Read an Excerpt
Two months earlier . . .
It was the last thing Killian Reeves remembered uttering before having a heavy, unfortunate-smelling man slam him to the ground.
I get paid for this?
The man immediately stood, not delaying the inevitable. Killian did a quick mental check of his bones and muscles, contracting and relaxing each one until he was pretty sure nothing was broken or dislodged and getting up on his own wouldn’t prove fatal. So far, so good. He rolled over onto his side and groaned.
I do not get paid enough for this.
“Killian. Dude, you okay?” His holder—and backup quarterback—Josh Leeman, crouched down next to him. Which put his cup right in Killian’s eyesight.
“Get your junk out of my face, Leeman.”
Josh scooted back an inch, but not more.
“Christ, what happened?”
“Fumble,” came the obvious answer from the unhelpful holder. “Shitty snap, and I couldn’t recover.”
Killian tested getting up to a kneeling position. Nothing snapped or bent in the wrong direction. Though he hated the idea, he reached out and grabbed Josh’s forearm to pull himself up all the way. “And exactly how did that ogre get around the block?”
“Um, bad luck?”
He resisted ripping off Josh’s arm—mostly because he wouldn’t have the energy for it. He saw from the corner of his eye the kicker coach and two trainers jogging out to meet them on the field. He waved them off, because . . . embarrassing. The other guys took dozens of hits in any given game. He took one all season and he needed to be carried off the field?
Not fucking likely.
Without limping, he met the trainers and coach halfway to the bench and shook his head. They followed silently to his own little corner, his own little space on the Bobcats sideline where nobody bothered him and everyone knew invading his territory was punishable by death.
Head Coach Jordan knelt down as Killian settled on the bench and unsnapped his chinstrap. “Took a good one.”
“Felt like it.” Killian eased off the helmet, blinking when his ears started ringing.
“I think you flew back a couple of feet. Like watching a rag doll get tossed.”
“Not making me feel better, Coach.” His job wasn’t to take a punch. His job was to use his golden foot and kick the pigskin through the uprights. That was all. Go out, kick, score, wave, and retreat to his corner.
For this, he made a living.
One of the trainers stooped down beside Coach and shined a light in his eyes. Killian swatted at the pen light.
“I have to check your pupils.”
“There’s still two of them.”
Looking exasperated, the trainer pointed the flashlight elsewhere—thank you—and held up three fingers. “How many?”
“The number of seconds I’m giving you to step back: three.”
The other trainer, a cute little brunette who filled out the Bobcats polo well, jerked on his shoulder. “Give him a minute. He’s fine.”
“But I have to—”
“Give him a minute.”
Killian was going to send that girl trainer some flowers. She deserved flowers for her good sense and timing.
Coach Jordan saw the look in his eyes and waved off the trainers. “He’s fine. I’ll get you if he needs you.”
“Not likely,” Killian muttered as they walked away. Probably talking amongst themselves about what an asshole he was.
Yeah. He was an asshole. He knew it. He cultivated the rep in order to keep people from getting too close. Not that he had to try hard. He was a kicker. They were the redheaded stepchildren of the NFL.
Coach clapped his shoulder lightly. “Give yourself a minute, then come talk. We need to figure out just what the hell that was.”
“Talk to defense. Talk to whoever blew the snap. I didn’t even see it coming.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Didn’t see that semi-truck coming right at me.”
“You’re focused.” His coach shrugged, as if it were completely natural to just not see a three- hundred-pound man running straight at you, intent on destroying you. With that, he left Killian to his thoughts.
He grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his neck. Though it was mid-September, edging up on play-offs, the Santa Fe heat turned his uniform into a sweat box. He never would have made it playing the game if he’d had to keep his helmet on as long as the others did. But they all seemed to love it. Loved everything that came from the game. The bruises, the battle scars, the chicks . . .
Okay, the chicks were good.
They fucked up your world with knife-like precision.
Bad enough, he knew because the kick was botched, people would be looking at him and wanting his take on the whole fiasco. The press were already rabid with the Bobcats this season, thanks to the delightful addition of one new Jordan family member. The Prodigal Daughter. Though he was fortunate enough to keep an arm’s length away from that shit storm by playing clueless—weren’t they all clueless?—and silent as a monk.
When he ran out, did his job, and came back, nobody expressed any interest in seeing him. Which, frankly, was his dream come true. No reporters asking, “What was it like to kick a ball through a goal?” No post-game analysis with the press.
