#Awestruck by Sariah Wilson

A sweet all-American story of love and revenge.

Ambitious intern Ashton Bailey is about to get closer to her dream of being a sports announcer. All she has to do is prove that too-perfect-to-be-true NFL quarterback Evan Dawson isn’t quite as wholesome as his contract requires. It’s also the perfect opportunity to get delicious payback on the boy who broke her teenage heart. At least that’s her plan. But she forgot just how easy it is to crush on the irresistible charmer. #OhNoNotAgain.

Evan has a knack for getting through the opposing team’s defenses, and he won’t let this tall, redheaded knockout be the exception. He’s determined to make things right between them and earn back Ashton’s trust—and maybe her heart, too.

Then the press mistakenly announces their engagement, and Ashton and Evan find themselves going along with the lie. Now the whole world is watching as Ashton flirts with attraction and disaster. But while revenge is sweet, it just might come at the cost of something sweeter still.

AMAZON

Read an Excerpt

“Someone in this room is going to prove that Evan Dawson is not a virgin.”

Even though my boss sounded completely serious, I couldn’t stop my snicker from escaping. This was why she had called an emergency meeting? Who cared? Evan Dawson had done so much worse than possibly lie about whether or not he’d done it.

“Ashton?” Brenda raised one eyebrow at me from behind her black-rimmed glasses. “You have something you wanted to say?”

The gaze of every intern currently working for the Portland, Oregon, branch of ISEN (International Sports and Entertainment Network) landed on me, and I coughed to hide my discomfort at being called out.

I fought the urge to pull down my ponytail and cover my face in a curtain of red hair. “No, I didn’t. Sorry.”

Brenda nodded briefly, satisfied that she’d shut me up so quickly. She was not a woman anyone crossed, for any reason. There was the minor fact that her grandfather owned ISEN, her dad was the current CEO, and she was his only child. Someday would all be hers, and she never let us forget it. Her dad had required her to “work her way up,” and among other responsibilities, she was in charge of the intern program for this branch. It was common knowledge that if we played ball and made her happy, we would have the job of our choosing in whatever department we wanted.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’d wanted nothing more than to be the official announcer for the Portland Lumberjacks.

Brenda had the power to make that happen for me.

As long as I played along.

And apparently what she wanted was to discredit Evan “Awesome” Dawson, the quarterback for my beloved Jacks and one of the best players in the entire NFL.

Brenda went on. “For years Evan’s been playing up his aw-shucks, boy-next-door, wholesome white-bread routine to sell sports drinks, cars, and anything else that might appeal to flyover states. And I don’t believe him. I think he’s lying, and we’re going to prove it. And our ratings will go through the roof.”

Ah, the ratings. One night after work, Brenda had gone out with us lowly interns and gotten tipsier than she’d probably intended. She’d confided that she was determined to make our ratings skyrocket, forcing her casually sexist grandpa and dad to pay attention to her and what she was capable of. That she was sure if she could break one great story or scandal, they’d finally get over the fact that she was a woman, and she’d get promoted to a vice president position.

It looked like she intended to use Evan to get there.

An image of Evan flashed up on the screen behind Brenda, and I knew why she didn’t believe him. To say he was gorgeous would have been seriously underselling it. Tall, athletic body that looked like it had been carved from a boulder, chiseled jaw, bright-blue eyes, and dark-brown hair. A bank account that bred zeroes. And that all-American smile that still, after all these years, made me a little weak in the ovaries.

The world should have been his own personal sex-musement park . It was definitely hard to buy that one of the most perfect male specimens to ever walk the earth was an actual virgin.

But I knew what a jerk he was underneath that pretty, polished exterior, and I was down for whatever evil plans Brenda had. Especially if meant my getting the chance someday to work with Scooter Buxton, voice of the Jacks.

