Read Chapter One of The Parkers’ Players Boxed Set… – Ali Parker

Read Chapter One of The Parkers’ Players Boxed Set…

Chapter One


2 Years Before

A lot of people believed Christmas was the most wonderful time of the year. 

I disagreed.  

As a florist and a New Yorker, the most wonderful time of the year had to be springtime. A light breeze drifted into my shop, the windows now open after the long winter months. 

The bride-to-be who had an appointment with me flitted from bucket to bucket, examining the colorful offerings in each intently before moving on. I stood off to the side, watching her do her thing while advising her when necessary. 

“Spring is my favorite season,” she gushed, her cheeks flushed and her eyes wide and bright. “That’s why we decided to get married this month. We’ve been engaged since last winter and I just can’t wait to finally walk down the aisle.”

“Spring is a beautiful time for a wedding in the city,” I agreed, my heart speeding up as I conjured up mental images of what I was hoping my own wedding was going to look like. “I’m thinking of waiting for next spring to get married myself.”

“The wait will become nearly intolerable, but I think it’s worth it.” She gave me a radiant grin, her skin practically glowing with excitement and her dark curls bouncing as she clapped her hands together. But then her brown eyes darted to my bare left ring finger and a crease appeared between her eyebrows. “Are you having your ring cleaned?”

“No.” I absently linked my hands together behind my back and rubbed the spot where there would soon be a ring—if all went according to plan, which it would. “We’re not engaged yet, but we’ve been talking about it a lot and the time is right.”

Her eyes softened with understanding as another smile spread on her lips. “It’s such an exciting time, isn’t it? The anticipation? I loved every minute of it, but I’m loving every minute of wedding planning as well.”

“Yeah, it’s great. I can’t wait to get into the planning and the nitty-gritty details myself.” I breathed in the sweet, floral scent of the fresh blooms lining every wall in my shop and almost got all dreamy about it before I remembered I was in the middle of a consultation. “But for now, it’s your turn. Do you have a better idea of what you might want now that you’ve seen what’s available?”

We spent the next hour picking out the flowers she wanted. Then I played around with several ideas for arrangements for the main table. She snapped some pictures to show to her fiancé and promised she’d be back with her final decision but placed the order for the basics for the other arrangements. 

“Okay, so you can send the invoice to my father. I’ve left his details on the form. When Joe and I decide on our table, I’ll be back.” Her voice was several octaves higher than it had been when she’d first come into the shop, and her eyes were so shiny, I thought she might cry. “Thank you so much. These were just what we needed to make our day perfect. Thank you, Luna. I’ll see you soon.”

She pressed a kiss to my cheek, even though I’d only met her little over an hour ago, squeezed my hand, and then flicked her hand up in a wave as she practically skipped out of the shop. 

On her way out, she nearly bumped into April. My best friend rolled her green eyes at the sight of the overly excited bride, shaking her head as she let the door swing shut behind her. 

“Another sucker whose heart is going to be broken soon enough, I presume?” She shrugged out of her light jacket and set it down on the counter with her purse. 

I sighed as I moved behind my computer to finish the invoice so I could send it out before I had to close up for the afternoon. “Why do you have to be so down on marriage? Maybe this guy is perfect for her and they live happily ever after.”

“Or maybe he’s just using her to pay his way while he finishes his studies, and then when he’s finally done and starting to earn the big bucks he was supposed to use to help her achieve her dreams, he leaves her with a toddler and goes off to travel instead.” She raised both her brows and pursed her lips before tapping them with a pink-tipped finger. “Oh no, wait. That’s not her story. It’s mine.”

Lifting my hands with my palms turned toward her in surrender, I nodded. “Okay, fine. You may have a point. Some people do really shimmy things to others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold out hope.”

“Shimmy? You mean shitty, don’t you? Why don’t you just say it? What Craig did to me was shitty. Shitty, Luna. Not shimmy.” 

“You know I don’t like to curse.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s my pet peeve about you. Some situations desperately need curse words to express just how truly shitty they are.” She emphasized the word, shooting me a pointed look. “Your turn. Say shitty for me, Luna.”

“Nope.” I turned my attention to the ancient box of a computer screen standing on the counter and entered the order information from the form the customer had filled in. “Speaking of the toddler you got left behind with, where is Adi?”

“She’s at school. I have to pick her up soon, but I thought I’d come swing by here first. I haven’t spoken to you since Tuesday.”

“It’s only Friday.” A beautiful Friday afternoon since my windows were finally cracked open and the breeze blew out the mustiness left behind by winter. 

Sure, scents from the hot dog cart outside and the Chinese laundry across the street wafted in as well, but it also circulated the sweetness from the flowers inside and the fresh dampness of the dirt from the flower boxes on the windowsills. 

Soon, those babies would be filled with colorful buds and bulbs, which would hopefully serve to make the shop look more attractive to passersby. New Yorkers were starting to hit the streets again as they shed their winter clothes and came out of hibernation from their tiny apartments. It was my favorite time of the year for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons was my bottom line.

