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Samantha took a deep breath and unclenched her fists as she neared the wide blue doors. Relax, it's just another job. But this was not just another job, at least not like any others she'd had. The doors were closed, but the scent of the locker room slipped past them and wafted around her. Male sweat, liniment and antifungal remedies teased her nose, growing stronger with each step. At the doors, her guide, Peter Brinks, stopped and cleared his throat.
"Here we are."
She answered with a smile she hoped showed cool assurance. Beyond these doors was a male sanctuary where few women ventured. Few were allowed. Samantha was one of the lucky ones. Or unlucky, depending on how things went today. The thought made her fists clench again. She chided herself: it was only a locker roomno big deal. She had seen a man naked before, right? This was her job and going in there was part of the deal. She squared her shoulders and uncurled her fingers, but sweat coated her palms. She had to admit the truth to herself: an entire room full of naked men was a daunting prospect.
Peter opened one of the doors and poked his head inside. "Hey, guys. Cover up," he yelled in warning. "I got a lady coming through."
The laughter and chatter swelling out of the room ebbed for a moment. Peter waited, his head still around the edge of the blue door. Samantha smothered a laugh. He was as nervous as she was about all those naked bodies she might glimpse. Finally, he stood back, opening the door wide for her.
"Everything looks decent in there now, Miss James." Peter chuckled as he ushered her through the door. "At least as decent as it gets in this place. Right this way."
Peterled her through a maze of wood benches and metal lockers enameled the same shade of blue as the two front doors. A fine mist hung in the room, courtesy of the hot showers, and the smells were even more pungent inside. The wintergreen of liniment combined with acrid sweat made Samantha's eyes sting. She tried not to stare as she passed the athletes in various states of undress. It was not easy. They were so large and and muscular. The steam from the showers glistened on rippling biceps and washboard stomachs. Drops of water slipped down powerful chests and into the curling hair spread there. It was no different from being at the beach, she told herself. But she knew that was a lie. These men were professional athletes. They were paid and paid wellto keep their bodies in top condition. Her uncontrollable fascination embarrassed her, though not enough to stop her from sneaking glances. This was better than any beach she had ever visited.
The men watched her pass through their midst with just as much curiosityand, it seemed to her in some cases, with as much embarrassment. After all, it wasn't every day that a woman strolled through this male domain. But Samantha expected to spend much more time here in the future, so they had better get used to her. She would have to get used to them, too. Peter led the way through the maze of maleness to a glass-walled office on one side. As she followed him into it, Samantha's attention settled on the matter at hand. She widened her smile and stuck her hand out confidently.
"Coach Cummings, I'm Samantha James. It's a pleasure to meet you."
JARRETT CORLISS WAS ONE of forty players that watched the woman weave through the room. Unlike some of his teammates, he was not embarrassed to be clad in only a damp towel, slung low across his hips, while a beautiful woman walked past. He was curious, though. The slim, graceful redhead had caused a hush to fall over the normally raucous room. More than one head had swiveled to follow the gently swaying hips beneath the navy-blue suit. And since they were looking in that general direction, they gave her legs a thorough assessment, too: long, luxurious legs encased in silk that looked like they lasted forever.
The fiery mane of hair wrapped into a neat roll at the base of her neck caught Jarrett's eye first. He scanned down the rest of her body and back to her face, where his attention locked. From across the room he could see her straight nose, arched eyebrows and clear, peachy skin. What color were her eyes? They must be green to set off that hair. Jarrett narrowed his eyes, squinting as he did during his wind-up on the mound. What would she look like without the stiff business suit, he wondered. Just how far did that peachy skin go?
Jarrett absently rubbed his right shoulder, running his hand over the ridge of scar tissue as he stared at her back. And just how did a woman like that fit into management's plans? With all the changes around the club, he wouldn't be surprised to see them walk an elephant through this place. A woman made him more wary. He rubbed his shoulder harder and figured he would find out soon enough.
"Shoulder bothering you, Corliss?"
Jarrett turned to the pitching coach. "It's a little stiff. A few more workouts, it'll be fit as a fiddle," he replied with a sure wink.
The coach didn't smile in return. "Give it a good soaking in the whirlpool. And don't overwork it." Before Jarrett could answer, the coach was interrogating another pitcher.
Jarrett grimaced. Was the guy joking? As if he would take chances at this stage of recovery. He tried not to let the burning in his shoulder affect his temper, but the coach's trite advice, coupled with the annoying pain in the joint, ate at him. There was not one inning, not one single practice, when someone wasn't doubting him or fretting over his pitching or his shoulder. Well, let them worry. The satisfaction of proving them all wrong in the end would be worth the pain now.
In his better moments, Jarrett understood why everyone was skeptical. He could be as realistic as they were. Maybe more so. Few teams wanted to take a chance on a pitcher recovering from rotator-cuff surgery. When the injured pitcher was already twenty-eight years old and there were dozens of other hungry, younger arms begging for a chance, why bother with a has-been? But Jarrett had recovered, or at least he was on his way. He had proved himself a few times in practice this last week, so the coach's fussing irked him. It also spurred him to work harder, to put more speed in his fastball, more curve in his slider, for himself and for the team. Mostly for himself. The Rainiers were his last hope.
And if the Rainiers were his last hope, he was theirs, too. The team was in deep trouble. Management denied it fervently to the sports reporters and even to the players, but a persistent rumor said the team would be sold before the end of the season and moved to some other city. He rubbed his shoulder again.