“Isn’t that his story to tell or not tell?” Talia, the only other female intern, spoke up. “I mean, if he were a woman, this isn’t even a conversation we’d be having. We’d be applauding his commitment to his personal choices, not trying to prove that he must be a liar.”

Much as I was up for destroying Evan Dawson’s life the way he had once ruined mine, Talia might have had a tiny point.

Given that scary look currently brewing on Brenda’s face, she did not agree. “This is the story. Feel free to excuse yourself from pitching if you have such an issue with it.” I wondered whether Talia would be fired at the end of the day or if Brenda would be generous and wait until Friday. Our boss did not enjoy being challenged. “Pitches will start in twenty minutes. I’ll assign the person who can best show me how you’ll get this story. And you know I take care of people who deliver. Get to work!”

It was actually a little unfair how I was about to get assigned to this story and beat out every other intern. There was no conversation as everyone rushed back to their cubicles and started typing on their computers and phones. I did some cursory research on Evan’s stats for the season so far, but there was little else I had to do.

Because I’d gone to high school with Evan Dawson. I knew him. Not biblically, obviously. Because then I could have marched into Brenda’s office and won her approval.

But I’d known him. I’d been head over heels in love with him.

And he’d broken my heart in the most public, most humiliating way imaginable.

I’d hated him ever since.

No one in this room knew him the way that I had.

And no one else had the same kind of connections that I did.

I considered my options in exposing him as a liar. There was the obvious—seduction. Getting him into bed would be proof he wasn’t a virgin. And mildly tempting as that icky idea might have been, if gossip was to be believed, many had tried, but none had been chosen.

It shocked me a little that my mind went there first—considering doing something gross and unethical. But I’d played by the rules once before. I’d lost out on multiple internships while I was still in college to boys who were willing to do whatever it took to succeed. Who would lie, cheat, steal, and basically sell their own mothers if it meant getting the job. I’d tried succeeding on my own merits. It hadn’t worked. Ruthlessness and naked ambition superseded everything else, as one recruiter had told me, saying I wasn’t cut out for sports reporting.

But I had to succeed. It was all my grandma had talked about since I was a kid—how I would reach the highest echelons of success in this industry, something she’d never been able to accomplish. Which couldn’t happen if I didn’t find somewhere willing to take me on.

With ISEN I’d traded on my family name and the charitable organization my grandmother had started. I would have done a lot worse just for a chance. Multiple, constant rejections did that to a girl. Women already had a hard time getting a foot in the door in this industry; now that I had finally made it inside, I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away from me. I would be ruthless. I would be ambitious and driven and do what I had to do to succeed.

But sleeping with Evan was a step too far, even for me. I considered trying to get one of his teammates to rat him out, but the guys on the team would be a dead end. The players would protect their beloved QB at all costs. He had led them to four Super Bowl wins in the last few years, and no one wanted that particular train to be derailed. Although I was willing to take the chance if it meant getting him out of Portland permanently. Our backup QB would be just fine.

Which left the wives and girlfriends (WAGs) of the Jacks. They would know the gossip. They would have heard things they didn’t let get out to the general public. I didn’t know any of the WAGs personally, but I knew someone who did.

I picked up my phone and called my sister on her cell. It rang once before she answered.

“Aubrey Bailey-Price.” Why did she answer that way? Like, she could obviously see it was me calling. Why was she all lawyer all the time?

“Hey, Aubrey. It’s Ashton.”

“I know.” Aha! See? Totally called it. “What do you need?”

“Why do you assume I need something? Can’t I just be calling to say hi?”

She let out a long sigh, and I could just see her pinching the bridge of her nose, as she so often did in conversations with me. “I’m in the middle of something important, so if you could quickly get to why you’re calling me, that would be great.”

“Last year you did some work for Malik Owens. Something you said he and his wife, Nia, owed you for.”

I held my breath, waiting for her response. Aubrey took her attorney-client confidentiality very seriously, and the only reason I knew even that little bit about the Jacks’ defensive end was because she had been a tad bit drunk, and I had pressed her for information.