When he missed, or something went wrong, suddenly everyone remembered his name and needed to hear his take on it. The pressure only rose exponentially during a high-stakes game like this, their fight for the division championship.
But that wasn’t the worst part. No, not by a long shot.
Grabbing the nearest water bottle, he squirt a stream of water in his mouth, swished, then spit, hoping it would remove the bad taste of what was yet to come.
No such luck.
Mopping his forehead, he settled back to watch the team set up their defense.
“Charlie is going to give me such hell for this.”
* * *
Aileen Rogers plugged one ear, holding the other flat against her iPhone. “Bobby. Bobby! I can’t do this story.”
Bobby Mundane—his unfortunate real name—sighed. “Aileen, this is what you’re good at. Getting the women to talk. You’re disarming.”
Which, Aileen knew, was Bobby Code for, You’re not a bombshell. Women see you as their new best friend, not as competition. “That word isn’t a compliment, you know.”
“I don’t have to compliment you, I pay you money to do what I say. That’s what happens when you’re the owner. Now get something on camera about the groupies, get a few interviews, and get back with the editors so we can move on to the next story.” With that, he was gone.
Aileen stuffed the phone back in her jeans pocket. She’d curse, but it was a waste of breath. The guy thrived on being disliked. Something about how it made his job as everyone’s boss easier if nobody came in expecting to be treated well.
There’s a boost of morale if ever she’d heard one.
She picked up her camera, checked the view through the lens, and nearly dropped the thing when the first shrill scream sounded. Another joined it, then another until the roughly two dozen women were all bouncing around on their high heels and attempting to out-shriek one another. Aileen captured a few moments of the groupie hysteria before she saw the first Bobcat player emerge from the side door.
Man, this felt creepy. It was bad enough she’d been forced to sit back by the players’ parking lot to get a good spot to talk with the groupies about what made them tick—hint: not brain cells. But filming the men for a fluff piece about women who wanted to slip between their sheets, when she’d rather be interviewing them about the game they just played, felt like a very small step above paparazzi behavior.
After another few moments, Aileen gave up and tossed the small camera in her bag. She shuffled slowly through the jumping women, trying to reach one of the guys to get a quote about the game. With her iPhone in her hand and her recording app running, she called a few questions to the linemen as they walked past. But they largely ignored her, choosing instead to give attention to the women whose breasts were on display like pastries in a bakery window.
Trey Owens walked by, shuffled through the throng by security. He didn’t speak to anyone and quickly disappeared into the parking lot. So, at least she knew he wasn’t going to be featured in her groupie piece.
Every time she managed to get close to one of the players, she got an elbow in the head, or stepped on. The price of being barely five feet, nobody seemed to notice you when they almost squashed you. It was worse than a mosh pit.
Accepting defeat, Aileen took a step back and did her best to regroup. She’d wait, give the girls time to recover after the players had left, then ask a few questions to round out the footage she already had.
And Bobby would just have to be satisfied with that.
As she leaned against a pole, she noticed one player walk out behind two others, sliding almost unnoticed by the other women. Killian Reeves, the kicker, and the unfortunate man to get blindsided by a tackle today. He hung back, leaning against the side of the building, as if waiting for the crowd to thin before attempting to get through. No other women approached him. In fact, one woman looked like she wanted to, but then veered off course.
It was a sign. Quickly adjusting her bag over her shoulder, Aileen stepped in to stand beside him. “Hey.”
He glanced down, then away, then back down again. “Hey.”
“Killian Reeves, right?”
He raised a brow. “Fan?”
“I know my local sports.” She hitched her bag higher.
“Oh, yeah?” He paused, then crossed his arms over his chest. “I assume you were at the game, then?”
“Couldn’t get tickets.” It was true enough. Off Season—the website she worked for—wouldn’t foot the bill for the season pass. She couldn’t afford one on her own. Cheap-ass Bobby. “But I listened on my phone.”
“And now you’re out here.” His mink-brown hair, brushing over one eyebrow, fell a little farther to nearly cover his left eye. She itched to push it back behind his ear.
“I am.” She took a chance, then added, “Can I wait with you?”
He blinked at that. “I think you’ve got your players mixed up. You want one of them.” He pointed toward the players who hadn’t made a break for the parking lot. The ones who were not only allowing, but almost encouraging the touching and body-pressing and Sign my jersey right over my breasts crap. “They love talking to women.”
Aileen made a face before she could catch herself. “I’ll pass, thanks.”