People weren’t looking to buy flowers during winter, so every spring, I had to try to make up for it. Things were looking good so far, though, and not even the thundercloud that brewed above April’s head whenever anyone mentioned weddings or love was going to ruin my day. 

“So what you really mean is that you’re waiting until the last possible second to pick Adi up, and coming to me was a good excuse?” I teased, a smile curving my lips when I saw her narrowing her eyes. “Don’t even try to deny it.”

“I wasn’t going to, but it’s good for her to stay longer. Social interaction outside of classroom situations is the best teacher, you know? Also, a bit of waiting builds character and teaches patience. As long as she’s waiting in a safe space, I owe it to her to provide her with those opportunities.”

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t hold in my laughter. “Keep telling yourself that.”

“I will.” She gave me a mock pout with her arms crossed loosely over her chest. Then she let out a sigh and leaned over to rest her forearms on the counter. Crinkles disappeared from the corners of her eyes and the light in them dimmed as she grew serious. “Thanks for never judging me for trying to carve out some me-time in the midst of the insanity that is my life.”

“You work the front desk in a hospital and you’re a single mother of a four-year-old. You can come hide out for five minutes anytime you like. This is a judgment-free zone.”

“Thank you,” she said, her eyes following me as I slipped out from behind the counter to flip the sign on my door to closed. Her nostrils flared in alarm and her eyes widened before they dropped to her watch. Lifting her arm in my direction to show me its face, her brow furrowed. “For a second there, I thought I was really late to pick her up. Why are you closing so early?”

“I’m meeting Landon for dinner.” My heartrate kicked up a notch, baby butterflies hatching and stretching their wings in my belly. “We’re finally going to start planning the wedding tonight.”

April’s eyes clouded over, the air between us thickening as she shoved a hand through her fiery red hair. “You’re seriously still thinking about marrying him?”

“Of course, I am. We’ve been dating for two years. It’s time.” At the distressed look on her face, the butterflies hit my stomach lining one by one and knocked themselves out. “Look, I know you’re down on marriage, and I understand why, but I’m going to need you to put all that aside and just be happy for me. I’m getting engaged soon and I want you to be my maid of honor.”

“You know I’d do just about anything for you, babe, but I can’t do that.” She straightened up and lifted her chin. “I don’t want to bad mouth Landon, but I don’t trust him. Just because he made this huge success of himself and has money of his own doesn’t mean he can’t be a dick. He’s a piece of shit, Luna. I might not know why yet, but I can smell it from a mile away.”

  My heart dropped to join the useless butterflies passed out at the pit of my stomach. “He’s not a piece of crap. He’s going to be my fiancé and I’m happy about it. Why can’t you be happy for me?”

“Because I’m not and I refuse to fake it, even for you.” She winked. “I refuse to fake orgasms too, which used to piss Joe right off. But I mean really, if you’re married and you have every opportunity, why wouldn’t you want to learn what brings your wife real pleasure?”

I waited her joke out, used to her attempts at comedy to lighten up the mood. Then I raised my eyebrows.  

April huffed out a breath. “Fine. It’s been two years, right? It’s the logical next step, correct?”

I nodded but didn’t need to say anything. She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes on mine. “Wouldn’t the first logical next step be for you to go to his house? Because last I checked, in the entire two years you’ve been dating, you’ve never been there.”

She had me there. I couldn’t even argue. Landon had never invited me to come over, and whenever I asked, he made up some excuse. 

Hell, I didn’t even have his address to surprise him. His home address wasn’t listed anymore. Apparently, he was that kind of big deal now. 

When I’d looked it up at some point to try to plan a Valentine’s Day rendezvous to make up for him having to work late, I’d only found an address for an old apartment he’d told me about that he had lived in when he first moved to the city.

“I’m sure it’s nothing sinister.” I filled my lungs with air and ignored the dull ache in my gut that I got whenever I thought too much about all this. “He’s just been busy.”

“For two years?” She scoffed, then came around the counter to give me a hug. “I love you. You’re my sweetest, quirkiest friend, but you’re not dumb. Something’s going on with him. Just find out what it is before you let him slip a ring onto that finger, okay?”

“Okay.” I nodded into her hair, letting the soft strands and familiar scent of vanilla soothe my sudden nerves about dinner. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”

April left when I locked up my shop, grabbing a cab to fetch Adi from school. I opted to walk the few blocks to the restaurant where I was meeting up with Landon, joining the army of people choosing to enjoy the warm breeze and the crunch of the last leaves left behind by winter beneath my ankle boots. 

He was already there when I arrived, waiting at a table in the far corner of the stylish yet low-key bistro he’d chosen for dinner. Landon liked to choose where we went and he always grabbed the seats with the lowest possibility of him being spotted. 

After launching a popular social-dating site, he had become rather popular with certain people. He preferred privacy though, which was why he always tried to avoid being seen out and about. 

I got it, even though it was another thing about him April didn’t trust. As I sidestepped past tables and dodged rushing waiters, I took a good look at the man I was planning on saying I do to next spring. 

With his dark blond hair, angular features, and deep brown eyes, he was classically handsome. He stood about half a foot taller than my five foot four, which made it easy for us to kiss without either of us having to strain.

