirty-four, ten years older than Rosemary, but the age gap didn’t stop them from being good friends. “Trade me for the article on the Olympic Committee corruption, and it’s yours.”

“You can’t trade articles!” Ginger screamed from her glass-enclosed office.

“How did she hear us?” whispered Cassie.

“I hear everything. George, get in here. Something amazing just landed in our laps.”

Rosemary, known to her readers as George Eliot, stood from her desk in the center of the open office and shook off her nerves. Goose bumps tingled up her back with anticipation. This could be the life-altering assignment she’d been waiting for. This could open new doors for her with other publications. Being a reporter for one of the top sports and celebrity gossip magazines in the nation didn’t give Rosemary the opportunity to moisten her chops with riveting political strife. She’d chosen a career in journalism based on her desire to be an advocate for the underdog. For now, she was the dog at the bottom of the pile, but at least the dog pile paid well—and right now, money was what she needed.

“Georgie, Georgie, wait till you hear this,” Ginger said in her New York accent, flicking her red pen in the air with a devious twinkle in her eye. Ginger’s white hair, vibrant with streaks of midnight blue, lightly brushed her shoulders as she paced behind her desk.

Rosemary hated being called Georgie, but she didn’t dare tell her editor that. She’d seen what happened to young columnists who upset Ginger, and it wasn’t pretty. Rosemary needed this job to keep her family from losing their home in the posh University Park neighborhood she’d grown up in.

Keeping up the appearance of affluence wasn’t easy. Nearly all of Rosemary’s current income went to sustaining the Whites’ lifestyle, but it still wasn’t enough. If they didn’t come up with fifty grand within the next three months, they’d lose their home—the only home Rosemary had ever known.

Ginger pointed her pen at Rosemary. “I found a way to get an exclusive on the Moore dynasty—or shall we say, the mysterious death of the Moores?”

Rosemary sat in the furry white chair in front of Ginger’s glass-topped chrome desk and waited. She knew well enough to simply sit and listen until Ginger finished speaking. With every ticking second, the air in the room grew heavier. Rosemary’s heart sped with the anticipation of getting that big assignment, the one that would yank her out of obscurity.

Ginger stopped pacing, slapped her palms down on her desk, and leaned over as if she were about to do a few push-ups off her desk. She narrowed her eyes at Rosemary. “We just received approval for the funds, and your name has been added as a signer for the charity arm of our company. You’re going to buy a date with Max Moore at the annual Titans benefit auction tonight.”

Rosemary gasped. This wasn’t the break she was hoping for; this was a nightmare. She swallowed down the rising lump in her throat and scrunched her nose in disgust. “I am?”

“No objections. You’re the prettiest of my columnists, and you have a sharp mind. You’ll write the article. We have a chance here to become the number-one-read sports tabloid in the nation. If you give me what I want, George, I’ll promote you to associate editor.”

Rosemary nearly leapt out of her seat and did a happy dance. As associate editor, her income would double. If Rosemary believed in a higher power the way Cassie and the other ninety-nine percent of Texans did, she would have shouted Amen! Instead, she clapped her hands and jumped up. “I’d better get ready. What do I wear?”

“Think pretty, unintelligent reality television socialite. The opposite of George Eliot. You’re going as Rose White tonight, the intoxicatingly beautiful, flighty rich girl.”

It stung to hear her given name used so perversely, but she didn’t correct Ginger. Her full given name was Rosemary Anne Evans White: Rose after her maternal grandmother, and Mary Anne Evans after the British Victorian writer and social reformer.

Her parents had told her that a name could shape her destiny, as it did with Martin Luther King Jr., the greatest social reformer of the last century. After a tour of Germany in 1934, where Michael King Sr. learned about the great religious reformer, Martin Luther, Michael King Sr. changed his name and his son’s from Michael King to Martin Luther King, after the German reformer.

Her mother had hoped that if she named her daughter after a social reformer who helped the progress of women in Great Britain with her literary works, Rosemary would become a voice for reform as well.

Rosemary’s altruistic and academic upbringing clashed with the thought of hanging off a football player’s arm like a trophy. Her stomach churned. “Is it okay if I vomit?”

“You’ll be playing the insecure, materialistic, oblivious debutante—of course you’ll purge, but save that for the date itself. I don’t want you leaving the room tonight until the bidding has concluded with you holding that golden ticket in your hand.”

As much as she hated the idea of acting like a ditzy YouTube celebrity, she couldn’t allow her feelings to prevent her from an opportunity that would catapult her career. With this promotion, she’d be one step closer to changing the world and paying off her parents’ debt. “Wait.” Rosemary raised her arm and wrinkled her forehead, thinking back on what Ginger had said. “You said on a date?”