He started walking toward the opening of the parking lot. If he walked in there, she couldn’t follow, and she didn’t want to feel what it was like to be tackled by a security officer.
“Girls like you don’t wait out here,” he said, surprising her.
“Girls like . . .” She glanced down at her simple black V-neck shirt, jeans, and Converse. Was that an insult or a compliment? “I’m not sure how to take that.”
“Take it however you want.” He paused just before walking through the gate. Other girls were still hanging off the massive biceps of the players who had stopped to chat, but nobody approached them. Odd, since Killian was wide open. Why?
“Did you have something you wanted me to sign?”
“Oh, uh, no.” She was wasting her one opportunity. Aileen fought for something—anything—then blurted out, “What the hell happened when you got hit?”
His annoyed frown turned into a scowl. “You know, you might be the worst groupie I’ve ever seen. You’re supposed to make the guys feel like gods, not knock them down off the pedestal.”
“I’m not a groupie, I’m a reporter.” Her chest swelled a little at the title, even if it did come with the less-than-distinguished employment. She looked down into her bag for her press credentials, then glanced back up to find him already walking away. “Wait! Can I get a comment on the game?”
He shot her a sarcastic salute, then said, “I don’t talk to reporters.” And walked through the security gates, out of reach.
“Barking up the wrong tree there, sweetheart.”
She turned and nearly ran into a boob. Damn being short, once again. Craning her neck, she looked up at the woman with teased blonde hair and a number sixteen jersey stretched so tight over her breasts the material might split at any moment. “What tree?”
The woman laughed and slung an arm around Aileen’s shoulders, hunching over a little to do so. “Kicker Killian. He doesn’t talk to us. Like, ever.”
“Us . . . oh. Right.” They thought she was a groupie, too. Was she giving off a desperate vibe she was unaware of? “Why is that, anyway?”
“Well, some of the girls hypothesize he’s testy about his testes.” When Aileen blinked, confused, she laughed harder. “They think he’s got a small package in his cup, to go with his small stature.”
“That’s a small stature?” The man had to be five foot ten, maybe a hundred and seventy pounds.
“Maybe not to you, little thing, but compared to the rest of the prime beef he plays with . . . yeah. I’m Meg, by the way.” She escorted Aileen over to a pack of women who must have given up the ghost and accepted defeat on the manhunt for the day. “This is Tricia, Sarah, and Eve.”
The women all gave her a little wave. Aileen smiled.
Meg gave her a squeeze. “Stick with us, honey. We’ll guide you to the more . . . shall we say, willing players.”
“Oh, I don’t—”
“I don’t need a willing man. I just like to touch the muscles.” Eve—she thought it was Eve—licked her lips. “One quick touch lasts me through the week.”
“Her husband’s a toothpick,” Meg whispered none too softly. Eve shrugged. “We’re going for drinks. Join?”
Aileen had to laugh. These women were more fun than she’d mentally given them credit for. Suddenly, her assignment didn’t seem so pathetic. “Sure. And actually, I have some questions . . .”
* * *
Killian snorted as he climbed in his SUV and started the engine. He had to wait for the AC to kick in before leaving the shelter of the parking garage or he’d be toast in the sun. He let his head hit the back of the seat and closed his eyes. Every muscle in his body ached. Even his jaw was sore from the way his teeth knocked together at the hit.
How in the hell did the guys do this week after week?
He raked his hand through his hair, pulling it away from his brow, then thought back to the reporter’s auburn hair. That perfect mix of red and brown, where it couldn’t be just one or the other, but a true blend of both. She’d had freckles, too, covering her face and forearms. He’d bet money she was covered in them all over. He wouldn’t have minded going on a little freckle-hunt, finding each and every one.
Killian was a sucker for freckles.
The cute, freckled one just had to be a reporter.
Not that being a groupie would have been much of a better option. He’d been wary of groupies since his sophomore year with the Bobcats. For damn good reason. He’d been burned by a woman before.
He should have known she wasn’t one. She’d been dressed to blend in, not stand out. No cleavage, no Bobcats shirt or jersey stretched tight over paid-for tits, no groping or touching or trying to hop on his back and convince him he’d wanted to give her a piggyback ride.
Though thankfully, that shit had ceased several years ago, when he’d made it clear he didn’t do the groupie-touching thing. Ever. At least, ever again. After awhile, they stopped bothering. Between that, and the well-known fact that the kicker was the most underpaid guy on the team, he rarely suffered having to beat them off with sticks anymore.
How the fuck did Owens deal with it for months at a time?
