GUEST POST ~ Everything’s Better With You by R.L. Merrill #GuestPost #ExclusiveExcerpt #BlogTour #Giveaway

Everything’s Better With You by R.L. Merrill

Release Date: Wednesday, May 31 2023
Publisher: Celie Bay Publications LLC
Cover Artist: Reese Dante
Length: Novel / 96,000 Words / 360 Pages
Genres: Romance
Primary Plot Arc: Romance
Pairings: MM
LGBTQ+ Identities: gay, demi
Tropes: age gap, seasoned romance
Keywords/Categories: sports, sports romance, Ted Lasso, gay romance, mm romance, gay, romance, mm, small town, dance, football, cheerleading, age gap, seasoned romance, contemporary romance, contemporary


Everything’s Better With You is a TED LASSO-inspired sports-themed funny romance featuring two guys who’ve pined for each other for 15 years while their careers soared and their bodies fell apart. 

Retired quarterback and “nicest guy in the NFL” Leslie Payton met former college cheerleader-turned-reality-show darling Joe Judd fifteen years ago. They spent one magical night…talking. They’ve been pining for each other via text and phone calls ever since while their careers kept them geographically apart. When their alma mater recruits them to reinvigorate a flagging athletic program, Leslie sees his opportunity to finally have Joe close enough to see if their “what if” can become a reality. And the sooner the better before Leslie’s history of Traumatic Brain Injury catches up to him and he’s unable to be a true partner.

Joe has spent their years apart dancing in every gig offered to him, knowing full well the clock is ticking on his body’s ability to continue taking the abuse. Leslie wants forever to start now, and Joe doesn’t have that luxury, though Leslie makes him want things he’s never allowed himself to dream of with anyone else. But a lifetime of only feeling worthwhile for his performance ability makes him doubt whether he could ever be a good coach or enough of a partner for the best man he’s ever known.

As football and cheer coaches, they’re forced to be rivals in public, but behind closed doors, their chemistry is unstoppable. A wager triggers their competitive sides, but the secrets they keep come to light and present them with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Can they finally meet on the relationship 50-yard line and move forward as a team?

Warnings: discussion of past domestic violence that happens off page, not graphic

Tour Excerpt

Joe Judd pulled his cigarette-smoke infested rental minivan into a spot in front of the imposing brick building that represented an important slice of his formative years. His ties to the place ran deep; his liberal arts education, his adult education, his physical education, all happened in this very place, and the building before him was a symbol of the chapter in his life that paved the way for where he was now.

Where am I?

Right. Spring Fling weekend. Greenvale College. Go Jackets!

This was the first year he’d returned to his alma mater for this momentous occasion since graduating in 2005. Joe left Ayre Valley, Iowa in his rear view mirror fifteen years ago and his life had been all glitz and glamour ever since. Okay, the minivan he was currently sitting in wasn’t glamorous. He couldn’t even pretend to be an old Hollywood starlet whose leading man lit his cigarettes for him. He’d quit smoking a long time ago, and the way this car reeked, it was a damn good thing he had. Everything else in Joe’s life was glitz and glamour, though.

And pain.

Ugh, the pain.

He turned off the ignition of the Chrysler and listened for the clunk clunk of the engine shutting down. The airport car rental place had given him their last available vehicle and charged him a premium since he’d wrongly assumed Kansas City, Missouri wouldn’t be so packed that he couldn’t land a nice Mustang for the two-hour drive up to Ayre Valley. The woman working the register let him know in no uncertain terms that his thinking was wrong.

The engine clunked once more and a grinding sound emanated from the other side of the dash as if the thing had given up the ghost.

He could relate. His body felt like that when he stopped moving these days.

At 36 years old, Joe had the appearance of a fit man in his twenties. He liked to think he resembled his beloved Porsche at home in West Hollywood rather than this current hunk of junk. Gleaming chrome and a flashy paint job on the outside gave people the impression that he was all power and sleek lines, when in reality, his engine needed an overhaul under the hood, and his shocks and struts had seen better days. He pushed his Porsche to the same limits he pushed his body and both protested loudly. Just like the minivan.