“Yes. You’ll be bidding on Max Moore tonight for a date. You’ll win the bid, then you’ll interview him on the date.” Ginger walked around her desk and positioned herself directly in front of Rosemary. “If you don’t get the information you need to write the article on the first date, I’ll expect you to continue to see him until you do.”

Rosemary hadn’t signed up to be an escort. “Why not just pay him for an interview?”

“His family is extremely private.” Ginger sighed. “Do you really think he’ll divulge the nitty-gritty information we need in a contracted interview? Reporters can barely get three words out of the guy.” She arched her right brow. “But he might open up to his pretty girlfriend.”

“Whoa.” Rosemary waved her hands in front of her chest. “Too intimate. I’ll never be able to pull that one off. I don’t think I’d be able to convince anyone that I like Max Moore.”

Ginger wove her fingers together and leaned down to Rosemary’s ear. As Ginger’s hair tickled the side of Rosemary’s face, Rosemary could almost taste fresh lemonade as she breathed in Ginger’s fresh citrus scent.

Ginger’s voice was soft and slow. “We need this article, or we’ll all be replaced.” She sat up and glanced over at Cassie. “All of us. You can do this, George. To hide your distaste for the man, play up the good Christian girl bit. According to everything I’ve read about Max, he’s an honorable Christian boy.”

“But I wasn’t raised to be religious.”

“Neither was I,” Ginger said. “But do you think I shout that to the hills in this town?” She rested her hand on Rosemary’s shoulder. “I have full confidence in you, Georgie. Now go do some serious undercover investigating.”

Chapter 2

Max looked into the gold-framed mirror in the men’s bathroom, adjusting his black tie. It was the fanciest bathroom he’d ever been in, with marble walls and stone sinks. He stared at his reflection with suspicion. The money had come so fast that it still didn’t seem real. Admittedly, this bathroom sure beat the locker rooms he’d grown up in, and it smelled a heck of a lot better, like his sisters after they emerged from the lotion store at the mall. He stepped back, pulling at the bottom of his tux jacket to make it more comfortable.

He would be mingling with the rich and eccentric in a few minutes. He ran cold water over his hands and laughed to combat his rising anxiety. He was now richer than most of the people at the auction tonight—not bad for a snot-nosed child who hadn’t had enough money to buy a cold treat from the ice cream truck when he was a kid.

One thing calmed his nerves: knowing that his brothers would be at his side tonight. They were told they’d be auctioned off separately, but to hype up the crowd and get top dollar, they’d all be up on the stage together until their bidding concluded.

Max ran his wet fingers through his hair, taming his obnoxious curls. As his hair dampened, it darkened to rusty red. “How much will you go for tonight, Maximillian Moore?” he asked his reflection.

The bathroom’s frosted glass door swung open. Paul Nestle strolled in with a smile tugging at the corners of his thin lips. “I’m guessing they’ll pay a pretty penny for one of the highest-paid players in the NFL with one of the brightest futures I’ve ever seen.”

“Hey, Paul,” said Max, looking down at his agent. At six foot five, Max looked down at everyone other than his triplet brothers and his football buddies.

Thinking about brothers caused a pit to form in his stomach. He hadn’t seen them yet at the Rosecrest mansion, and the bidding was supposed to start in less than half an hour.

“Have you seen Miles or Mason?” asked Max.

Paul released a sigh. “I called you earlier and also left a text message for you to call me.”

“You know I don’t look at my phone on my days off.”

Paul squinted as if the comment stung. “I got word this morning that the team cancelled your brothers’ participation in the auction late yesterday afternoon.”

“The bidding starts in less than half an hour! I agreed to this with the understanding that we’d be auctioned off together as the Texas Titan Triplets,” said Max. The muscles in his jaw clenched, preventing him from releasing the expletives on the tip of his tongue. He opened his mouth wide and moved it from side to side to stretch out the charley horse in his lower jaw. “How could you allow this to happen, Paul? You’re our agent. You know we brothers stick together.” Max had refused to sign with the Titans unless they signed his brothers as well. They came as a package deal.

“I apologize, Max. Some things are out of my control.”

“I’m gonna need a minute,” said Max, pressing his hands into the beveled edge of the stone sink. Good thing the sink was made of stone, or it might have cracked. He had a habit of grasping things too tight and turning them to dust. His hand and arm muscles had been sculpted and trained to grip his opponents with enough force to hold firm and push the three-hundred-pound defensive linemen back to where they’d come from.

Paul quietly left the bathroom with a nod.

