Author's Notes-This story exists solely for the reason that it is a milestone birthday for one of my favorite people— in or out of this fandom—the wonderfully sassy, unapologetically snarky, fabulous Famousfremus. Darling, this started out as the historical love story you thought you were getting, and when that got out of hand (stop laughing), you got sports-themed Everlark that got out of hand, too. I hope your day is filled with tight ends and touchdowns…if you know what I mean. ILY!

FYI the Giants were chosen for the birthday girl, since they are her favorite team, and I used Cincinnati because, well, Josh is a Reds fan, and thus maybe he's a Bengals fan too.

And as always, iLoVeRynMar and Streetlightlove, you are my lifelines. Thank you for your feedback and your guidance on this. And Pookieh, thank you for your expert eyes and your comments. ILY all, ladies.

THG belongs to Suzanne Collins, and the athletes' names..uh...belong to them/

"Anything else I can get for you, Katniss?"

She puts down her cell phone, content to let the rest of her email go unread until after she can enjoy the meal the bartender has just placed down in front of her. Appraising her nearly empty pint glass, she motions towards it with a smile.

"I'll take another Sam Summer, Darius. Thanks."

The red-headed bartender winks at her and grabs a clean, frosted glass from below the bar, and once it's filled with the pale amber brew, he slides it across to her. She drains the last few drops of the first beer, and he clears it away before moving down the bar to tend to two older men.

She exhales with pleasure as she finishes chewing her first bite of the cheeseburger. Being that this is the first time she's really sat down all day—her breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee and a stale Danish, and her lunch had been nonexistent—she'll make no apologies for the massive burger and mound of fries on her plate.

"Got a bit of sun today, huh?" Darius asks as he appears in front of her.

Instinctively, she reaches to the bridge of her nose, which is indeed a little sensitive to the touch, and she gives him a wry smile. "One of the hazards of the job this time of year, I guess."

Darius laughs lightly. "I'd take the sidelines on a beautiful summer day over a dark bar anytime."

She shakes her head, dredging a fry through the lake of ketchup pooled on the plate. "92 degrees with 100 percent humidity is not a beautiful day. I literally sweated right through my blouse. It was practically a wet t-shirt contest out there."

"And every last one of those football players noticed, trust me."

"I doubt it. I wasn't anywhere near them today. They don't talk to the media until Thursday. I was there solely to report back to the station. I'll get access to the coaches tomorrow."

As a sideline reporter for ESPN, she spends the better part of the month of August watching the team to which she's assigned run their practices and get ready for the upcoming NFL season. For the past two years, it's been the New York Giants.

So far, it's been pretty routine. Things will intensify when the actual preseason games begin.

She continues to eat, eyes trained on the television above the bar, where one television is tuned to the NBC Nightly News, and three others are tuned to the various ESPN Networks.

"Luck's the one you want to take for quarterback."

"You wouldn't take Griffin?"

Her finely tuned ears pick up on the thread of conversation to her left, and she cuts her eyes just enough to see two blond men gazing up at the television in the upper right hand corner where two talking heads—both arrogant douchebags from the little Katniss knows of them personally—are vehemently debating about the state of the AFC West with Peyton Manning coming to Denver.

She smirks to herself, puts down her burger, and licks the excess ketchup off the corner of her mouth before clearing her throat. "I'd take Russell Wilson over either Luck or RGIII in a heartbeat. You ask me, he's going to wind up being the steal of that draft class."

The men turn and stare at Katniss, and then exchange a look with each other. When the one seated next to her glances back at her, she can't help but be drawn right to the hypnotic hue of his intense blue eyes. She's never seen eyes so mesmerizing in person. He looks strangely familiar.

But the other guy sizes her up suspiciously, and then a smile lifts one corner of his mouth. "You really know your football, or are you just repeating something you overheard your boyfriend discussing with his friends one night while you were busy watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or some shit like that? Who does Russell Wilson even play for?"

She narrows her eyes at the bulkier guy, who has managed to piss her off with that one statement. "I don't have a boyfriend," she retorts, leaning forward a little, putting her closer to the handsome, blue-eyed stranger beside her, "but if I did, I'm sure he'd be more than impressed with my knowledge of sports. Sorry to interrupt your little fantasy football scouting date, or whatever it is that you two are doing. I was just making polite conversation." She pauses. "Oh, and Wilson plays for the Seahawks."

She almost adds a 'fuck' and a 'you.' But the stunned expression on the hulking guy's face is enough.

As she turns back to her food, she startles when she feels a warm hand on her forearm.

"Are you really touching me?" she snaps, and the attractive blond recoils. Their eyes lock again, and as she discreetly studies his features, she notes a definite familiarity in them. Has she met him before somewhere? Wouldn't she have automatically remembered someone this good looking, though? She feels a little bad for being so bitchy, but really, who touches a stranger in a bar when it hasn't been preceded by heavy flirting—which this has most certainly not.

"Ah…yeah. Sorry, I just wanted to get your attention."

She signals Darius for the check and gives the guy an icy look. "You could have had my attention, but your friend had to go and be an asshole so you should thank him for that."

He huffs, and aims a glare at his companion. "Yeah, he does that a lot."

Pulling out the corporate AmEx card she uses for expenses, she passes the bill back to Darius. "Yeah, well I get guys like him patronizing me all the time in my line of work, so I'm used to it."

"And what would that line of work be?"

She scrawls her signature across the bottom of the receipt, adding a generous tip for Darius. "Let's just say I'm in the business, and we'll leave it at that."

As she says good-bye to Darius and exits the bar, she's aware of the blue eyes following her, and she briefly laments that with slightly different circumstances, she might have been persuaded to stay around and have a drink with him, minus his douchebag friend, of course. It would have been nice spending time getting to know the hot guy better. It's been a long time since she went out on a date, given how busy her job keeps her. Oh well.

But the entire drive back to her apartment, it nags at her why he looked so familiar.

She makes sure to apply extra sunscreen to her face the next morning before she arrives at the Timex Performance Center where the Giants have their training camp. It's another brutally hot day, and she prays the sleeveless silk halter blouse that she's paired with lightweight cotton trouser pants isn't a damp mess by mid-morning. At least this one won't be see-through if it gets saturated with sweat.

Within ten minutes, she learns it was a bad idea to even attempt to wear her hair down in loose waves. She fumbles through her messenger bag for an elastic, and her fingers quickly weave the thick tresses into a thick braid. She'll have to slip inside to restyle before she has to go on camera around noon, but it's not worth fighting with the humidity for the next four hours.

She alternates making notes on her iPad and jotting down things in her notebook—she eschews recording devices like some of her colleagues prefer to use—to gather the necessary information for today's report, choosing to spend the first hour of practice observing the running backs, including two rookies.

Then she shifts her attention to where Eli Manning is lobbing passes down the field. Three other well-built guys stand with him, and Katniss knows one is his backup for the last few seasons, David Carr. She taps her iPad to bring up the roster notes that the team had sent her last week and scans for the little QB icon to determine who the remaining two are.

She frowns when her eyes scan the first name.

#12. QB-Peeta Mellark.

Why does she know that name?