“Time to move before you freeze up like this piece of shit.”

He gritted his teeth and opened the door, feeling his lower back protest. He had to get his feet planted under him just right and push himself to standing, putting the least amount of pressure on his knees. Once he was upright, he arched his back and felt the L5 bulging disc, the torn tendon in his hip, and the stubborn rib that would not stay in place no matter how hard his chiropractor back in Hollywood pounded on it.

He let out a harsh exhale as everything settled into place and then he swung the door closed. It was a chilly April morning and he was glad he’d brought his wool coat and worn his fleece-lined jeans. He was just about to head up the walkway when he heard the rumble of tailpipes and the screeching of…heavy metal?

A ginormous four-by-four truck complete with a rack of lights and a winch mounted on the front grill kicked up gravel as it pulled into the spot next to Joe’s rental. The windows were tinted but he had a feeling he knew exactly who the monstrosity belonged to.

“Well, if it isn’t fancy-pants, twinkle-toes, Dance Machine’s own Joe Judd! I’ll be damned.”

The six-foot-five, long and not-quite-as-lean these days, blond-mulleted, monster-truck madman currently lowering himself gingerly out of the gas-guzzling giant was none other than Leslie Payton. Three-time Super Bowl-winning—now retired—NFL quarterback, championship university football coach, and fellow alum of Greenvale College.

The tremors running through Joe’s body had nothing to do with the temperature. No, this was a reunion long in the making, and now that he was here, he struggled to keep his snarky demeanor front and center.

“You always did know how to make an entrance,” Joe said, shaking his head. He strolled toward the back of his car to greet Les, who already had his hand out, seemingly just as eager.

“And you’re a sight for sore eyes,” Les said, taking Joe’s hand and pulling him in for a back-pounding bro-hug that made Joe’s teeth smack together. “I can’t believe you’re really here.”

Joe couldn’t either, honestly. He’d told himself he’d never come back here after graduation. The fact that he’d returned to the site of the best and most difficult years of his life was due entirely to the sheer amount of respect he held for Barry Payton—Leslie’s older brother and the new president of Greenvale College—and the complicated feelings he had for the man standing before him.

“I’m glad you could make it out. Barry was thrilled when you agreed to arrive early and meet with him.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “I agreed to come for Spring Fling and the recognition of the cheer squad…am I missing something? Was there another part to the invitation?”

Les stepped back but didn’t let go of Joe’s hand, nor did he remove his other hand from Joe’s shoulder.

“I’ll let him explain it all to you. I’m just glad you’re here. Man, you look good.”

Joe did not miss the fact that Les’s gaze traveled hungrily over Joe’s body. Joe stood a little taller under the appraisal, glad he wasn’t the only one struggling with propriety.

“You just off a show?”

“Uh, yeah. Just finished choreography for the next season of Dance Machine and I’m headed from here to New York for a limited run of West Side Story.”

When you’re a jet…doo doo doo doo doo,” Les sang, snapping his fingers. He laughed and pounded on Joe’s shoulder again, hard enough to make him stagger. “Oh, sorry, man. That’s great. I loved watching you on that live broadcast. You’ve still got those moves.”

Les’s smile held more wattage than all the lights in Levi Stadium, and Joe felt a blast of heat being the recipient of one of those smiles.

He had a flash of the first time he’d been the recipient of a Leslie Payton smile and how that night changed his life.

He watched my show. Joe fought to hide a triumphant smile.