Max was angrier than a cornered feral hog, but he wasn’t sure who to be upset with. He pulled his phone out and dialed Miles, his identical twin.

His brother answered on the first ring. “Sorry, man. I didn’t want to upset you before the auction. I was going to tell you after.”

“And you didn’t think I’d notice that we weren’t all standing up there together being auctioned off to the highest bidder?”

Miles paused before answering. “Hadn’t thought of that.”

“Hold on while I bring Mason into the call,” said Max, tapping his screen to bring their fraternal triplet into the conference call.

“Sorry, Max,” Mason answered in his deep baritone voice. Although slightly smaller than Max and Miles in stature, Mason’s voice was much deeper than his triplet brothers’. “I didn’t know how to tell you I’d been sacked.”

“Sacked!” Max shouted. The Titans had resisted bringing Mason on at all. While he was a tough football player, he wasn’t one of the top players in the league, and they all knew his last day would most likely come first. “I only heard you weren’t being auctioned off. Miles, were you cut as well?” Max turned for the door.

“No, man,” Miles said in a voice of apology. “I got traded to the Georgia Patriots as left tackle.”

Max played left tackle for the Titans. All three were offensive linemen, but Max’s position as left tackle held greater weight because his job was to protect the quarterback’s blind side. Max was one of the most coveted left tackles in the NFL. He’d signed a five-year, seventy-five-million-dollar contract. At fifteen million dollars a year, he’d earned twice what his brothers had the past year.

In less than a minute, Max’s anger cooled to fear, the same haunting fear he’d felt when he’d been told his parents had died. The idea of being separated from Miles, his identical twin, drove a stake through his heart. They hadn’t been apart for more than a day in their twenty-five years of life.

Max had no idea how he would navigate life without his other half. Miles was identical to Max in every way—looks, personality, and intelligence. They weren’t only best friends; they were basically the same person. He’d be losing a part of his own identity when Miles left.

He strode through the lobby with his phone to his ear, passing dozens of smiling women whose high heels clicked against the red-tiled floor. He nodded and returned their smiles as he skirted along the edge of the Tuscan-inspired room with Roman arches in every doorway and hues of cream and mustard warming the walls.

Beams of light shot across the room as if a strobe light had hit a mirror disco ball, causing Max to wince and his pupils to constrict. He blinked at the blinding light reflecting off the bling of the women’s jewelry while they stood to have their pictures taken. Most of the press was required to remain outside, but a handful of news reporters had been allowed to occupy one small corner inside the mansion.

An attractive bronzed woman with puffed-out hair stepped in front of Max. Judging by her facial expression, she wanted to leave the party more than he did. Ryder, a teammate Max would be sharing the bidding block with in less than twenty minutes, placed his arm protectively around the stunning dark woman.

Max fell in step behind them, hoping they’d shield him from the hungry stares of the starstruck women in the room. He also wanted to hide how he so rudely talked on the phone when he should have been schmoozing the wealthy women in the room.

“Mason and me both got the call this morning,” said Miles. “We were gonna tell you tonight over hot wings.” Miles said it as if hot wings would heal the flesh wound in Max’s chest.

“What about the girls?” asked Max. He held his breath as he wove his way through the crowd of high-society women who’d drenched themselves in expensive perfume. Max hadn’t smelled anything like it since his sisters had begged him to accompany them into the Parisian perfume stores last spring. He and his brothers shared custody of their sisters. Max had bought a home for them to all live in so they could share the responsibilities. “How are they going to handle you leaving? This is going to upset them.”

“At fifteen, they’re not exactly babies,” said Miles. “They’re planning on coming home early from math tutoring to have hot wings with us so we can discuss it.”

“Why would they need math tutoring?” asked Max.

Mason laughed. “They don’t. They’re tutoring a guy who needs assistance with his college calculus class. Your comment exemplifies how disconnected you are.”

“You left them alone with a college guy?” Max’s protective spikes shot out. “And how am I disconnected?” A warning siren blared in his head. “Wait a minute. Who’s all moving to Atlanta?”

Miles paused for a few seconds. “They want a fresh start, Max.”

Max hated asking, but he needed to know. “Who, Miles?” he demanded.

“All of us. Me, Miles, Mazy, and Millie,” Mason answered in a soft voice.

Why would they all leave me? Max stumbled, catching himself against the textured wall with his left hand.

A thin blonde woman in a gray sequined dress approached him. The woman lowered her tablet to her side and touched his arm. “Mr. Moore? Are you okay?”