And yet the tiny freckled reporter had made him consider, just for a moment. . . . Some tiny spark of hope had bloomed in him, without any reason. Probably a sign he needed to get out and get laid.
After checking behind him, Killian reversed and pulled out of the parking spot. When he reached the side road that led into the parking garage, he hit a button on his steering wheel. “Call Charlie.”
Ringing filled the car, and after two quick seconds, a voice answered. “Are you okay?”
He smiled at the anxiety. “Yeah, I’m good. Can’t keep me down for long.”
“He’s okay!” Charlie yelled. A feminine voice said something Killian couldn’t make out, then Charlie laughed. “She says your head is hard.”
“She’s not wrong.” Killian felt his entire body relax now, his forehead smooth out. Tension evaporated into the hot September New Mexico air like steam. “Don’t let anyone give you crap about it tomorrow.”
“I won’t.” Another moment of feminine murmuring in the background. “I gotta go. Talk to you tomorrow?”
A pause, and then, “I love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too, bud.” Killian smiled as his son hung up. He was reaching the age where he was too cool to say it regularly. Which only made the times he said so unprompted that much more special.
God, he missed Charlie with a bone-deep ache. Worse than the physical pain of being hit by a guy the size of a trailer. But they’d agreed—he and Emma—it was best for them to stay in Vegas. Keep some distance between them, for Charlie’s sake.
Didn’t make it hurt any less.
As he drove home, his mind rotated through a litany of regrets. The fumble, not seeing Charlie every day, and the missed opportunity with Freckles.
Aileen fought hard not to yawn as she listened to one of her co-workers drone on about his fantastic interview with some up-and-coming golfer. She shuffled her feet in her cat slippers, wondering when the last time she’d dusted her apartment floors was. Swiffer time, maybe? Glancing down, she saw the bottom of one cat was coated in gray.
Yup. Swiffer time.
She jolted, nearly falling out of her seat. Straightening her one business jacket, she sat up straight and nodded to the camera on her laptop. “Yes?”
“Done daydreaming over there?” Her editor, Bobby, looked amused. The other male reporters—all of whom were on the Skype call—looked annoyed.
“No. I mean yes. No! I wasn’t daydreaming.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
Bobby looked down at his notes, then back up. “Your groupie video played out pretty well. Women thought it was interesting without being catty, men thought it was hot.”
“Oh, goodie,” she muttered behind her hand, covering a slight cough. One of the male reporters didn’t bother covering his chuckle. Not that she was shocked. To them, she was completely irrelevant.
“Next assignment is . . .” Bobby shuffled. “Tattoos.”
She blinked. “Just tattoos?”
“Tattoos on the wives. What wives have tattoos supporting their husbands. Jersey numbers, quotes, names, team logos, whatever. I have a few leads I’ll be emailing you with, and we’ll go from there.”
She held back a groan, making sure to keep her clenched fists out of sight of the camera. “Sure thing, Bobby.”
“Okay, gang, that about wraps it up today. If you’ve got anything else, now’s the—”
“Bobby,” she broke in, feeling flushed when everyone froze. Man, she hated that bug-under-a-microscope feeling. “If we could stay a moment after to talk?”
He nodded, then dismissed the rest of the crew. After everyone else logged off, and it was only her and Bobby on the screen, she breathed a little easier. “This story . . .”
“Pretty hot.” He nodded. “I have a feeling you’ll have to be careful with camera angles on some of these chicks. I know one of these women has a tattoo of her husband’s hockey jersey right on her—”
“Nope. No way.” She slapped her hands over her ears. “Full stop.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “You’re such a prude. When are you going to give up the crazy cat lady persona and kick it up a notch?”
She didn’t actually own a cat . . . but knew what he meant. Because only the hot Amazon women were considered for major network broadcasting. The ones who weren’t dwarfed standing next to a basketball star. Who commanded the eye. Who made men drool and women green with envy.
Her cat slippers shuffled on the floor. “I don’t have a crazy cat lady persona.”
“Then try showing a little cleavage in this next video. The male viewers love that shit.”
She squeezed her eyes shut a moment. Pays the rent. Pays the rent. Pays the rent. “Bobby, I need something more. Something more important than this. You know nobody’s going to take me seriously if tattoos and groupies are the extent of my portfolio.” She glared at him. “When I got hired, you promised I’d be working on the stories that mattered. That would catch the big networks’ attention. You said you looked forward to giving me my first step up.”
