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AMANDA WRIGHT was living a dream.
New shoes. Expensive outfit-also new. Press pass around her neck allowing entry into a professional baseball players' locker room-a room certain to display hot male bodies in various stages of undress.
It was the perfect female fantasy come to life.
Or it should have been.
But right now, Amanda felt as if she were about to walk into the lions' den and those lions-aka ballplayers-were going to eat her alive.
Her high heels clicked on the concrete floor of the tunnel leading to the LosAngeles Rays'locker room, her toes pinched and her mind raced. Her journalistic instincts buzzed with the thought of the after-game activity on the other side of the door. Still, she hung back, wishing like hell she could tap her heels together and transport herself back to Dallas, Texas.
Dallas, the place where she'd had a position reporting high school sports for one of the daily newspapers. It didn't matter that her work had lacked any semblance of challenge and leaned dangerously close to boring. She'd had job security.And her parents and her sister. She'd had her comfortable little downtown apartment overlooking White Rock Lake-she really loved that view.
Nerves flooded her system, and she stopped. For a moment, Amanda stood, watching people pass. What would she do if she went into that locker room and made a fool of herself? What would happen if she didn't impress her editor with her first column? Or didn't attract readers?
What had she been thinking? She must have been insane to leave her comfortable life behind. And for what? A sports column with her name attached? Didn't seem like such a sweet deal at this moment.
Shetook a deep breath. A dream column, she reminded herself. On game days she got space in the paper no matter what, just as she had back home. But now she'd hit the big time. Twice a week she had her very own feature in the sports section. And this wasn't high school baseball. This was the majors. An opportunity she'd fantasized about for years.
But, of course, the job had come with extreme pressure. There was one tiny condition she hadn't shared with her family because they'd only worry more than they already were. Her new boss, Kevin Jones, had given her a short time frame in which to build a readership or she'd be gone. Seemed her predecessor had left and taken many of his fans with him. When she'd asked Kevin how short, he'd simply said, "Short."
The ringing of her cell phone offered a welcomed excuse to continue to stall. She shoved a wayward strand of long, auburn hair behind her ear and reached inside her purse, a petite Louis Vuitton bag her sister, Kelli, had given her to celebrate the new job.
The minute Amanda hit the Answer button, her sister's voice snapped through the line, a lightning rod of reprimand. "I knew it." "Knew what?"
Kelli ignored the question. "Why are you answering your phone?"
Amanda rolled her eyes. "Why are you calling if you don't want me to answer?"
"Because I knew you would," Kelli retorted. "I didn't want to be right, but I knew I would be. Shouldn't you be in a locker room full of hot bodies, drooling enough for the both of us?"
"How do you know I'm not?"
"Like you'd answer if you were."A pause followed and in her mind's eye, Amanda could see Kelli shaking her head. "You've worked yourself into a state of self-doubt, haven't you? Why do you always do this to yourself?"
"I'm not doing anything," Amanda said, lying. Kelli was right. Amanda tended to let big events work her into a ball of nerves, so much so that she often would get sick. Every year, the first day of school had been greeted with a horrible cold and a red nose. Before a swim meet, she'd have abdominal cramps from the knots in her stomach. It was a miracle she'd managed to perform so well, time after time.
"Right," Kelli said. "I wasn't born yesterday. You're standing on the wrong side of that door talking yourself out of this dream."
"Okay, so I am or I was or-"
"Stop trying to think of excuses. You've wanted your own column for years. It's the only thing you've talked about with excitement since you left competitive swimming. You can do this. You've been doing it for years."
Amanda hadn't left swimming. Her knee injury had stolen her aspirations. Shoving away the thought, she reminded herself that period in her life was history and should be buried. The here and now counted and she had new mountains to climb. Or, rather, locker rooms to conquer.
"I covered high school events," she reminded her optimistic sister, stepping out of the path of passersby and leaning against the wall. "These are professional ballplayers."
"You've dealt with plenty of professional athletes." Following her NFL team doctor dad while she was a teen did not count. "Years ago!"
"Well then, you better come home," Kelli said. "Absolutely, you are in over your head. You could get your old job back. You know you could."
Amanda absorbed the sarcastic comments as a much-needed reality check. She'd spent years trying to get away from the high school grind. Her ex-husband had been rooted in Dallas and had refused to move, determined to work himself into her father's good graces and the better opportunities-a higher-end clientele along with the status and money that accompanied itto which he had access. Her ex had cared about those things more than her. After being sideswiped by his affairs, she'd welcomed the divorce, but had needed the security of having family nearby.
Now, she'd found the courage to land her dream job, to relocate, and she couldn't blow it. Not now. She had to do this. She pushed off the wall and straightened.
"I don't know if I should curse you for your snarky attitude or thank you," Amanda said.
"You're welcome. Now go get "em, girl. With all that sass and your hot new image, you're gonna kick butt. Which outfit are you wearing?"
Amanda smiled, thinking of shopping with her sister a month before. That had been the day Amanda had decided to make herself over with a new, sexier appearance and take on the world with a new attitude.
"The black Jones New York skirt," she informed Kelli. She loved her new look. Why she'd hidden in long skirts and flat sandals for so long, she didn't know.