She shields her eyes from the glare of the sun and tries to focus on the muscular guy in the practice jersey bearing the '12' on the back. He's wearing his helmet, so she can't get a good look at his face, but what she can see of his physique is nothing short of perfection. The sleeves of the jersey are cropped, showing off his toned biceps, and his broad chest and back taper to a narrow waist.

When her gaze moves lower, however, she has to swallow at the sight of the snug, sleek spandex stretched across his ass like a second skin.

Get it together, Everdeen. They're all wearing tight pants. What makes his ass so special?

She's always been acutely aware that in her job, she's going to be around physically fit, very attractive men on a daily basis. And some are hotter than others, but remaining professional is what has gotten her as far as she's come already since graduating with her journalism degree just two years ago. So she operates under a strict, 'look, but don't touch' policy.

She's also used to the leers and the slow, predatory glances up and down her body; she's been hit on more times than she can count, and a few players have even asked her out—including several that she knows are married or with serious girlfriends. It's times like that where her 'no dating the athletes' policy comes in handy. Some of them are real dicks.

Averting her eyes from Peeta Mellark's impeccable body, she taps his name on the screen to bring up his stats, and she's dismayed when it alerts her: 'No Picture Available.'

But when she begins to read, recognition washes over her in waves. Now she remembers.

Peeta Mellark was supposed to be the next Peyton Manning. Year after year, the experts all had him going number one in the draft, and more than one joked that he'd be worth tanking a season over. But he stayed in school at Alabama all four years, insisting that his education was as important to him as a future in the NFL.

And then in the second to last game of his senior year, with their bowl bid already secured and an outside shot at the national title game, a late, vicious hit sent him to the ground, howling in pain. She recalls watching the gruesome injury occur and nearly vomiting at the sight of the white bone protruding grotesquely through his shin.

It had effectively ended his college career.

He had not been drafted.

Instead, he had undergone major reconstructive surgery, and a metal rod had been inserted in his tibia while his shattered leg bone healed.

That was two years ago.

And here he is again.

Her heart thumps. It's a hell of a story.

It's her story…if she can get Peeta Mellark to sit down with her.

And why wouldn't he? Everyone loves a comeback. He'd do a huge favor for his own cause to get his name back out there.

From what she's seen so far this morning, Peeta's arm hasn't suffered at all during his hiatus. His passes are crisp and on target, tight spirals and sailing arcs looking equally effortless leaving his hands.

In New York, he's only competing for a backup job, as Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings and doesn't appear to be losing his starting position any time soon. But perhaps that's exactly what appeals to him, easing his way back in to the sport.

She scribbles the questions furiously as they pile up, and her hand is still moving across the paper, and she's so engrossed in the task that she only becomes aware of the shadow falling across the page when a smooth voice announces, "So what do you think? Should Luck or Griffin or Russell Wilson be worried yet?"

Startled, she drops her notebook, and the pencil tumbles from her hand, too, when she looks up and meets those enchanting blue eyes from the sports bar last night. And then her eyes flit to the number boldly displayed across his chest—'12.'

Peeta Mellark stands before her.

He reaches down at the same time she does to retrieve the notebook, and her breath catches in her throat when he gazes at her, smiling, holding both the notebook and her pencil.

"Uh, thanks," she stammers.

"I knew you looked familiar last night in the bar," he says, eyes sparkling. "Katniss Everdeen, right?"

"Ah…yeah...I thought you looked familiar too," she replies, trying to regain her composure. "Peeta Mellark, the pride of the University of Alabama."

Peeta grins sheepishly. "Yeah, for a while. But A.J. McCarron made them forget all about me pretty quickly."

"You looked good out there. Your leg is all healed, then?"

"As good as it's going to ever be, I think." He glances behind him, back at the field, where the offensive coordinator is approaching Eli Manning and the other quarterbacks. "I just had to come and say hi when I saw you standing here. Water break is over." He turns, and automatically her eyes drift down to his rear end, a flurrying rising in her stomach.

"Peeta," she calls, and he stops to face her again. "I, uh, was thinking that you might make a good piece for the network. Like, your attempt at a comeback…If you'd be willing…I mean…" Shit, why can't she manage a coherent sentence? She speaks to a camera for a living, but somehow in the presence of this guy she's a blithering mess?

"We'll talk. I've got to get back or Coughlin's gonna have my ass." He jogs away, and all she can think is how much she'd like to have that ass—but Peeta Mellark is irrevocably off-limits. She doesn't date the athletes she covers.

But it can't stop her from admiring the view from afar.

Goddamn she needs a cold shower.

Because she's not supposed to have direct access to the players until further into camp, as she interviews head coach Tom Coughlin, she casually brings up Peeta Mellark, knowing the notoriously strict coach also has a sympathetic soft side. She shamelessly name-drops Mark Herzlich, and how the team gave him a chance after his battle with cancer, and the success that he's had when he's healthy.

She's pleasantly surprised when the older man gives her the go-ahead to use her credentials to head into the locker room and speak with Peeta to set something up. It's not sacred ground; she's conducted plenty of interviews with players pre- and post-game in there, and she's normally oblivious to the sight of half naked—and sometimes fully nude—men walking around.

But as she flashes her press badge and makes her way down the corridor towards the raucous noise later that afternoon, she's irritated with herself for the nervous anticipation she has at potentially seeing more of Peeta Mellark than she would usually take notice of in an athlete.

Fortunately, most of the players are already clothed when the attendant outside the locker room checks her ID and waves her inside. She gets a chorus of 'heys' and a few waves, and she smiles back politely as she searches for Peeta in the throng of bodies.

She spies his broad, bare back first, and her throat constricts, going dry enough that she forces herself to swallow twice to work up some saliva so she'll be able to talk properly. It's like a wall of golden flesh, but the sinewy muscles in his shoulders are prominent when he lifts his arms to scrub at his damp hair with a towel. Her eyes follow the sensual curve of his spine down to his waist, where a white towel is wrapped around his lower half. Then he twists to the right to talk to the guy beside him while riffling through his locker, and she can just see the cut lines of his pelvic muscle before the white cotton hides the delicious curve of the rest of the pronounced 'v'-shape from her prying eyes.

Between her body's rapidly rising temperature and the residual steam from the showers, the room suddenly feels like it's a thousand degrees.

And then he removes his towel.

She sucks in a sharp breath and valiantly tries to keep her eyes focused on his face, but her curiosity gets the better of her and shamefully her gaze drifts down past that now-visible 'v' to the groomed thatch of golden curls above the flaccid cock hanging between his legs.

Good lord.

She's seen her share of penises doing what she does—all sizes and lengths and colors—and really, she's never given a second look to most of them.

But fuck, Peeta Mellark's dick is a thing of beauty. And it's not even remotely hard at the moment. God, she can only imagine…

She's still staring at it, transfixed, when Peeta raises one leg to step into his boxer-briefs, and soon the tight cotton shorts obscure her ogling and break her trance. She lets her eyes wander up the trail of golden hair to his navel, up his washboard abs, up his sculpted chest to his handsome face, where an easy smile dominates his features as he continues to dress and converse with his prospective teammate. He tugs on a pair of worn jeans that fit his body way too well, but makes no move to put on his shirt yet.