Jarrett knew the Rainiers' troubles were precisely the reason they had plucked him as a last-chance free agent. The team's owner, Andrew Elliott, needed a winning season, but couldn't afford the best pitcher in the world. He also didn't have time to groom a new pitcher. So like any desperate owner strapped for cash, Elliott had gone bargain hunting and found Jarrett, injured but full of potential, experience and skill. So while Jarrett was not exactly the Rainiers' best hope, he was the best hope they could afford. He was realistic about this. Even grateful. They were taking a chance on him. He would give them everything he had, which might be a considerable contribution if his shoulder held up. And if not? Well, best not to think of that.
Coach Cummings blew a short, sharp blast on the whistle that always hung around his neck. Every head snapped to attention, including Jarrett's. Alongside the coach stood the peachy-skinned redhead.
"Men, I want to introduce Samantha James. She's with Emerald Advertising. The club has hired her and her company to promote our team and maybe get a few more citizens into the stadium when we take the field." All eyes that weren't on her already shifted to look at Samantha. No one bothered looking at the coach again. "I'm going to bring her around and introduce her. She would like to speak with each of you personally, since"
"Honey, you can get as personal with me as you'd like," a voice called out from the back of the room. The remark was accompanied by a loud snap that could only have come from the elastic of a jockstrap. The words and the snap brought a burst of laughter from the rest of the team.
Jarrett watched to see how the redhead, Samantha, took the teasing. He thought she would either wither and crawl under a rock, or storm out and threaten to sue the whole bunch of them for sexual harassment. He saw her crane her long, slender neck to find the perpetrator.
"Well, honey," she said, a faint smile on her lips, "the first thing I'm looking for is a spokesman in a TV commercial. A really loud one. You might just get the part."
This comment raised another round of laughter. The redhead gave as good as she got, without ruffling any feathers. Jarrett's admiration reluctantly rose a few notches. Sexy as sin and a sense of humor: the woman might be dangerous.
"All right, listen up!" the coach yelled over the raucous banter and hooting that had resumed. He paused for a fierce glare at the players. "As I was saying before I was interrupted, Ms. James would like to meet all of youGod only knows why. So cooperate with her and try to act your best for a change." As soon as the coach finished speaking, the noise in the locker room went back to its previous high decibels.
Jarrett watched discreetly as Samantha moved from one player to the next. The coach performed introductions. She seemed to be joking with each guy, if the smiles and laughter were any indication. She was even getting along with the worst chauvinists on the team. Such a sweet little thing, she was. Pretty as the dew on a honeysuckle vine, as his daddy in Oklahoma would say. Too bad sweet things got chewed up and eaten in this locker room.
She and Coach Cummings circled the room, starting at its far end. With each handshake and burst of small talk, those long, gorgeous legs took one more step toward Jarrett. He had to admire her poise. The only woman in the room, she seemed indifferent to the state of dressor undressof the men with whom she shook hands and talked. He glanced at his own towel and decided to leave it. Besides, he couldn't very well drop it to the floor with her in the room. Or could he?
SAMANTHA PUT ON HER best business smile and gave each player a firm, confident handshake. She asked questions, tried to remember each name and laughed where appropriate. All the while, her head swirled with ideas for an ad campaign. Each man put on a show for her benefit, unknowingly fueling her creative process. Teasing comments flew, but they were never aimed directly at her. Their quips were saved for one another, each one trying to insult the other better than he had been insulted. Their jokes told her volumes about each man. Her anxiety had nearly disappeared, and she began to worry less about being the only woman here as her hope grew. This might not be such an impossible job after all. With the right hook, a good spin and a few flashy graphics, the public would love every single playereven if they didn't think much of the whole team.
The Rainiers were a challenge for any advertising firm. With a string of losses and a host of scandals, their public image was at rock bottom. Before meeting these men, when she had first won the dubious honor of promoting them, she had wondered about the chances of increasing ticket sales. And her own chances at helping them do it. Now before her was a room full of boys pretending to be professional athletes. It was comical, even touching. They wanted so much to be liked, respected and admired. It seemed hopeless. Yet she had to come up with an idea that would capture the very jaded hearts of former fans and regain some of their lost loyalty. The Rainiers' future was at stake. So was hers and her company's.
Her mind wandered off on another tangent. Maybe she could use the idea about little boys playing baseball. It would make a cute, humorous TV spot, something endearing that would show their innocent, earnest side. While considering this, she found herself standing before a tall man. He was clad only in a towel, which draped around his lean hips precariously. That towel drew her eyes as well as her imagination. She stopped thinking about the appeal of little boys in TV commercials and started considering other appealing possibilities. As she stared at the towel, the tall man reached down and tightened the damp cloth to fit more snugly. The white terrycloth barely left enough room for her imagination to work.
"Samantha, this is Jarrett Corliss." Coach Cummings's voice reached her ears dimly. "He's a pitcher, one of our starters this season."
"Pleased to meet you, Samantha." His voice was deep and mellow, with more than a hint of a sweet, country drawl.
His hand reached out, and she unconsciously met it with her own. Samantha barely heard someone call to the coach from across the room, telling him that he was wanted on the telephone. The coach excused himself, but it was as if he had ceased to exist already. Everyone had. For Samantha, the steamy locker room had emptied except for her and this man in front of her. Her eyes crawled upward from the white towel, over the flat, tautly muscled belly to the broad chest scattered with curly, dark-blond hair. The corded neck and shoulders invited her touch.
Her gaze went farther up and finally met a pair of eyes. They dazzled her with the blue of a summer sky over a wide, endless prairie. The eyes were set in a sun-bronzed face, and a wave of hair the color of corn silk dipped over one arched brow. A dimple flashed beside the sculpted lips. The eyes had followed her deliberate stare as she made her way from the towel to look directly into them. Now those blue eyes twinkled with unabashed amusement.