A clean-shaven jaw and preppy sense of style made him seem approachable, like the “typical millionaire next door,” as he’d been called by the media once. He wore a salmon-colored button-up shirt tonight, cream slacks, and a matching vest. 

I smiled as I approached him, but he didn’t look up from his phone until I pulled my chair out and took a seat across from him. Even then, it was only a perfunctory glance to make sure it was me before his eyes were back on his screen. “Hey, Luna.”

“Hi, love,” I said, reaching across the table for his hand. He moved it to his phone well before I could touch him, all still without looking at me. “Having a busy day, huh?”

“They’re all busy these days.” He scowled at the phone, tightening his grip on it until his knuckles were white, then tossed it down and finally met my eyes properly. For a second. 

Then he picked up his menu and studied it instead. “You look good. Shop doing all right?”

“It’s fine. I got an order in today for a wedding in about a month, so that’s exciting.”

“That’s great,” he mumbled, but it was easy to see he was distracted and not just by the menu. He glared at the pages, his eyes slightly unfocused. 

I cleared my throat and sucked in a breath, pushing forward. Eventually, I’d get his attention. It was like this with him sometimes. He got so lost in his own world at work that it took some time for him to relax. 

“Speaking about weddings, I thought we could talk about ours,” I said as I pulled my phone out of my purse. “I’ve saved some ideas I wanted to run by you.”

“Oh yeah?” he asked.

I frowned, ninety-nine percent sure he was only throwing out random phrases to make it sound like he was listening. 

“That’s great, baby,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”

My eyes closed and I shot up a quick prayer for patience. Making a scene in a restaurant was not my style, nor was it Landon’s. It could take him time to come out of his shell after a long day at work, but I’d honestly thought the prospect of our wedding would snap him right out of it. Apparently, I’d been wrong. 

“You’re proud of me for coming up with some ideas for my own wedding? Or are you proud of me for wanting to run them by you?”

Whether it was the forced sweetness in my voice or the words themselves that made him do it, he finally wrenched his gaze toward mine. His Adam’s apple rose and fell as he swallowed. “Wedding planning, huh? You really want to get into that right now? We’re not even engaged, Luna.”

    “Yet,” I tacked on, but Landon’s eyebrows pulled together like he didn’t understand. I sat up straighter and looked him right in the eyes as I tried to tamp down the suspicion brewing in my stomach. 

“We’re not engaged yet,” I said. “We’ve been talking about this for months, Landon. Have you forgotten about that? Or is something going on with you that I should know about?” 

Conflicting emotions suddenly warred behind his eyes, his jaw clenching and relaxing before he licked his lips, nodding to himself. “I know we’ve been talking about it, but I’ve been thinking, and I can’t get engaged to you, Luna.”

 Blood roared in my ears and my heart stuttered. What the fudge? “What? Why not?”

His tongue swiped along his bottom lip again, a nervous tell I hardly ever saw and it had made an appearance twice now. My palms grew slick with sweat and my hands were unsteady as I fumbled to fold them in my lap. 

“I can’t get engaged to you because I’m already married.” The words came rushing out of him, each one of them a separate yet devastating blow to my plans, our future. “I’ve been married for a few months now. I didn’t know how to tell you. I thought about leaving her, but I can’t.”

My heart pounded wildly in my chest as thoughts spiraled through my head. Landon never letting me near his house. Landon always working late. Landon making excuses for every Valentine’s Day, birthday…  

“Leave,” I demanded, my voice barely above a whisper and my entire body recoiling but refusing to move. 

He reached for me. “She’s the kind of woman I’m expected to—”

“I said leave, Landon. Now. Don’t you dare try to rationalize it to me.” My gaze zeroed in on my water glass, even though I felt Landon’s drilling a hole in the top of my head as he tried to get me to look back at him. 

When he didn’t make a move for the door, I threw out an arm and jabbed a finger at it. “Get the fiddling duck out of here, Landon. I never want to see you again. Lose my number and send my regards to your wife.”

I was practically spitting at that point, spots dancing across my vision and my lungs burning with the need for air even as I panted.

The slide of his chair against the wooden floor let me know he was pushing it out. Then I caught his shiny brown loafers in my periphery as he walked away. Salty tears burned my eyes as they begged to fall free, but I wouldn’t let them. Not here, not now.

  Then a shadow fell over the table and I did my best to blink the mistiness away before looking up. The waiter stood there, holding a bill folder. “I didn’t get all of that, but I thought you might want this right around now.”

A bottle of wine Landon must have ordered sat in a bucket of ice next to the table. I hadn’t paid any attention to it before, but my eyes nearly bulged out of my head when I saw the price. 

My throat tightened as I handed over my card, knowing that the wine was going to make a huge dent in my meager bank account. For someone who’d been adamant nothing was going to be able to ruin her day, karma had sure decided to teach me a lesson. Tramp that she was, she’d even decided to leave me with Landon’s check. 

Maybe April had the right idea about men. Maybe marriage really was a sham made for losers, liars, and codependents. Or maybe it just wasn’t meant for me.