When the guy next to Peeta moves to leave, he finally looks over in her direction, and his expression alters instantly, the smile spreading to a grin. She hesitates for a second before she crosses the open floor to his locker.

"So when you said you wanted to talk, you meant it," he laughs softly, swinging a leg up onto the bench to slip his foot into his Nikes, double-knotting the laces rapidly before switching to his other leg. He finishes with the second set of laces and straightens up, and at the closer distance, she can see the fine smattering of blond hairs on his pecs.

"Oh, well…yeah, I mean…I'm…does this bother you?"

"What?" he asks, one brow arched in what she thinks is amusement.

"Me coming in here, to you, like this," she replies. "I'm used to locker rooms. I'm in here all the time."

"Oh?" The amused look becomes more pronounced.

"It's my job. I go where the interviews are."

"Of course," he nods, the grin still tugging at the corners of his mouth. He grabs a t-shirt from his locker and pulls the simple gray cotton tee over his damp hair, then tousles the wet waves with his fingers.

"So," she begins, fiddling with the strap of her messenger bag, "I am pitching a little feature on you to the network, if it's okay. I think your comeback is a really great story, and—"

"You really want to focus on me?" he interjects, incredulous.

"Yeah," she nods.

"Me?" he asks dubiously. "Not the kind of season Eli is gonna have being back in Peyton's shadow, or if Terrell Thomas can make it a game without tearing something?"

"Oh, those stories will get told too."

"Me? Are you sure? This whole thing is a long shot, and people have pretty much written me off."

"That's what makes it great," she insists, subconsciously taking a step towards him, though the bench still separates them. "But if you're uncomfortable being interviewed…"

"Oh, no not at all." He shoves a few things into his training bag and closes his locker. "I don't mind interviews at all. I enjoy talking, actually."

"So is that a yes?"

Slinging the bag up onto his shoulder, he nods, those damn blue eyes gleaming. "Yes."

She exhales, relieved, and a smile of her own lifts her lips. "Great. Thank you."

He steps around the bench and stops in dangerous proximity to her, so close that she can smell the fresh scent of his soap and something stronger, spicier, like an aftershave or cologne. "You name the time and the place, and I'll be there." He pauses. "You do need to see me somewhere outside here, right? When I was interviewed for pieces in college, they used my parents' house a few times, and my dorm once, and—"

"Whatever makes you most comfortable," she says hastily. "We can secure a neutral location too if that's better."

"No need. My apartment works for me if you're okay with it."

She feels that fluttering migrating to her lower abdomen again and shifts her weight to her other foot. If the thought of being in his apartment has any effect on her, it quiets quickly when she remembers that she'll have a cameraman and a few other crew with her.


Her chin juts up, her name on his lips snapping her from her reverie. "Ah, yeah. Your apartment is fine." She reaches into her bag and produces a small rectangle of cardstock. "My contact information is on there. When you find a day that works for your schedule with camp, you can let me know."

"Tomorrow works," he replies automatically. "After camp. We're done at three." He studies the card in his hand.

"Tomorrow," she echoes.

When Peeta approaches her after camp ends the next day and hands her a small slip of paper with his address on it, she can't contain the gasp that escapes her lips as her jaw unhinges and her heart rate stutters.

"This is your address?"

He nods, breathing heavily, sweat dotting his brow. Tiny rivulets of perspiration wend down his temples, and his cheeks are flushed. "I'm renting for now. Is there a problem?"

She blows out a slow breath and shakes her head. "No, ah…it's just…we live in the same building, that's all."

There's an imperceptible glint in those big blue eyes. "Really? That's convenient."

Her stomach dips. "How so?"

He blinks at her, and she watches the long golden lashes catch the glaring August sunlight. "Because you can just head there, and you don't have to wait around here for me to shower and clean up?"

At the mention of the shower, her lecherous mind instantaneously conjures up the images of him in the locker room yesterday, in all his naked glory. Her overactive imagination supplies the rest, and she squirms thinking about his perfectly toned body standing underneath the steamy spray…his hands moving over the planes of his abs, lathering the skin there before reaching between his legs to soap up his…


Shit. She hadn't even realized that her eyes were closed. That's twice in two days he's caught her. How does Peeta Mellark so easily distract her? Just another athlete…he's just another athlete, off limits, she chants to herself, and she presses her lips together and gives him a wan smile.

"I'm sorry, what?'

He drags his arm across his forehead in a vain attempt to mop up more sweat. "Is an hour good?"

"Oh…yeah. The camera crew and the hair and makeup people were told 5 pm though, so take your time."

"See you then." He grins, and when he turns and jogs off the practice field, she scolds herself for letting her eyes follow his spandex-clad ass. It's so tight that it barely moves with his strides.

Is an hour enough time for that cold shower she desperately needs to take?

She actually doesn't bother with the shower, but she does take a detour back to her own apartment to freshen up before she has to go on camera with him. The hair and makeup department will do most of the dirty work, but after spending six hours in the brutal August sun, she feels her clothes warrant a change.

When reporting on the field or from a venue, she never favors dresses, but for a sit-down interview segment, it can't hurt, so she plucks a sophisticated looking sheath dress in a soft shade of orange from her closet, knowing it will accentuate her darker-than-usual olive skin thanks to the abundance of sun she's soaked up this summer. It also happens to cling to what little curves she has without being slutty.

She gathers her things, takes a deep breath, and heads down the two flights to Peeta's apartment, drawing one more shaky breath before she raps lightly on the door.

"Hey." He grins as he opens the door and motions for her to come inside.

She discreetly checks him out as she steps into his apartment; as he did yesterday, he smells incredible, and his blond waves are neatly styled, his chiseled cheeks and jaw freshly shaved. He certainly looks the part of the All-American quarterback.

He's dressed the part too, looking like he could have stepped off the pages of GQ. He wears a dark charcoal grey button-down shirt and a pair of black trouser pants that look so soft she has the urge to reach out and stroke his thigh.

To her relief, the camera crew has already arrived, and the lighting guys are hard at work setting up. She doesn't really trust herself to be alone with him—not with the wicked thoughts she's having.

"Everdeen, where you gonna want this guy?" one of the grips calls to her.

She sucks in a shallow breath. She can think of a few places where she'd like him. But she furrows her brow and scans the layout of the very neat apartment, and she decides that it will work best if Peeta sits on his couch, and she claims the loveseat perpendicular to it. The crew nods and completes their tasks while the stylist applies makeup to Peeta, then touches up Katniss's.

Just before the cameras start rolling, she reviews the series of questions she has prepared and mentally arranges the direction that she hopes the interview will follow. Her eyes are fixed on her iPad when Peeta coughs quietly to command her attention.

"Can I get you something to drink? A water or something?"

"Oh, no, thank you," she replies. "We're just about ready to get started."

He nods, and she watches him approach the crew, making the same offer, and he disappears momentarily before returning with an armful of bottled waters, setting them on the small dining table with a gracious smile.

"Okay, ready when you are," he says to Katniss, settling himself on the couch.

Her lead-in will be filmed separately, so the interview jumps right in to her first question to him, where she asks him to recount the ghastly injury to his leg, and how he was feeling on that late November day two years ago. She knows ESPN will splice in the requisite stock footage of the incident. She wonders how many times he's had to watch it, or if it he ever stops replaying it in his own mind.