Actually, she did know. She'd been so completely absorbed in competitive swimming that nothing else had seemed important. When her knee injury had burst that dream, her ex-husband's career had easily taken center stage. It had been as if she'd lost herself, her very identity stripped. She'd been Amanda the swimmer who'd become Amanda the wife. Nowhere in there was space for Amanda the woman or Amanda the reporter.
Her makeover changed more than her outside. It gave her confidence and transitioned her into a new state of mind that was dedicated to finding herself and her dreams again. That change of perspective had helped her shine in her job interview.
"Very nice," Kelli said, approval in her tone. "The skirt is one of my favorite picks. Did you go with the Bandolino sandals with those cute ankle straps?"
"Ah, yeah, though I regret letting you talk me into them. They're killing my feet."
"Smile through it, sis. They look sexy and that's what counts. Now kisses and kick butt." The line went dead.
Amanda smiled and slid her phone into her purse. She hitched the strap over her shoulder, prepared to take charge of the locker room and, if she got lucky, a few good men along the way.
With that in mind, she charged forward, no longer caring about the pinch of her toes. No longer letting nerves get in her way. She had a hot new image and a hot new job. No way was she going to stop moving forward now.
In fact, she decided arriving a little late might be good. The guys wouldn't be expecting her. Their guards would be down and she'd get her story.
But it wasn't their guards that fell as she entered that locker room. It was hers.
Surrounded by half-naked, gorgeous men, Amanda's eyes went wide. Everywhere she looked she found rippling muscle and rock-hard backsides exposed by gaping towels. For a girl who hadn't had sex in so long it was embarrassing, the sight was downright shocking. Okay, arousing.
She should have been prepared for this. After all, she'd been in plenty of locker rooms with her father. Clearly, years of working the high school circuit had made her forget just how delicious grown men could be.
And these grown men-correction, half-naked, hot grown men-were all staring at her as the noise had dissolved into silence.
Suddenly, Amanda's bravado of moments before slipped into hiding. Her slim-cut skirt-the one that seemed so perfect only moments before-now felt revealing.
"Hi," she said, waving nervously, while promising herself she would not look below the waist to the display of muscled thighs and teeny-weensy towels. "I'm the new reporter for the Tribune." She reached for the badge hanging from a chain around her neck and held it up.
She was met with a few smiles and murmured hellos. Some turned away, curiosity satisfied. Many continued to stare. Without conscious effort, she did exactly what she'd vowed not to do. Her gaze dropped and took in several sets of rather enticing male torsos, complete with defined abdominals. Worse, before she realized what she was doing, she swiped a strand of hair off her forehead, trying to get a better view.
Afraid she would be caught peeking,Amanda snapped her attention to eye level. She'd come here for a story, and not just any story-one for her very own sports column. Her reaction proved, however, that she needed to address her state of sexual deprivation. Otherwise, being in the company of these men would pose a real distraction.
"Great game, guys," Amanda said, smiling. "Who wants to be the headliner for my first story?"
"You've got to be kidding." The voice came from Amanda's left. A thirty-something man, wearing a sports coat and jeans, stepped into view. His piercing black eyes gave her a rude sweep from head to toe.
"Has Kevin lost his mind?"
"Kevin?" Amanda asked, her eyebrows dipping, thinking. She'd come into town only the day before and met the staff at the paper in a whirlwind that morning. But there was only one Kevin she remembered. "As in my boss, Kevin?"
He crossed his arms in front of his plaid-covered chest before she could locate a press badge. "I'm surprised he didn't go for blond and big-breasted."
Who was this jerk? Amanda didn't know nor did she care. Everything that happened here and now set a tone for the future. She wasn't about to be made a fool of her first day on the job.
Amanda gave the jerk a bored look. "And who might you be?" "Jack Krass," he said, a slight gloat to his tone that said she should know the name.
And she did, as did the rest of the city. Jack Krass's face was plastered on billboards-lots of them-advertising his column with a competing paper. She should have recognized him. Amanda had replaced him at the Tribune, meaning he'd once worn the shoes she now had to prove she could walk in. Worse, they were shoes two other reporters before her had failed to fill. Even though his confidence could be justified, in Amanda's mind there was no call for him to be snide and nasty.
"Your name sounds vaguely familiar," she said, a finger to her chin in mock concentration. "Wait!" She pointed in the air. "I know how I know you. A bunch of the guys at the paper were playing pin the tail on the Jack Krass this morning." Her eyes went wide. "Wow. That must mean they really don't like you. Why is that?"
A roar of laughter drew Amanda's attention to the handsome face of Brad Rogers, who shared her hometown in Texas. The blond, blue-eyed pitcher had a lightning-speed arm and a reputation as a bad boy.
He was also her father's favorite player, so Amanda knew him well, as did most women. The man was a walking sex god. Amanda didn't have to look too closely to decide he was even more of a hottie in person than on television.
Leaning all six feet of his rippling muscles against a locker, he fixed Amanda in a come-get-me stare. When he winked, she felt it all the way to her toes. The sizzle was instant. He made her burn. If she could pick any man to end her sexless existence, Brad would be the one. Too bad their jobs put him out of reach.