“How did you . . .” she sputtered, obviously not remembering what she’d told me. “I never would have . . .”

“I don’t know the specifics, and you don’t have to give them to me. But I need your help. I have to find an in with the Jacks. I’ve got to get some intel on one of the players, and the women are my best way in. If they owe you, I need you to call in that favor with Nia and set up a meeting.”

“Which player are you trying to get intel on?”

I hesitated, not knowing which way this would go. Aubrey had been friends with Evan in high school, which was how I had known him. He, along with half the football team and cheerleading squad, had hung out at our house all the time. It was how I had developed such a serious crush on him.

“Evan Dawson.”

“Really?” She sounded both surprised and, worryingly enough, delighted. My whole family knew the saga of Ashton and Evan—how he had shattered my teenage heart and single-handedly destroyed my entire high school experience. Aubrey, for some reason, had always thought that I had overreacted to the whole situation because I’d been, in her words, “so unbelievably young” and that I should have let Evan apologize to me when he’d tried to.

“Yes, really. Are you going to do it or not?”

There was a long pause, and I wondered if she had hung up on me. “What am I supposed to tell Nia?”

Yes! I threw my free hand in the air. Getting Aubrey to even consider it felt like a total win. “Just tell her you have a younger sister who recently graduated with a degree in broadcasting and communications who loves football and wants to get an insider’s peek into the lives of NFL players and their significant others.”

All true. So it technically wasn’t lying.

Another long, quiet pause. “And what’s in it for me?”

“Uh, undying love, adoration, and worship from your younger sister?”

“Rory already adores and worships me.”

“Debatable, since both activities would probably entail holding still for longer than ten seconds.” Our younger sister had the attention span of a gnat on coke. She was like what would happen if a fidget spinner could procreate. “And did you just make a joke?” It was very un-Aubrey-like.

“Possibly.” She sounded pleased with herself, which was good because it meant this was going well.

Until it didn’t.

“Tell you what,” she said. “I have this huge case I’m working on, and I’m in the middle of depositions right now, and it’s taking up all my time. Problem is, I’m also on the planning committee for the upcoming ten-year reunion. If you promise to help me out with the reunion however and whenever I want, I will set something up with Nia Owens.”

It was difficult to know how to respond. I wanted to thank her, get off the phone before more damage was done, and just pay her steep price in order to make this happen.

The other part of me knew how dangerous it was to give Aubrey a blank check like this.

But beggars couldn’t be choosers. “I promise. Whatever you ask me to do to help out with your high school reunion, I will do it.”

“Without question.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, without question, oh mighty master.”

“Excellent. You’ll be hearing from me soon.” We hung up, and I had a serious moment of dread as I tried to imagine what sort of demented Aubrey-dictated nightscape I’d just agreed to.

I began typing up a generic outline and waited at my cubicle for my chance to pitch Brenda.

A head popped up above my shared wall, surprising me. It was my work husband, Rand. Which I’d thought was a stupid name until I found out his actual name was Randolph, and at that point, I no longer blamed him for shortening it.

“What are you going to say?” he asked. Rand was cute, in a metro-lumberjack kind of way. Thick beard, light-brown hair, brown eyes, lots of ironic flannel.

“As if I’d tell you,” I scoffed. We’d been flirting for a few months, but I knew nothing would ever come of it. Because I suspected that he would have slit my throat and walked over my bleeding-out corpse to get ahead at this network. So would every other intern on the floor, so I couldn’t blame him for that, either. “But I am going to win the assignment, just so you know not to waste your time.”

His eyes narrowed at me in wry amusement. “What? You think because you’re young and hot you’ll get chosen? Brenda doesn’t swing that way.”