Peeta smiles easily as he smoothly regales her with the details of the broken leg, and she notices that he never focuses on the physical pain that he must have been suffering from.

"And the whole time that I was being wheeled off on the stretcher, hearing that thunderous applause from the crowd…" He shakes his head. "It had been deathly quiet for so long, while I was lying on the field, you know? So to hear them supporting me as I was being taken away, all I could think of was how I was letting them down. I don't like disappointing people."

"You hardly could have prevented a 300-pound defensive end coming right at you, though," she presses. "Breakdowns in offensive lines are not the quarterback's responsibility."

"Quarterbacks get sacked. Things happen quickly," he replies diplomatically. "No one was to blame on that play but me."

"Take me through the days after your surgery. When you were in your hospital bed, recovering, were you thinking about your college career coming to such a sudden end?"

He smiles ruefully. "I wouldn't be human if I didn't feel sorry for myself for a few of those days. But I was one person on a team of 108 other guys. Their season wasn't over yet, and so I spent a lot of time talking with McCarron, who was being thrown in on the last game of the season, and without that win, we would lose our lock on playing in the title game."

Katniss tries not to gape too visibly at the selflessness of the man seated beside her. "So the national title that Alabama eventually won…was it bittersweet to watch from the sidelines?"

"Not at all." He pauses and laughs amiably. "Well, maybe a little. AJ had a great game, and it kind of hit me later that night that my career would have ended with that game either way, at least my college career, but Alabama wasn't going to rely on Peeta Mellark anymore, and it looked like no NFL team was going to need me either. My draft stock plummeted. No one was going to take a chance on a QB with a reconstructed, unproven leg."

She smiles sympathetically and guides him through a series of questions about what he's done in the two years since he left the football field, and he relates how thankful he is that he stayed in school, and has a degree to use if this comeback is indeed the end of the line.

"Are you grateful to the Giants for giving you a chance?"

"Absolutely," he nods. "But I'm also not looking to be a charity case or project. I respect the sport and their organization too much to expect to make the team because I'm a feel-good story. The NFL is a business, and if I'm not the right guy to back-up Eli Manning, well, then I'll be content knowing that I didn't quit and I did everything I could before I walked away for good." He laughs again. "And I can tell my grandkids some day that I threw a pass to Victor Cruz, even if it was only on a practice field in New Jersey."

Her face breaks into a genuine smile of its own. How could America not fall in love with this guy? Peeta Mellark is easily the most charming, authentic, kind man she's ever come across in this industry—possibly in all of her life. She certainly hasn't encountered many like him so far in her career, let alone in her pathetic personal life.

She signals the camera guy that the interview is over; as with her lead-in, the piece will be wrapped up live when she presents it on camera in a few days. The crew cleans up and clears out in record time, and no matter how attractive or charming or sexy Peeta is, or how much she wants to discover if his lips feel as soft as they look, or if his ass is as tight in her hands as it appears in those spandex pants, she has the overwhelming need to escape his apartment swiftly; being alone with him is patently dangerous.

"So I think we're done here," she says, hitching her bag onto her shoulder. "I'll go over the footage with the editing team, and I'll let you know if we need anything else. Thank you very much, Peeta."

Don't look in those big blue eyes. And for the love of god, don't look at his groin. Or his ass. Or…

"Katniss, wait," he says, placing a hand on her wrist to keep her from stepping away "I was thinking…would you like to have dinner with me sometime? Like maybe tonight…like, now?"

He looks at her so earnestly, hopefulness brimming in his eyes, that she has to glance away to summon the nerve to answer. "Um, that's really nice of you, Peeta, but—"

"It's just dinner, Katniss. You haven't eaten, I haven't eaten…it's completely innocent."

"I shouldn't," she says firmly, ignoring the pitch and roll of her stomach as she registers the disappointment flickering on his face. It's tempting. So very tempting, but she knows she can't give in. There's nothing innocent about spending time with him.

"Okay." He smiles wryly. "Well, I tried."

It startles her a little how quickly he backs off. She feels like she needs to explain herself, and she starts, "You're a really, really nice guy, Peeta, but I don't date—"

He cuts her off. "It's okay, Katniss. You don't have to make excuses." He moves towards the door and opens it, leaning against the frame. "I appreciate your time on the story. Thanks."

She feels nauseous as she walks to where he stands, and for a fleeting moment, she thinks about going against all her reasons why she doesn't let herself get involved with professional athletes. It would be so easy to place her hands on either side of that strong jaw and draw his face down to meet her waiting mouth. He has to be an amazing kisser, right?

But instead she lets her leaden feet guide her out the door without another word to Peeta.

Back in her own apartment, she eats two slices of cold pizza before changing into a camisole and a pair of cotton lounge shorts and slumping onto the couch to channel surf.

Her stomach remains unsettled, and it's not from the pizza.

She can't shake that look of disappointment—a wounded expression, almost—that clouded his face briefly before he said goodbye to her. She should have at least explained herself in spite of his protestations. She probably owed him that; instead, she fled like a coward, afraid of letting her hormones and her guarded heart do something rash.

It nags at her that she hurt his feelings until she can't even focus on the television and winds up watching nearly a half hour of some mindless children's show with bizarre, garish colored puppets singing about not biting your friends.

Grabbing a sweatshirt from her bedroom, she zips it up over the flimsy camisole, grabs her keys, and descends the stairs, heart stuttering as she pauses in front of Peeta's door.

It takes several moments before he answers, and when he does, the delicious sight of his bare chest and those cut pelvic muscles greets her, as he wears nothing but a pair of cotton pajama bottoms slung low on his narrow hips.

What was she here for again?

"Katniss," he says quietly. "Did you forget something?"

She bounces lightly on the balls of her feet, gnawing on the inside of her lower lip as she gazes back at him, trying to recollect what it was she wanted to say to him.

"Did you want to come in?" he asks.

As her mind starts to spin with all the possibilities of what exactly could go on if she steps inside his apartment, she remembers.

"I just wanted to apologize," she begins slowly. Apologies—admitting she's wrong—are not something that she gives away freely. She's gotten much better with words being a journalist, but tact remains an issue when her emotions are involved.


"For effectively blowing you off earlier."

His eyes glint, and his upper lip twitches slightly. "I've been turned down before."

She laughs softly. "I find that hard to believe. Look, Peeta, you are a really incredible guy. I can tell that from the little bit of time we've spent together, but—"

"Are you attracted to me, Katniss?"


"Are you attracted to me?" he repeats, resting his upper arm on the doorjamb, the movement causing his pectoral muscles to flex, and it stretches his torso so that he's leaning in to her a bit. The husky tone to his voice floods her with heat. Numbly, she nods.

The twitching of his lips stops as his mouth curls into a smile. "Because I am so attracted to you."

Her heart is pounding now. "Peeta, I…"

"You don't have a boyfriend."

"How do you know that I—"

"I was listening very well the other night at that sports bar. You told my quote 'asshole friend' that you didn't have a boyfriend." One hand reaches out and scratches idly just below his navel, and she can't resist darting a peek at his pants to see if she can't make out the outline of that cock that she can envision so vividly. The thin fabric of the pajama bottoms doesn't hide much, causing her cheeks flame, and she clenches her thighs together.