✨ Exclusive Excerpt ✨

In 1990, I left my home in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend college in Lamoni, Iowa. If you’ve never heard of Graceland University, you’re not alone. Back then it was Graceland College and I spent four wonderful, life-changing years there. Much of my time was spent in a serious and seriously unhealthy relationship, which I’ve shared bits and pieces about in the past. But my last year, I tried to squeeze all of the fun in! I spent my first semester student teaching at a tiny school a county away and I worked a little bit with their cheerleaders. It was so much fun, I’d forgotten how much I’d once loved the sport. From 6th grade until the end of 10th grade I’d cheered for my schools and had a blast being in front of a crowd. When I heard the announcement on campus that they were holding tryouts for Basketball Cheer season, I went for it. I hadn’t done a toe-touch or a herkie in years, but I gave it my all and spent the next several months cheering for my Graceland Yellowjackets! It was my first time working with a coed team and my first time not being at the bottom of all of the pyramids! Those few months allowed me to regain some of my joy at college, and for that, I will always be grateful to the Graceland community. I went on to coach high school cheerleaders at two different schools where I taught. I even trained with an old dance partner and auditioned for the Golden State Warriors Dance Team a few years later. I didn’t make it, but what a fantastic experience to be able to dance on the floor of the Oakland Coliseum Arena and be able to keep up with my peers! Dance was the most important part of my life from age 3-17 and it was a huge part of my identity. Now I’m relegated to dancing in my house or, if my knee allows, at a book soiree. Maybe I’ll even shake a tailfeather at Book Lovers Con in Houston June 1-4!

Joe Judd is one of my all-time favorite characters I’ve ever written and I fell in love with him and Leslie. Here’s a scene from Joe’s return to Greenvale College where he’s just been asked to consider taking a job as cheer coach and dance instructor:

Joe smiled and nodded as he followed Les out of the office and down the walkway, but he was fixated on the Payton brothers’ proposition.

            Me? Joe Judd living in Ayre Valley? Educating America’s youth?

            In what reality was that a good idea?

            “You’d have housing, a great salary, and the eternal gratitude of the Greenvale community.”


            “Yeah, you remember the cottages on the road coming onto campus?”

            Joe snorted. “I remember getting drunk with the former dean after graduation in one of those cottages.” He laughed at Les’s expression. “What? You’re not surprised by that, are you?”

            Les shook his head. “At least he waited until you graduated. That old queen had a hard time keeping his hands to himself. Thank goodness there were no scandals.”

            “That you knew of,” Joe muttered and Les chuckled.

            “You’re trouble.”

            “That’s what I’m trying to tell you!”

            Les smiled. “You can’t convince me you’re not perfect for the job, so don’t even try. Besides, I need a partner in crime, right?”

            Joe cocked his head. The idea of him and Les being partners in crime had been fodder for his fantasies over the years. He’d occasionally stop moving long enough to contemplate what life would be like if he and Les were in the same place at the same time and trying to make a go of a life together. Had Les really thought as much about him?

            They walked around the campus and Joe was shocked at how small everything seemed. He’d been a reluctant student there as a freshman, angry that his mother had blackmailed him into going to the Midwest for school. Okay, she’d given him the choice of staying home or going to Greenvale. It was her alma mater and the only place she felt safe sending him. He’d outgrown his hometown and wanted a fresh start, but his mom wanted him to be safe and was sure if he went to a big city, he’d be murdered in the first month.

            “And the plan is to expand the training center, add a staff of full-time trainers and interns from the sports medicine program.”

Joe snapped into the present as Les pointed to a board with the drawings for the new center.

“They’re really serious about this.”

Thoughts climbed all over each other in Joe’s mind. He had rehearsals for the next two weeks for a show that was going to run from June through early August. Then there was the new season of Dance Machine

“Come on. I can see that crease on your forehead trying to dig in. It’s not Broadway or Madison Square Gardens but you’d have a big impact.”

The sound system on the field crackled and they heard applause and shouts.

“It’s time for the expo. Let’s go.”

Joe and Les trotted over to the field and Joe ignored the pain in his knees.

“If this didn’t hurt so damned much, I’d race you.”

Joe laughed. “And you’d win because my running days are over.” That was a lie, but he knew Les wouldn’t call him on it. He’d run out on the quarterback fifteen years ago, setting a precedent. Maybe it was time to stop running, but then Joe wasn’t sure he was ready to accept the implications of what it would mean to slow down.

Maybe he could consider a year? That thought made him shudder. A year in Smalltown, America with its potentially small-minded ways? In the Midwest with its freezing cold winters and sweaty summers?