“You’re working up to it.” He shrugged. “Look, the fact is, viewers have a harder time taking you seriously when it comes to the actual sports stuff. They think you’re cute, like their little sister. The women like you because you’re softer, and the guys don’t mind watching because you know the right angles to push even on the bullshit stories.”
“So you admit you’ve been giving me bullshit stories?”
“I give you the stories that are challenging,” he amended with a toothy grin. “The ones only a true professional, such as yourself, can make shine.”
“Talk about bullshit,” she muttered.
He raised a brow, indicating he heard her.
“Bobby, give me something. Anything. I can’t keep doing this forever. I can’t be Off Season’s fluff reporter. You knew I had bigger dreams when I took this gig.”
He steepled his hands, watching her for a moment. His steel-gray eyes made her want to shiver with their coldness. Bobby Mundane had a way of staring at you that made you not sure if he was checking you out, or about to verbally skin you alive. “Okay, Rogers. You want something bigger? Go get it.”
She blinked. “Go get . . . what?”
“A bigger story. You get me a damn good story, a good five-minute run of unique content that would make any big network proud, and I’ll personally hand it over to my buddy at NBC.”
Her mouth dried up a little. “Seriously?”
“Hell yeah, I’m serious. Though to be honest, I don’t have high hopes.”
She fought back a scowl.
“Reminder,” he added, looking like he was one second away from busting out laughing. “You couldn’t score the goods with the Prodigal Daughter.”
“Nobody could score the goods with her. Cassie Wainwright didn’t want to be interviewed by any media after her initial opening. What was I supposed to do, duct tape her to a chair until she talked?”
Bobby brightened. “That’s the spirit. More of that talk and we could have a real go at this.”
She snorted in disgust.
“Rogers, you want attention from the big wigs? You need a white whale.” He tapped a finger on his goatee-covered chin. “Okay, how about this? Another elusive public figure. One nobody has any interview tape with. Not the big networks, not the small timers, nobody.”
A skitter of warning traveled up her spine. “Uh, Bobby . . .”
Warming to the idea, he ignored her. “You get an interview like that, and our view count would skyrocket.”
“Okay, but really—”
“There’s no way the networks could ignore that. You’d have what they couldn’t get.”
Aileen disconnected the Skype chat without a word and let her head fall to the rickety desk. Of course. Sure, here’s your ticket into the big game, Aileen. And you only have to land on the moon to get it.
Feeling defeated, she stood and closed her laptop carefully. The desk, she could live without. The laptop, no way. And she couldn’t afford to replace it. Luckily, Bobby was the kind of boss who didn’t take offense when you hung up on him. He assumed all his reporters came with odd temperaments and adjusted his expectations accordingly.
She shuffled over to stand at the mirror of her bureau. One look at her reflection made her snort at the entire situation. From the waist up, she was the polished professional in a camisole and her one suit jacket. Her hair was twisted up into a simple bun, though she’d skipped makeup this morning. Nobody would have noticed that detail from the grainy quality the built-in camera in her laptop produced.
From the waist down, she was a joke. Just like her career. The flannel pajama bottoms and cat slippers almost mocked her.
Crazy cat lady persona.
Just because a woman wore cat slippers didn’t make her crazy. Or a cat lady. You had to have actual cats to classify for that.
She hung up the jacket and camisole, keeping them as neat as possible. She couldn’t afford dry cleaning, so taking care of what she had was her main defense. Luckily, she dressed casually for interviews. Casual was the tone Off Season aimed for. With each video they shot, they wanted to reach as many audiences as possible. Too stiff, and you lose the young crowd. Too loose, and you lose the older generations.
Grabbing the nearest notebook and pen—they were scattered all over her shoebox apartment—she started jotting down ideas to turn the tattoo story into something less skanky and more legitimate. Or, rather, as legitimate as a story about body ink could get.
But before she could stop herself, she’d written down talking points for, Killian Reeves. She groaned and ripped out the paper, tossing it at the wastebasket and missing by six inches.
Waste of time.
But wasn’t that what she was doing anyway? Wasting her time with Off Season? With each fluff piece she took on, each big moment she was passed by for a man, or a hotter woman, she wasted her time.
Crawling off the bed, she grabbed the paper she’d tossed away. She smoothed it out on her bed, reading over the few notes she’d made.
Was she doing this? Was she really going to badger a reluctant interview subject? And there was no doubt about it, Killian was reluctant. He personified the word.
She’d never made a nuisance of herself before in the name of a story. Which might explain why she was still at ground zero with her career.