If having his entrails ripped out of his center like a gladiator being gutted by a hungry lion on the wooden floor of the Colosseum was okay, then he was golden. “I’m good,” he said, shifting his brain into game mode. Football was ninety percent mental, and he’d learned how to shield out the world to focus on the next play and his dangerous opponent—something he’d become a pro at after his parents died when he was ten. He’d gained solace from channeling his complete mental power and physical energy into football.

“Your teammates have all been seated.” The pretty blonde in the sequined dress motioned down the hall to the open banquet doors. “Can I show you to your table, Mr. Moore?”

“Please, call me Max.”

“Max,” she said with a slight curtsy.

Max stifled a laugh. No one had ever curtsied for him before.

The woman raised her tablet in front of her face and tapped the screen with a thin black stylus. “I have you checked in. If you could please follow me, I’ll show you to the players’ seats at the front of the banquet hall.”

He followed behind the woman, taking one step for her every three. By the time they’d reached the long table at the front of the room, the salads had already been served. He subconsciously wrinkled his nose at the apples and grapes that dotted the salad plates. He didn’t like sweet fruity salads. He’d wait to eat until they served the prime rib entrée.

His teammates—Ryder, Dax, Chas, and Brad—all welcomed him to the table with fist bumps. Max sat in the last chair at the far end of the table. He grumbled under his breath about the other two chairs that should’ve been there for his brothers—their chairs would soon be vacant at home as well. He pushed his salad plate to the edge of the table and took a swig of his ice water. He bit down on the crushed ice, welcoming the numbing sensation as he ground the crunchy shards between his back molars.

His teammates at the center of the table spoke in lively voices, motioning to Ryder’s date. She was seated at one of the many round tables of bidding women, waiting to have a chance to bid on the players. Suddenly, she stood and strode with purpose toward the exit. Without hesitation, Ryder jumped up and crossed the room, following his date out the side doors. Gasps erupted around the room.

The Titans were now down to four of the original seven players to be auctioned off, but Max overheard one of his buddies mention that Ryder would personally double the highest bid of the evening. Smart man. Why hadn’t Max thought of that to get himself out this? Max knew the auction was for a good cause, although he couldn’t think of its purpose just then.

Max seldom turned down an invitation to participate in a charity function, which meant he was at a benefit at least once a month. Last year, he’d donated almost half his income to charities, but this benefit required him to go on a date with a stranger—someone who was willing to purchase him for the evening. He didn’t like the idea of having to spend an entire evening with a rich snob.

Max couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in such a sour mood. When the server placed the plate of salmon, prime rib, mashed potatoes, and some fancy shredded vegetables in front of him, he said a gruff thank-you and began eating without glancing up from the table. The prime rib coated his mouth like butter. If he could just focus on his food, he’d be all right.

“Dude, you okay?” asked his buddy Dax.

“I’m good, man. Thanks,” answered Max. He surfaced for a minute and took in all the excitement around him, from the women in their finest satin gowns chatting with enthusiasm to the bustle of the waitstaff dressed in starchy white shirts and black aprons, zigzagging around the room with pitchers of water.

“Wish your brothers were here,” said Chas. “They would’ve showed us all up.”

“Yeah,” said Max, returning to his food. He was grateful for what his buddies were trying to do, and it usually helped. But not today. He couldn’t imagine anything bringing him out of his funk today.

Fifteen minutes later, the lights dimmed, and peppy music filtered through the stage’s speakers. The voice of a familiar actress rang through the room. Max snapped his fingers when her name came to him: Scarlett Lily. He glanced up at the stage, where the popular redheaded actress strode across the floor in smooth, sultry steps, showing off her toned thighs and million-dollar face. She was gorgeous, but it most likely cost her that much to get her body and face to look like that. Max wasn’t into the Botox, silicone-augmented, butterfly lash craze.

He needed to curb his negativity. While he allowed himself to be upset for a few hours when things got him down, he never allowed his thoughts to be that cruel or judgmental. He’d heard that Scarlett Lily was a kind person. He couldn’t judge her for having some work done. The fact that she’d had plastic surgery didn’t make her any less of a person.

Max lowered his eyes to his plate. If he didn’t look at anyone, then maybe he wouldn’t project his negative thoughts to others or have them see how upset he was. One of his teammates was called up to be auctioned off, and then another. He couldn’t seem to get his head back in the game, or at least not in the bidding game happening around him.

When Scarlett Lily called Max’s name, he pushed his anger aside and stood, smiling at the women who filled the round tables of the banquet hall. He would make this play as if he were out on that field right now. It was time to compartmentalize his grief and not allow his legs to get taken out from under him. Nothing was taking him down. It was time to charm the ladies.