They came through the gates and climbed the steps to the bleachers as the music blared through the speakers. Les waved to several groups of folks before gesturing for Joe to take a seat on the bleachers, but he shook his head and took a seat on the left behind a large group of folks. Les sat down next to him, obviously confused.

“It will throw them off if I’m seated right in front,” he said by way of explanation.

“Ah,” Les responded. “I could see that. You are quite imposing.” He made a point to look down his nose at Joe and then cracked up. Their size difference was quite comical. “No, I get it. You’re a big deal around here.”

Joe was about to argue but the team trotted out onto the field and got into formation. He clenched his fists to keep from biting his nails, a terrible habit he had whenever watching something he created. And he had created this program, if not this particular team. When he’d shown up on campus in the fall of 2004 a cocky badass in his own mind, he’d thought some time off dancing would do him good. Then he went to a football game and saw the tiny cheer squad. They were good dancers, great crowd leaders, but their choreography was dated. He’d thought, “I could do something with this.” And why not? His classes had been a breeze to that point, he didn’t know anyone, and he’d been itching to get into some trouble, all signs he needed to find something productive to do with his time. All it took was crashing their practice, showing them some of his ideas, and they’d been elated. So many of the area schools had coed teams, but Greenvale didn’t put much stock in their cheerleaders. No one had made noise about it, not until Joe Judd showed up.

The team kicked off their routine with coordinated jumps, level changes, and drops and then they moved into their first stunt. So far so good. But the minute they started climbing, Joe’s hand flew to his mouth.

Their technique was terrible.

They didn’t have enough spotters.

“Shit,” Joe exclaimed when one of the flyers fell. “He didn’t have a good grip. They need another set of hands.” He rubbed his hands on his thighs and exhaled through pursed lips.

They got through the rest of the routine with some rudimentary stunts, definitely not the latest skills out there. Joe was already thinking of little things they could do immediately to improve this routine, even though they’d already taken it to Nationals. They apparently took fourth in their division, which was pretty good for Greenvale, at least from what Joe had seen over the past few years. He still kept tabs on college cheer, especially his Jackets. Since his team won nationals twice, the team had qualified to go eight more times, won twice, and placed four times.

“They’re good,” Les said, clapping when they finished. They both stood up with the crowd as they cheered the cheerleaders, all the while Joe was mentally mapping out what he could do with the team.

“They could add more stunt partners, they’re not using everyone.”

Les elbowed him. “You could make them better.”

Joe’s glance darted in his direction. “I see what you’re up to, Payton.”

Les laughed. “I’m not trying to hide my motivations.”

Joe gave him a long look. The chemistry between them fifteen years ago had been off the charts, but fifteen years was a long time. Things change, people change, and Joe had lived a very different life, but he was still the driven guy he’d been back then.

Les…he moved a little stiffer, a little less cocksure. His blond hair had thinned, a fact that he seemed to ignore considering his mullet. He maybe had a few more lines on his face. Under that shirt, Joe was sure the six-pack was less defined… But Les still had that same warm enthusiasm for life that Joe had initially ridiculed, and then come to admire. And his smile still lit Joe up like a Roman candle.

Differences or not, Joe was damn glad to see Leslie Payton.

I hope you’ll check out Everything’s Better With You, my love letter to AppleTV’s Ted Lasso, as well as the small-town college experience. Thanks for being here and Stay Tuned for more…

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Author Bio

Whether she’s writing contemporary romance featuring quirky, queer, and relatable characters or diving deep into the supernatural to give readers a shiver, R.L. Merrill loves creating compelling stories that will stay with readers long after closing the book.

Ro writes inclusive romance for the Happily Ever After collective, contributes paranormal hilarity to Robyn Peterman’s Magic and Mayhem Universe, and pens horror-inspired tales and music reviews for

A mom, wife, daughter, and former educator, you can find her rocking out in her Bronco with Great Dane pup Velma, being terrorized by feline twins Dracula and Frankenstein, or headbanging at a rock show near her home in the San Francisco Bay Area! Stay Tuned for more…


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