Thanks to my ridiculously fair skin, I could feel the blush starting at my throat and working its way up to my cheeks. I didn’t really think of myself as hot. I wasn’t a troll or anything—I was tall and had red hair, hazel eyes, and a decent figure, given how often I worked out or played sports. I’d even had a couple of semiserious boyfriends in college. But thanks to Evan and his buddies, in the deepest, most private part of me, I couldn’t see myself as anything other than some ugly, pathetic wannabe.

“It’s because I’m better at my job than you,” I finally managed when the blush died down. Sometimes it felt like Rand flirted with me just because he enjoyed making me flush fifty different shades of red.

“We’ll see,” he said with a wink, going off to pitch his take on Evan’s story.

I waited about half an hour longer, drumming my fingers on my desk. The line outside of Brenda’s office had cleared, and I made my way over to her door.

Which was open, so it wasn’t my fault for eavesdropping. Although it wasn’t really eavesdropping; it was just standing somewhere that the two women inside couldn’t see me and holding really still while listening intently.

“Maybe we can take a different tactic with this story. Honestly, it isn’t that big of a deal if Dawson is a virgin. Lots of people hold off. I mean, there are so many famous celebrities who are waiting or did wait until marriage. Like Lolo Jones, Adriana Lima, Maisy Harrison of Yesterday, or Zoe Covington, Chase’s wife. All that aside, just in the NFL alone you have Tim Tebow, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Manti Te’o, Prince Amukamara—”

Brenda held up her hand, cutting Talia off. She’d done the opposite of what Brenda had asked for. Brenda hadn’t come to praise Evan Dawson but to bury him.

“That isn’t quite what I wanted, but I suppose I can consider it.” My boss’s tone indicated that no consideration whatsoever would be taking place. “Next!”

I avoided making eye contact with Talia as she left the office, not wanting her to see how sorry I felt for her. I went in and sat down in the chair next to Brenda’s desk. She was typing something on her computer and staring at her screen.

Brenda was intimidating not only because of her attitude, her confidence, and the power she held over all of our lives but also because I’d never seen her as anything less than immaculate. Like today—her pale-blonde hair was done up in a tight French twist, her business suit looked custom, and she wore high heels that made me think of stilts. I was always impressed with her ability to balance on her impossibly high shoes. I wondered if she did yoga.

“Wow me, Ashton.”

Her command stopped my bizarre brain tangent. “While I don’t know for sure one way or the other if Evan Dawson is still a virgin, what I can tell you is that he used to be quite the rebel back in high school.”

That made her look away from the computer. “How do you know that?”

“Because I went to high school with him. I know him.” Knew him, to be more accurate. I hadn’t spoken to him in ten years. “He got busted for drinking, partying, shoplifting. If I remember right, he was even part of a group of kids who stole a police car and went for a joyride.”

I had her complete and total attention. “How come I’ve never heard any of this?”

Because my father was an entertainment and sports attorney who the head football coach had retained to keep Evan out of trouble and to keep his records sealed. “Juvenile offenses. But I remember it. So I know that he’s not what he seems. That there’s more going on with this story than what he tells the world.”

She leaned back in her chair. “Very interesting. Almost impressive.”

I had managed to almost impress her! Part of me wanted to keep the streak going and tell her I was the one who had given him the nickname “Awesome” during my freshman year of high school, but people never believed me. They always assumed it was something that had started when he went off to college. I decided to leave that fact out, as it might have made me seem a little desperate.

Which I totally was. “And because I grew up with him, I can get access to him now.” Whether or not that was true didn’t matter, only that I was promising Brenda something no one else would even consider.

Because Evan was notorious for being tight-lipped with the press. He did his NFL-mandated interviews but gave away very little, keeping to one- or two-word answers. He didn’t go on sports shows and generally stayed quiet at press conferences. “I can talk to the people around him, too. Find out the real scoop. Maybe even find some women who will come on the show and say they’ve hooked up with him. And I’m helping my older sister with her ten-year reunion, which is also Evan Dawson’s ten-year reunion. Lots of potential people to interview there, too.”