Aileen walked over to the photo of her parents and let one fingertip glide over the edge of the frame. For courage, she told herself.
Time to take action. Time to at least try.
* * *
Killian toweled off and walked to his locker to change into street clothes. Around him, guys joked and messed around. Some talked about making plans for later, or made comments about what had happened the night before.
Nobody approached him, asking to hang out. Nobody ever did. He’d used to get invitations to barbeques, get-togethers, dinners out.
After he’d said no enough times, the offers stopped coming in.
He told himself that was fine. He didn’t need friendships. Didn’t need the hassle of connections, while trying to keep his life private.
The ache in his chest knew better.
“Hey, Killian.” Josiah Walker, Bobcat running back, self-professed eco-loving country boy, walked over. He was already dressed in a windbreaker, jeans, and running shoes, with a backpack slung over his shoulders. “There’s a cutie standing out there, waiting for you.”
He glanced up from pulling on his boxers. “Come again?”
Josiah laughed. “Yeah, I was pretty damn shocked, too. Tried to convince her she wanted me instead, but she insisted she wanted you, and only you.”
“Groupie?” he asked hesitantly.
“Nah.” Josiah sank down to the bench, settling in. His back leaned against the locker next to Killian’s open one. “Small thing, tiny really. Auburn hair, pulled back into some bun thing on the top of her head. And she’s got these . . .” He ran one finger over his nose.
A sense of foreboding hit him in the chest. “Let me guess. Freckles.”
Josiah nodded and smiled. “You know her?”
“We’ve met.” He finished dressing and shut his locker.
Josiah stood, then looked at him for a minute. “Want me to get rid of her?”
The offer, so simply given, when they’d barely spoken two words to each other during the season, was like a balm to his lonely soul. “No. Thanks, though. I’ll see what she wants.”
Josiah shrugged and headed out with a wave.
The moment was probably nothing to Josiah. He was a friendly guy. But to Killian, who had barely had contact with anyone besides his coaches and his son in the last few years, it felt like a hell of a lot more.
He slung his bag over one shoulder and weaved his way through the lockers and players in various states of undress to the tunnel that would lead him to the parking lot. There, leaning against one wall, was Freckles.
She smiled slowly as the door to the locker room closed behind him. “That was fast.”
“Why wait?” He started walking, keeping a pace he knew she struggled to keep up with.
But she did anyway. Practically jogging in her Converse, she shuffled sideways to look at him. “Don’t you hang out with anyone after practices?”
“No. Look, what do you want?” He stopped so suddenly, she nearly fell as she fought to halt her side shuffle. He reached out and grabbed her upper arm. Even to him, considered scrawny in the NFL at five foot ten, she was shockingly small. He could toss her over his shoulder with ease. Carry her around with him for an hour and not notice the weight.
“Maybe I just wanted to see you.” She straightened, then looked pointedly at his hand. He was still holding her arm, despite having her balance. He let go quickly. “Maybe I have a thing for stubborn guys with sulky attitudes.”
He scowled. “I don’t sulk.” What a stupid thing to say.
One corner of her full mouth tilted up. “You kinda do sulk.”
“No, I—” He shook his head. This was the kind of argument his five year old would love. “Look, just ask for the interview you clearly want, so I can say no, then you can go away.”
She seemed to think about that for a moment. “No.”
“No . . . what? No, you’re not asking for an interview?”
He resisted the urge to rip out his hair. “No. What.”
“No, I’m not going away.” She smiled angelically at him. Who knew angels could be so evil? “I have plans. Big plans. And you are a very small—but important—part of those very big plans. My lynchpin, if you will. So you see, Killian Reeves, I can’t just go away.”
“I’m not giving you an interview.”
“Probably not today,” she agreed easily.
“Probably not ever,” he corrected.
Her smile brightened. “You said probably, which isn’t the same thing as never. So see? Already we’re making progress.”
He gaped at her, then kept walking. Not shockingly, she caught up quickly. “You’re an infuriating woman.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Your husband must be a saint.”
“No husband.” She took a few running steps, then planted herself in front of him so he had to stop, or run her over. He seriously debated the latter. “No boyfriend. No real commitments other than work. Which means I can be as tenacious as I want to be. I know what I want, and it’s you.”
The words sparked a heat deep in his gut, but he battled it back. She was a reporter. She wanted to pry straight into his private life. Taking two steps to the left, he walked around her. She did a little hop-step to catch up.
Suddenly, she stopped and smiled calmly. “Okay.”
