Hard and Fast

Back home.

I inhaled the peculiar scent of male sweat and deodorized carpet that was the Bobcat home stadium. It was three days after the All-Star Game. We’d won, by the way, and my knees weren’t any worse for wear. Which meant now the team could get serious about the sport we all loved without the media distraction. The only thing looming was the trading deadline, but that was a couple weeks away. Plenty of time for me to get the Bobcats focused on winning the pennant, and I was eager to get to it.

I needed a pennant before my knees completely crapped out on me.

But just before I made it to the privacy of the locker room, a cheerful brunette stepped in front of me—Gia Kubic looking fierce, which on her tiny frame looked adorable.

“Connor, you’re looking happy this morning.” It was the opening salvo in her perky war, and I wasn’t having any of it.

“Because I was about to go bond with my team. Practice is in thirty minutes.” I started to go around her, but she slipped right in front of me again. Impressive how she did that while teetering in those heels.

“I’m part of your team,” she said, smiling. “Come bond with me for a few minutes.”

Not a chance. Not with her ginger spice scent teasing my nostrils. Little Connor was joining her in the perky department, and I had no desire to go down that road. “Sorry. Baseball stuff to do.” I was going to throw the ball around a bit before the practice started. That was my plan, in any case.

Then she set her hand on my arm. “Sounds good to me,” she said, her ever-present smile in place.

I glared at her hand because it was making my muscles clench. There was nothing lovelier than a woman’s hand. It heated just the right amount. It gave just enough pressure without being firm. And I could throw it off, whenever I wanted. Apparently, I didn’t want to, so I just glared at it until she pulled it back. And I—stupid ass that I was—regretted the loss. And then she kept talking.

“I’ve been on the phone with your agent all morning.”

“Charlie? Why?”

“Because he wants me to do more to promote you.” She rolled her eyes as if that were something she had to deal with every day.

“I’m sorry I skipped out on those interviews. Thank you for covering for me. Rob did a good job with the extra attention.”

She blinked in surprise and then flashed a mega-watt smile. “Thank you. It helped that he won the Home Run Derby.” Apparently she hadn’t expected anyone to appreciate how well she’d handled damage control after I’d bailed. But I’d noticed, and I’d been very grateful to have gotten back early enough to spend time with my younger sister, Cassie, before the regular season games started up again. Seeing that she was okay had allowed me to come back to work today, ready to focus.

“Don’t worry about Charlie.”

“He wants me to make you into a media darling,” she huffed, the first sign that the perkiness was slipping.

“I’ll talk to him—” I offered, but she waved it off.

“And Joe DeLuce agrees. He’d like publicity to spend some time focusing on the Bobcats’ more stable, mature players.”

Jesus, I was only twenty-seven! Hardly old enough to be talked about in those terms. “What happened to Jake and Ellie?”

Her jaw tightened, and I saw that there was trouble in that fake paradise.

I grimaced. “I’ll talk to Jake.”

Her eyes widened. No doubt she remembered the last time I’d “talked” to Jake—I’d nearly put him through a wall.

“No, no! Whatever is going on with them is their business. We don’t need it in the media.”

Which is exactly what I thought about my life. Damn it, I just wanted to play baseball. I had enough balls in the air. I didn’t need the complication of publicity, but she just kept talking.

“So here’s your choice. I could pick the promotion I want you to do and get Joe to sign off on it.”

“In which case, I’d have no say in the matter.”

She grinned as if I were an especially perceptive student. “Or you can be part of the discussion. Right now. With me.”

I stared at her. I think I might have growled low in my throat. She just met my displeasure with determined cheer.

“The more time we stand in the hall trying to stare each other down, the less input you’ll have into your own future.”

“I pick my future,” I said. “Joe can’t force me to do any bullshit I don’t like.”

She wrinkled her nose and looked up at the ceiling as if she was trying to remember something. “Very true. But as I recall, your contract requires you to participate in all reasonable promotion.”

She was right. “I think our definitions of reasonable are vastly different.”

“Probably,” she said with a laugh. The sound teased through my chest. “You won’t know unless you join me in my office,” she quipped, then she stepped around me and walked down the hall.

Right now, I still had a choice. I could go into the locker room and get on with the business of winning the pennant, or I could turn around and head into that infuriating woman’s office to fight over publicity bullshit. I knew what I wanted to do—play baseball. And not think about how I felt her laugh on a visceral level. Or notice that her ginger spice scent lingered long after she’d left. Regardless, my feet were already following her down to her office.


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