She nodded, considering my pitch. I needed to seal the deal. “He broke my heart. Publicly humiliated me at school. I’ve been waiting ten years to pay him back. If anyone wants to see Evan Dawson brought down a peg or two, it’s me.”

Brenda smiled at me like I was her new best friend, and it was honestly a little unsettling. Like the way a great white shark might smile at a sea lion she was about to devour whole. “Excellent pitch, Ashton. I’ll let you know.”

It wasn’t quite the response I’d been anticipating. I’d thought for sure she’d tell me right then and there that I had the story. I stood up and walked out of the room, hoping she’d call me back.

She didn’t.

If I didn’t get this assignment, I was going to be super pissed. Mostly because I had promised to become Aubrey’s reunion beck-and-call girl, and that would not be fun.

And because no one else was as personally invested as I was. No one else wanted to see Evan Dawson pushed off his pedestal as much as I did.

“Didn’t go as well as you thought?” Rand asked as I flopped down into my office chair.

“It went just fine,” I told him through clenched teeth. Now was not the time to poke the bear. There might be teeth, claws, and blood in response.

He didn’t get the message. “Too bad. The Winnowing is coming, and I bet this would have helped you get hired on to an actual paying position.”

As Rand kept talking about how he was sure his own job was secure, I realized I’d been so focused on what I could do to ruin Evan that I hadn’t even thought about the Winnowing. Brenda talked about the Winnowing often—she hired a lot of interns and a year later gave only about a quarter of them a job. It was an effective scare tactic to keep us all in line and doing whatever she asked.

Our year was nearly up. We’d been hired in January, and it was November.

I had to stay here. I had to become an announcer for ISEN. It had been my dream my entire life.

“May I have your attention?” Brenda stood on a low coffee table just outside her office. “I wanted to thank everyone for their pitches, but I’ve selected the intern who will break this story wide open for us.”

The interns from the outer cubicles came forward, all eager to hear her announcement. I’d been so cocky about getting the assignment, it just occurred to me that despite my history with Evan, I realistically had a one-in-thirty chance.

My heart leaped up in my throat, making it impossible to breathe.

Rand waggled his eyebrows at me, as if to say the story was his, and I couldn’t even give him a good sarcastic retort since my nerves and displaced heart were threatening to suffocate me.

“The intern I’ve selected is . . . Ashton Bailey!”

Relief washed over me, and there were some mumblings and halfhearted claps in response to Brenda’s announcement.

I’d done it. I’d won.

It was the first step to making all my dreams come true.

“Ashton, can I see you in my office?”

I nodded and hurried forward. I sat back down in the seat I’d recently vacated.

“I want this to be your first priority. Spend your days getting this story. You don’t need to physically be here every day while you’re working on this. Come into the office once a week to check in with me, and send me an email every time you get new information. All of your other responsibilities are suspended. I’ll have the other interns pick up your slack.” Oh, they would love that. “You probably won’t be keeping normal business hours while you investigate, but anything you need to do in order to uncover the truth about Evan Dawson, I want you to do it. Got it?” Brenda’s voice was strong and determined. And strangely invested in getting the result she wanted.

“Got it,” I said. She was offering me a lot of freedom. Which I planned on taking full advantage of.

When I got to my cubicle, I should have been a good sport about winning, but I couldn’t keep the grin off my face.

“Huh. Maybe I was wrong about Brenda’s preferences,” Rand remarked.

“Stereotypical man. A woman turns you down, she must be gay. I already told you, I’m better at this than you. When are you going to learn that I’m always right?”

He smiled at me, showing that despite our teasing, he didn’t hold a grudge. He’d still take every advantage, but that was just how things worked on this floor.

Despite my bragging to Rand that I was always right, there was something I’d been wrong about.

Apparently Brenda wanted Evan Dawson off that pedestal every bit as much as I did.

It made me wonder why.