"So you don't have a boyfriend, and I don't have a girlfriend," he continues. "And therefore, I don't see what the problem is, Katniss, if we are attracted to each other." He takes a step closer, close enough so that she can feel the warmth of his breath and discern the faint smell of peppermint.

"The p-problem is…"

His hand snakes around her neck and gently cups the base of her skull, and he plants the other hand on the small of her back, and she thinks she might forget to breathe as his mouth slants over hers. Her own hands fist at his thick, blond waves as he crushes her to him.

His lips are soft and supple, but firm, as they move against hers, his fingers caressing her neck gently, sending little tremors racing down her spine to fan out along her nerves, curling her toes so that instinctively she rises up on them to allow him to possess her mouth even more wholly. She feels her nipples pucker, and wetness pools between her legs from the overwhelming desire that this one kiss awakens in her.

And then his tongue sweeps across the seam of her lips, and she hears an audible moan escape when she parts them to grant him access. He probes the roof of her mouth, back to the palate, and along both cheeks, exploring every last crevice before meeting her tongue and coiling his around it sensually. Holy shit, the man can kiss.

When he lowers both hands to grip her hips and begins to walk them backwards over the threshold to his apartment, as he does so, it causes his erection to poke at her abdomen, and she gasps and wrenches herself free, releasing a shaky breath as her chest heaves and her legs tremble.

"We can't…I can't…" she stammers, her lips still tingling from the intensity of the kiss.

"You can't what?" he says, his voice raw, and as she swallows, looking into his eyes, the sight of his fat pupils, black with lust, nearly undoes her. Her fingers find purchase on the zipper of her sweatshirt, and she plays with it as she avoids his stare.

"I don't date athletes," she murmurs, "I can't…I just don't."

He brushes his thumb over his lower lip and shakes his head at her. "Don't do this. Please."

"I want to be taken seriously in my field, Peeta," she whispers. "And if I go around throwing myself at every player who hits on me or that I find attractive, no one is going to take me seriously at all. It's tough enough for women in sports journalism."

"How many players have you kissed before tonight, Katniss?"

She glances down at her feet. "You're the first one."

"And how many have you ever wanted to kiss?"

She furrows her brow and a scowl tugs at her lips, sensing that he is fast getting the best of her. "None."

"And that doesn't tell you something? You can't tell me you didn't just feel that…spark…the same thing that I just felt kissing you right now." He tries to reach for her, but she recoils and crosses her arms. "You felt it too, didn't you?"

"Yes, but it doesn't matter. If things were different, maybe."

"Different how?" he challenges. "If I wasn't a football player?"

She bites her lip and looks away again. "Yes," she concurs.

"That's very unfair." She looks up, and the intense look in his eyes chips at her normally steely resolve. Her entire body is alight with anticipation, craving a release, and she wants so desperately to ignore logic and give in to the feelings surging through her.

"We can wait it out," she says quietly. "If you don't make the team, and what you said earlier about walking away, and finding a normal job—"

"Don't, Katniss," he says harshly. "Don't say that. Whether I make the team or not should not change anything. It doesn't change me. I'll be the same person in three weeks when the final cuts are made as I am standing before you right now, and it's completely unfair of you to imply..." He exhales noisily and rakes a hand through his hair. "Forget it. I'll see you around."

She doesn't even get to open her mouth to say good night when he slips inside and shuts the door, leaving her staring at the tiny brass '8' on his apartment door.

Defeated, she trudges back upstairs, shrugs out of her sweatshirt, and crawls into bed.

It takes three times of making herself shatter with her own hand before the tension leaves her body, and she's finally able to fall asleep.

She sees him around, but their paths don't cross directly for the next week. The practices get more intense as the preseason games loom, and Katniss has no good reason for devoting more attention than necessary to Peeta other than her own selfish interest. ESPN expects reports heavy on the Giants' more prominent players.

The first preseason game is on the road, and by the time she checks into her hotel in Pittsburgh Friday night for the game the next evening, she's exhausted, but starving, and she finds a pub close to the hotel, craving a beer and a burger more than sleep.

She orders her usual Sam Summer but is pleasantly surprised when the pub has already gotten Oktoberfest, her favorite, on tap, and she closes her eyes in bliss at the first sip.

The restaurant is quiet for a Friday evening, but it is August and there are really no sports on to draw patrons save for a few baseball games and the Little League World Series. People are probably home, grilling and lounging by their pools, or hanging out down the shore.

While she waits for her food, she lets her eyes wander around the room, taking in the memorabilia on the walls, and the photographs of the famous athletes who have dined there.

When her gaze lands on the man dining in the booth directly across the bar from her, she freezes with her pint glass touching her lips.

It's Peeta.

And he's not alone.

On the bench opposite from him sits a curvy blonde, all smiles and pink cheeks and full, glossy lips. She's talking animatedly while Peeta listens attentively, sipping from a pint of something so dark it can only be Guinness.

Of all the fucking sports bars in Pittsburgh, she had to choose the one where Peeta Mellark is clearly ensuring he won't be spending the weekend alone.

Her stomach roils, and though she averts her eyes immediately, now that she knows he's there, it will be a struggle not to sneak peeks at him and his date for the duration of her meal.

It's not like she has any right to be thrown by the sight of him with another woman. She spurned his advances, and he made it clear that he wasn't going to wait around.

She pretends to reach behind her to fish around in her purse for something, and her eyes flit back to Peeta. The pretty blonde is now the one doing the listening, watching him raptly as Peeta speaks, his hands playing with the beverage napkin in front of him.

Their waitress sets down some kind of giant fishbowl drink in front of the blonde, and her eyes go comically wide, and Katniss sees Peeta begin to laugh. The blonde pouts and slides the drink across to him, gesturing for him to take a sip. He grins at her and leans forward to place the straw in his mouth.

Katniss spins back around on her stool, jealousy rising in her like the tide.

Her stomach actually hurts now.

By the time the bartender places her burger down in front of her, she's lost her appetite, and the first bite tastes like ash as she chews.

Swallowing slowly around the large lump crowding her throat, she twists on the stool again. They're still talking, and the blonde is sipping her humongous drink while Peeta continues to nurse his beer, but the conversation looks intimate, and she feels guilty for spying on them.

She looks down at her burger and the untouched fries, and hastily asks for the check. She pays in cash, leaving a far more generous tip than usual, but she just needs to get the hell out of there.

She hops down from the bar stool and tries to inconspicuously move past him and his date.

But at that moment, he looks up, their eyes meet, and Peeta pins her with his stare until she rushes from the restaurant and across the street to her hotel.

Once she's in her pajamas and safely under the sheets, she struggles to focus on her book for almost an hour; her traitorous mind keeps taunting her with the image of Peeta with that blonde girl, looking happy and relaxed. That blonde girl is going to be the one he'll be kissing later tonight. She's the one who will get to feel those lips all over her body and his hands gripping her hips when he thrusts into her. She'll be the one who he makes come, probably more than once, cause Katniss has decided that he's probably one of those selfless lovers.

A guy like Peeta Mellark would never stay single long. She should have known better.

She could have had him.

She blew it.