Okay? Her sudden, suspicious face into amenable territory had him freezing. “That’s it? Just, okay?”
She shrugged one shoulder, rocking back on her heels. “You said ‘go away.’ So, okay.” She took a few steps to the left, halted, then turned around. “I’m parked that way,” she mumbled with a blush, and ducked her head as she passed him going the opposite direction.
“You can’t just quit like that.”
She waved a hand over her head but didn’t turn around.
He followed. Why the hell was he following her? “What kind of reporter are you?”
She spun to walk backward a few paces. “I’m a nobody, for now.”
“No wonder, if you give up that easily.”
She quirked one side of her lip up. “Would you rather I jump on your back and ride you to your car like an ox?”
I’d rather you jumped on my front and rode me in bed.
Aw, shit. Not right. Not right at all. He stopped, and she kept walking backward, watching him. “Fine. Good.”
“Good,” she echoed. Then, with a little hitch, she did an abrupt face and jogged to the public parking lot. The massive tote purse thing she had slung over her body bounced against her ass, which was so snugly, perfectly covered in faded denim he couldn’t not watch it until it—and she—disappeared out of sight.
Killian sighed and waited for the relief to wash over him. But instead, it was annoyance, with a healthy dash of curiosity, that overtook him. No wonder she worked for some nobody blog, or whatever it was. She gave up too fast.
Which was a good thing, he reminded himself as he followed around the corner to make sure she actually left, and didn’t just wait for him to stop paying attention and double back. He watched her get into a piece of junk car that looked like its primary color was silver duct tape. He held his breath until the engine caught and she pulled out of the parking lot.
“That was the most bizarre flirting I’ve ever seen.”
He jolted, then turned to look at Josiah Walker and Stephen Harrison. They stood off to the side, Josiah wearing a raggedy baseball cap, with a backpack slung over his shoulders, holding his road bike. Stephen, arms crossed, keys dangling from one hand.
“No,” the running back said slowly, then pointed down to his bicycle. “This is where I lock up my bike. Always has been. And you two would have noticed us if you hadn’t been caught in your weirdo sexual dance.”
Stephen smiled and nodded. “It was pretty damn hot, just saying.”
Killian raised a brow at that.
Josiah just chuckled and wheeled his bike toward the main road. The man preferred to bike whenever possible. He was one of those environmental guys who got their jollies off on calculating your carbon footprint and stuff. People around town always got a kick to see him pedal past on his way to practice or something.
Stephen, a mountain of a man who liked to laugh, just smiled quietly and walked toward the parking lot.
Killian worked in La La Land.
He ran a hand over his hair, then forced himself to walk back toward the players’ lot. Freckles was none of his business. If she wanted to fail at her job, so be it. The less time he spent arguing with her, the more time he had for himself.
Even if the arguing was the closest thing to a social life in years.
Aileen dumped her bag on her bed and grinned. God, Killian Reeves was adorable when he was annoyed. Which, from the perma-scowl on his face, she would estimate to be almost always. The guy didn’t have a natural, easygoing personality, that was for sure. Add to it his dislike of reporters and attention, and she had her work cut out for her.
But today had been a great start. Even if he didn’t know it yet.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she reached for it. “Hello?”
“What’ve you got for me?”
She bit back a sigh. “Nothing yet, Bobby. You expect me to go out in the fishing boat once and get the whale to just jump into my net?”
“Don’t be a smartass. No man wants a smart-ass woman.”
Fortunately for her, she wasn’t running around trying to snag herself a man. “I’ll write that one down in my book of Bobbyisms. Is this all you called me for? To see if I’ve scored yet?”
“Maybe I missed hearing your acidic little tongue.”
She hung up. She always did when he got like that. He wouldn’t fire her. She was too valuable. At least for now. Which one of his too-tough-for-fluff male reporters would do the pieces aimed at women for the site? That’s right . . . none of them. So while she went fishing for her white whale, she still had a moment or two of job security.
Grabbing her laptop, she kicked off her shoes and plopped onto the bed. While the ancient machine decided whether it was worth starting today, she reached in her nightstand and grabbed a handful of Twizzlers.
Hey, some people kept condoms in the nightstand. She preferred the more logical choice . . . candy. Not like condoms were gonna get used, anyway.
Candy? Candy would always be useful.
As the laptop finally breathed to life, she bit off a piece of red yumminess. “Okay, Killian Reeves, let’s start digging.”