Katniss is relieved when Monday morning rolls around, and the team has a rare day off so she doesn't have to make the commute to East Rutherford. She still needs to work on her daily write up for the ESPN NY website/blog, but fortunately she can do that poolside from her laptop as long as she meets her two o'clock deadline.

With most of the apartment complex at work, and the few kids who reside there still at day camp since school hasn't started yet, she doesn't expect the pool to be crowded, and when she peers out her window and cranes her neck, it indeed appears empty.

She changes into her bikini—the less modest of the two she owns since she doesn't have to worry about being around others today and she might as well get some sun while she works—then pours some coffee over ice in a large tumbler. Grabbing a towel and her laptop, she makes her way down to the pool, claiming a chair. As she sets down her coffee and climbs onto the chaise lounge, she works diligently for an hour, then takes a break to soak up a few rays before she works on the next segment of her piece.

Soft splashing rouses her from a semi-conscious state, and she blinks into the bright morning glare to see two muscled arms slicing through the water. As her eyes adjust to the light, she focuses on the body gliding across the pool.

Well, shit.

Peeta surfaces at the deep end, one arm draped over the edge as he catches his breath. By the looks of his breathing, he had to have been swimming longer than the one lap she just witnessed. How long as he been down here with her?

Will she never escape the constant reminders of how badly she fucked up that night at his apartment? How can she when he always seems to be right in front of her?

And then he is—literally, in front of her, having clambered out of the water and sauntered towards her. His toned chest glistens with water droplets, and the wet board shorts drip onto the pavement. She shields her eyes from the sun to look up at him, the cautious smile aimed at her.

"You know, we don't have to keep pretending that the other doesn't exist." He sits down on the chair next to hers and leans forward slightly, more beads of water plinking to the ground from his wet hair, as he gives her an expectant look.

"Hi," she says softly.

"I guess we had the same idea this morning, hmm?" He rubs at the back of his neck, and the smile softens. "Listen, Katniss, I think we need to clear the air between us."

"Yes," she agrees.

"I'd be lying if I said that what happened that night after my interview didn't hurt me."

"Peeta, I—"

He holds up a hand. "Let me finish. I may not like what you said, but I do have to respect it. I get that your job is important to you, and I really admire your professionalism. And maybe if I can get past my wounded pride we could be friends."

She hears her breath hitch. "Friends?"

He nods. "Friends. Is that something you'd want?"

She releases the breath as regret curls through her. She wants so much more than that, but she knows better than to expect him to want anything else. He's moved on. And it's better than not having him in her life, she supposes. "Friends," she agrees.

"Good." He smiles, those impossibly blue eyes lighting up. "So did you enjoy your meal the other night?"


"That sports bar is my favorite in Pittsburgh. Those French fries are worth the extra crunches."

Her eyes wander to his washboard abs, seriously doubting that he has much difficulty burning off a few measly fries. "I, um, didn't really finish my meal. I…ah…wasn't feeling well." She feels a fly or some kind of insect flit past her chest, and she waves at it, brushing it away, and she thinks his eyes follow the movement. "So if that place is your favorite, I guess that's why you brought your date there."

He leans forward, and he appears amused. "You thought I was on a date?"

"Well that's sure what it looked like," she says. "You were in a booth with a pretty girl, and you were taking sips from her drink, and…" she trails off, not wanting to come across like a jealous stalker any more than she probably does already.

"It wasn't a date," he murmurs, placing one hand on her bare knee. "Delly is one of my best friends from childhood. She lives in Pittsburgh. We meet up any time I'm in town."

"She wasn't your date?" she echoes dumbly, her stomach knotting in anticipation as the simple touch of his hand on her knee, coupled with an imperceptible darkening in his irises, kindles heat in her abdomen again.

"Not even close. I'm not her type, not at all," he laughs.

Oh, god. She tugs her lower lip between her teeth. So he hasn't moved on? Does this mean he really only wants to be friends? What if…?

Loud peals of laughter lift from outside the fence surrounding the pool, and moments later, the gate flies open and a cluster of pre-teen boys and two girls burst in, giggling and shouting at each other. Peeta draws back, removing his hand from her knee, and Katniss exhales, exasperated. So much for the quiet.

The boys start to jostle each other and point when they notice Peeta, and as they approach him excitedly, Katniss smiles at the genuine warmth with which Peeta greets them and how amiably he chats with them. The two girls—though easily no older than thirteen—ogle him outwardly, whispering and giggling more.

Peeta catches her eyes above the boys' heads, and as she gathers up her things and tugs her cover-up over her head, she gives him a little wave. She'll never get the rest of her work done if she stays here, not with the noisy teenagers liable to be goofing around and splashing everywhere.

She leaves Peeta with his throng of admirers and returns to her apartment to finish her work.

Two hours later, her article is submitted, and she closes her laptop. She glances out her window, thinking she might still go for a quick swim if the rowdy teens are gone, having not bothered to change out of her bikini, but she can still see them horsing around in the pool. Sighing, she decides to start the laundry that she neglected yesterday when she got in from Pittsburgh. She gathers up a few pairs of panties that missed the hamper and a t-shirt that she draped over the back of a chair, and shoves them down into the laundry basket. She slides her flip-flops back on, balances the basket on her hip, and debates going down a flight or up a flight—only the odd floors have washers and dryers.

She opts to go down to the ninth floor, and when she opens the door to the little vestibule where the machines are, she stops dead in her tracks.

Peeta's broad back is to her; he's changed out of his swim trunks into a pair of athletic shorts, but he remains shirtless, and his hair is still wet. She watches him stuff a load of dark clothes into the washer before adding detergent and starting the cycle.

When he finally turns, he grins at her rakishly after he recovers from his surprise at seeing her. "Do you always move so quietly? I didn't hear you come in. I guess we really do have the same agenda for the day, huh?" He glances to her basket, brimming with dirty laundry. "I'm sorry. I would have let you have the machine first if I had known you were standing there."

She shifts the heavy basket on her hip again, and as she does, she feels her cover-up slip down over her bikini top on the other side. "It's fine. I can go up to the eleventh floor."

He steps towards her and takes the basket from her. "Or you can share the machine with me." She knits her brows and looks at him dubiously, and he sets the basket down. "Friends can do laundry together, no?"

"I guess," she replies. "But I, um, didn't separate anything yet. So I should do that first." She starts picking through the pile, lifting the lid of the washer to toss in each dark item that she finds. Peeta reaches down and plucks a navy tank top from the basket.

"I can help you."

"No, it's fine," she grimaces, noticing the abundance of panties and camisoles in the basket. She hastily grabs her black bra and stuffs it into the lingerie bag, jamming it into the swirling, sudsy water.

Once the laundry has been methodically picked through and added to Peeta's, he closes the lid, and she kicks the basket aside to where he's moved his out of the way. They both spy the pair of lacy black underwear on the floor at the same time, and Katniss freezes when Peeta leans down to retrieve them.

"We missed these," he murmurs, clutching the delicate garment in his fist, and his eyes lock on hers. She's unable to move; the look on his face has her rooted to the floor. He keeps staring at her as he shuffles towards the washer and drops the panties in to join the rest of the wash.

"I'm sorry," he says, as he closes the distance between them, "was that wrong of me? Should I not have picked them up? Is that not something that friends do, touching each other's underwear?" His blond brows dip and his forehead creases slightly.

She worries her cheek with her teeth and shakes her head. "No, it's fine."

He reaches over and pulls her cover-up back onto her shoulder for her, and she closes her eyes briefly when his hand lingers on her shoulder. "I can't say I'd want to see any of my other friends in those little panties, though," he whispers gruffly.

She licks her lips. That does it. 'Friends' is not going to work. She wants this man—she'll never forgive herself if she doesn't take a chance and see where this could lead. "What would you do to me if I was wearing nothing but those panties?" she says boldly.

He trails his hand down her arm, fingers raising goose bumps in their wake. "You don't want to know the things I could do to you."

"What if I do want to know?" she asks breathily. "Would you tell me?"

His throat bobs. "Katniss, this doesn't feel like two friends talking."

"I don't think I want to just be friends, Peeta," she whispers, splaying a palm across his bare chest. She can feel his heart hammering against her hand, matching the fevered beating of her own heart, and it gives her enough confidence to rise up on her toes.

He slides his hand around her waist, fingers clutching her hip. "What about your 'no dating an athlete' rule?"

She rises onto her toes and allows her lips to hover just beside his ear. "Fuck my stupid rule. Fuck me, Peeta." She barely has time to press her mouth to his lobe, kissing the soft flesh teasingly when his other hand joins the first and he seizes her by the waist, crushing his lips to hers. He backs her into the washer, his strong body trapping hers against the vibrating machine.

He cups her cheek tenderly as he slows down the pace of their embrace, his tongue outlining the curves of her lips, and she flicks out her tongue to encourage him to part his lips. Her hands roam the expanse of his back, fingers probing the corded muscles and the dip of his spinal cord, and then she dares to lower them to palm his ass. She moans in approval at the feel of it in her hands—it's better than she imagined. Then she moans deeper as she feels him grind his hard-on against her.

Peeta's lips soon wander to the underside of her jaw, and he tilts her head to the side to grant him access to her neck, nipping and sucking down to her collarbone, then back up to her ear. "You're really sure about this?" he murmurs, tugging at the lobe with his teeth.

"Never been surer about anything in my life," she breathes, closing her eyes when his left hand ghosts up her side and brushes the curve of her breast.

"My apartment," he growls. "Now."

He laces their fingers together and leads her up the stairs, fumbling with his keys as he fuses his mouth to hers again. Her heart races wildly when he finally kicks the door open, and they stumble inside. He throws his keys on the dining room table and hoists her up, her legs locking around his waist. As he walks them towards his bedroom, she's aware of how strong he is, holding her up as if she's weightless.

When he lays her down on the bed and gazes down at her, the predatory glaze to his blue eyes causes her stomach to tense and her clit to throb. "What?" she whispers.

He grins wolfishly. "I've been imagining you naked for weeks now."

She purses her lips at him, the lust pumping through her veins emboldening her. "I only have to close my eyes and I can picture every last inch of you."

"So you were abusing your locker room privileges to check me out, huh?"

"Guilty as charged," she smiles. "But I could use a reminder of just what is beneath those shorts."

He shakes his head at her deliberately. "I've been patient. I think I should get to see if reality is even better than my fantasies first, hmm?" He leans down and kisses her, then hooks his thumbs under the straps of her cover-up. She arches her back off the bed to allow him to peel the tiny dress down her body. Her nipples pebble against her bikini top, and she writhes anxiously, craving his touch so badly that she's trembling.

"You are fucking beautiful," he whispers, running a hand up her inner thigh; then using his index finger, he traces her navel before dragging the digit up her breastbone and tracing the outline of her erect nipple through the fabric. She squirms; she's so wet, and she wants him so bad it physically aches.

She lunges up and captures his mouth, and his hands immediately snake around to tangle in the strings at the middle of her back, untying the knot, and he then repeats the process with the knot at the nape of her neck, flinging the discarded bikini top over his shoulder.

"Let me look at you." He coaxes her back down to the mattress, his eyes raking over her breasts. "Yep, so much better than my imagination."

She shimmies her hips, toying with the strings on her bikini bottom and flashes him a playful smile. "But I'm not naked yet."

"Untie those," he orders.

Obediently, she yanks the knots free, and with a low groan, he pulls the bottoms off her, and gazes down at her hungrily again. "Definitely naked now."

"Get a good look," she murmurs, cupping her breasts, "because I don't want you to take this the wrong way, Peeta, but we can go slow and explore each other later." She sits up, planting one hand on his firm chest, and pushes him back onto his haunches, and she straddles him, reaching beneath her to grip his erection through his shorts. "I've been dreaming about this in me, and I need to fuck you—now." She thrusts one breast towards his waiting mouth, and when his tongue flicks over the sensitive bud, she keens, and scratches her nails over his scalp.

He eases her off him, and stands up beside the bed, his hard-on visibly jutting out to tent the fabric. When he reaches for the waistband, she scoots forward and covers his hands.

"Let me. Let me see that incredible cock," she purrs. His hips rock forward slightly, and she eases the shorts down, careful not to catch them on the rigid shaft. She hisses with delight when it springs free, and she can finally wrap her hand around it. He bucks into her touch, and she revels in the feel of the velvety smooth skin against her palm. Her nerves buzz at the thought of him being inside her momentarily.

"Wait," he pants, stepping back. He stalks towards his nightstand and opens the drawer, producing a foil square, which he deftly rips open, then discards the wrapper. She watches him roll it down his shaft and pinch the tip before coming back to climb onto the bed. "C'mere," he whispers, pulling her into his lap, her knees landing on either side of his muscular thighs.

She shudders when his hands cover her breasts as she eases herself down onto his cock, bracing her own hands behind her on those strong thighs. She feels deliciously stretched as her body adjusts to his girth, and she swivels her hips to signal him that he can begin moving too. He grunts his compliance and starts to thrust up while she rides him, her pelvis undulating in sinuous revolutions.

"Holy shit, Katniss…you feel fucking unreal…"

His thumbs circle her nipples, spurring them to peak again, and she cries out when he shifts their position, his mouth latching on to one taut bud. Her thighs spread, and he guides her legs around his waist so she can continue gliding up and down on his shaft. This new angle causes the head of his cock to stimulate her clit just right, and she's aware she's racing towards her climax rapidly. She marvels once again at his strength, his biceps flexing and contracting as his hands splay across the small of her back.

His teeth graze her nipple as he releases her from his mouth, and his lips seek hers. He kisses her ravenously and swallows her moans.

"Katniss…fuck…I'm going to come."

"Me too," she whimpers. When she screws her eyes shut, the heated coil that has been furling in her abdomen snaps just as he explodes. She screams his name, blinding flashes of colors pulsing behind her eyelids, as her walls flutter madly, gripping his cock as he clutches her back and holds her tight.

"Oh…god…Katniss…" He presses kisses to her sweaty neck, then slants his mouth over hers sweetly. "I've never…fuck…you're amazing," he praises, his thumb brushing damp tendrils of hair off her temple, tucking them securely behind her ear.

He pulls her down with him to lie on their sides, facing each other, his softening length still inside her, and he gazes at her reverently.