* * *
Killian let himself into his apartment and closed the door quietly. He loved the ease of renting. He wasn’t a huge proponent of owning massive properties that took a staff to keep up and running, like some of the guys. Not to mention, he was one of the lowest earners on the team. Either way, he preferred the more anonymous life of rentals. But the one downside . . . neighbors.
His across-the-breezeway neighbor had taken it into her head to “adopt” him. The woman was eighty, if she was a day, and once she found out he was single, had decided to make him her pet project. Which meant she was constantly bringing by food, or a scarf she made, or inviting herself over to watch American Idol, because her TV was “on the fritz,” whatever that meant.
Mrs. Reynolds was a pushy lady when she wanted to be.
When he looked out the peephole and didn’t see his not-by-choice adopted grandmother scurrying over, he felt safe to breathe again. Dropping his bag by the door, he flopped onto the couch and grabbed his phone. Hitting his Favorites, then his top contact, he waited for Charlie to answer.
Just hearing the boyish enthusiasm cheered him immensely. “Hey, bud. How was school?”
His son groaned. “Art day. I hate art day. I want P.E. Why can’t we have P.E. every day?”
Killian mentally shuddered. He’d felt the same way about art. All that cutting and pasting and blending colors and making weird-looking pandas out of flour and water . . . no thanks. “Otherwise fun?”
“I guess.” He could hear a little hitch in his son’s breathing. “Dad?”
“Are you coming out here soon?”
He closed his eyes against the wash of pain. “Probably not this month.”
There was a long stretch of quiet. “Okay,” was his son’s small reply. “Mom wants to say hi.”
“Killian,” was the cool, feminine reply.
Emma, Charlie’s mother. Killian scowled. “He didn’t say good-bye.”
“He’s tired,” she said simply. “And heartbroken.”
“What the hell happened?”
Emma was silent for a moment. He could picture her biting her bottom lip in indecision.
“It’s Donuts with Dads week at school.”
“Donuts . . . what?” What the hell kind of holiday was this?
“Donuts with Dads,” she repeated again slowly. “Where the fathers come in early in the morning with their kids and eat donuts and drink orange juice and the kids get to show off their dads to the other kids and feel special.”
Gut punch. “Emma, I—”
“I already explained,” she said. There was no heat in her voice, no venom. They’d made the choice together to keep apart as much as possible. So that people wouldn’t put together Charlie’s parents and realize who had made the awesome little kid. For his own good. “That doesn’t make it hurt any less. But I’m going in your place.”
“What, there’s no Munchies with Moms day?”
“There’s a mother’s tea,” she said primly. “But a bunch of single moms were talking and decided to support our kids the only way we know how. So we’re wearing suits and fake mustaches and coming for donuts on Friday.”
His lips twitched as he pictured the gorgeous blonde bombshell wearing a fake mustache. “That’s . . . original.”
“It’s what single moms do.” When he sucked in a breath, she sighed. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.”
He cleared his throat. “So, how’s the real estate business running?”
She huffed. “Picking back up. The market’s making a steady climb, so things are getting better. You can stop the extra payments . . . not that I needed them to begin with.”
“You know I’ll do whatever I can,” he said, meaning it. He couldn’t be there for every day of Charlie’s life, so he was going to make damn sure he and his mother never suffered in any other way. He paid the agreed upon child support without hesitation. It was enough for any normal single mom to survive on without needing a job. But when her real estate business plummeted with the down market right after Charlie was born, he’d added additional payments to get them over the hump. That, on his kicker’s salary, hadn’t been as easy. But he’d never begrudged her the money.
Emma was a good mom, and she made his life easier by always keeping communication open with Charlie, not playing stupid custody games, and agreeing to their necessary arrangement. She might be flakey from time to time, but not when it came to their son.
If it weren’t for their unfortunate start, things might have been different between them. Not that they would have been together now. There’d been no true spark. They’d been convenient for each other, in different ways, which had been enough. Liking each other had been a bonus.
And then it had all gone to hell.
“So how’s football treating you?”
“A game’s a game.”
She snorted. “You could try taking it seriously.”
“They pay me money to walk out, kick a ball, and walk back. It’s not brain surgery. I’m not vaccinating orphans in Africa, Em.”
“You’re providing for Charlie’s future. So keep kicking that ball as long as you can.”
“Yes, ma’am.” They spoke a few more minutes, then he hung up. So life was complicated. He didn’t get to see his son as often as he wanted thanks to his job, the pressure was piling on, and he had a freckled reporter who gave up too easily looking for a story.