"No regrets, right?"

"No," she whispers, and then frowns. "Well, maybe one."

"One?" He quirks an eyebrow at her.

She smiles coyly. "I have yet to get that cock of yours in my mouth. Let's see if we can't do something to fix that."

Katniss stifles a yawn and discreetly checks her phone for what must be the twentieth time within the half-hour as she struggles to focus during the weekly Friday meeting at ESPN headquarters in Bristol. She had managed to nap for a short time on the train ride, having been thoroughly exhausted by Peeta into the early hours of the morning. She resists the strong temptation to replay the mind-blowing sex—and the multiple orgasms his tongue between her legs brought about—in her head, less she wind up blushing and sitting in a pair of soaked panties for the next sixty minutes.

With training camps over and the rosters for each team being finalized in the coming days, coaches are starting to announce cuts and reveal them to the media, but she knows despite her position at ESPN, Peeta will find out before she does if he's made the Giants squad for the season. Her stomach is a knotted mass of nerves as she waits for a text from him.

For someone who was so hesitant to date an athlete, she's completely invested in his future in the NFL, and she wants so badly for this to work out for him. They've connected so intensely in the three weeks since they started seeing each other—both emotionally and physically. She wants what will make him happy, and deep down she knows that means a spot on a team, playing the sport he loves.

She still hasn't heard from Peeta when the meeting adjourns an hour later. She sighs and heads to her cubicle and pulls up several different football blogs, anxiously scanning the various windows to see if some beat writer has beaten her to the scoop.


Sighing again, she leafs through her notes and works on her article, submitting it a full hour before its deadline, and when her email pings thirty seconds later with a thumbs-up from the copy editor, she shoves her things in her bag and catches the first train back to Hoboken.

When she fits her key in the lock and pushes open the door to her apartment, she tosses her bag to the floor, heads to the fridge to grab a bottle of water, and nearly jumps out of her skin when a pair of hands snakes around her waist and cup her breasts from behind.

"Hey, you," he whispers, nipping at her ear.

"Hi." She spins around and kisses him hungrily. "I've been worried about you today. I didn't hear from you and—"

"I wanted you to hear it from me in person first," he replies, rubbing her jaw lightly, and leading her to the couch. He takes her hands in his and gives her a sad smile.

"No," she whispers. "Oh, Peeta." She lifts his chin with one finger and kisses him. "I'm sorry." She peppers kisses all over his cheeks and continues to murmur, "I'm sorry" over and over.


"What can I do? Can I cheer you up?" She reaches for the waistband of his shorts, and he chuckles softly.

"I won't say no to that, but give me a second." His mouth curves into a smile. "The Giants went with that kid they drafted out of Syracuse for the backup, so yeah, I got cut. Coach Coughlin had some really nice words for me, and he told me that I need to be in a place where I can make a difference, that I need to be playing every Sunday."

"What?" she exclaims. "Peeta, that's a huge compliment."

He grins. "It gets better. On my way out of the stadium today, my phone went off. Cincinnati wants me to come workout for them after the holiday weekend."

"Peeta!" She scrambles into his lap and winds her arms around his neck. "Are you kidding?"

"I'm cautiously optimistic." He runs his thumb along her lower lip. "The only downside would be this…us," he finishes quietly.

"Oh." She falls silent as the implication hangs between them. "Oh. Because you would be there, and I would be here…"

"Katniss, I'm not willing to let a little distance come between us. I hope you know that. If this thing with Cincinnati happens, we can make it work." He kisses her neck and cards his fingers through her loose waves. "There's phone sex, and Skype sex, and a bye week to look forward to…"

She rocks against him, earning a moan of approval as his fingers leave her hair and wander to the buttons of her sleeveless silk blouse. "I'm in this for the long haul, Peeta. We will definitely make it work." She arches her back as he eases her shirt off her shoulders and tugs at one lace-covered nipple with his teeth. "And right now, we're going to make this"—she snakes her hand down the front of his shorts and squeezes his rock-hard cock—"work."

He smirks. "I like the way you think."

"Cincinnati…" she muses. "I could get used to you in stripes, I suppose."

"Orange is my favorite color," he replies with a grin, rolling her over and pinning her to the couch. "Now about cheering me up…"

"It looks to be a perfect October evening in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Temperature is 65 degrees with winds out of the northeast. Let's check in with Katniss Everdeen at MetLife Stadium where the Giants are preparing to face the Cincinnati Bengals in a big Monday night matchup. Katniss?"

She nods at the cameraman, who signals to her that they're now live, and she smiles brightly at the lens. "Thanks, Boomer. It's definitely a beautiful night here, but things will not be pretty in the Giants locker room if Big Blue can't put together a better performance tonight than they did last week, escaping with that mediocre win over the Eagles. Still, their four and two record has them atop the NFC East." She continues her monologue, recapping the week's practices, going over the injuries and the changes to their starting offense, and she hears the crackle in her earpiece that alerts her that the guys back in the studio intend to speak with her.

"Katniss, I'm the only one taking the G-Men in today's matchup," Jon Gruden interjects. "Tell me why these clowns all seem so confident in the Bengals chances this evening.

The grin that dominates her face this time is automatic. "That confidence, Jon, is no doubt because of Peeta Mellark, the Bengals starting quarterback, who has reenergized a team that one year ago, looked lost when Andy Dalton went down. Mellark has led the Bengals to the top of the AFC North, and they remain among the unbeaten teams in the league as we head into Week 7."

"And we're going to be unbeaten after tonight too." She whirls about, Peeta grinning at her, looking as hot as always in his uniform.

"Peeta, what are you doing over here?" She lowers her voice and hisses, "I'm live right now."

"I know," he replies, gently taking her elbow to angle her to the side, and then he reaches for her hand that does not hold her microphone.

"What are you doing?" she stammers as he clutches the fingertips of her left hand.

He leans forward slightly, his voice barely a whisper. "There's about a thousand things that I want to say to you right now, but I'll save them for later when you're in my arms, and we're alone in your bed. But there's one thing that I need to ask you."

Her heart is a sledgehammer in her rib cage when he slowly lowers himself to one knee. "Peeta, you are not doing this!"

"Katniss Everdeen, will you marry me?"

She shakes her head in disbelief, and then immediately realizes to anyone who is watching that she's saying no. "Yes," she gasps quickly. "Yes, yes, yes!"

Her hand trembles so violently that Peeta struggles to slide the stunning diamond solitaire on her fourth finger. She's vaguely aware of a voice in her ear telling her 'congratulations' and they'll 'check in with her at halftime,' and then one of the sound guys takes her microphone from her so she can properly embrace Peeta. He frames her jaw with his strong hands and claims her lips soundly.

"I figure you had relented on the dating an athlete thing, so I took a chance that you'd be willing to marry one." She laughs and nods, still too stunned and elated to form words. "I love you," he murmurs, touching his forehead to hers. "I'll see you after the game, and we'll celebrate this properly, okay?"

"I love you, too." She finally finds her voice, and she pulls him down to plant one last lingering kiss on his lips. "Now go kick some Giant ass."

Fremus...Happy Birthday, my dear friend.

And to everyone else, thank you for reading!