Read an Excerpt
Skin in the Game
A Play Action Novel
By Jackie Barbosa, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jackie Barbosa
All rights reserved.
Cade Reynolds sat in the back corner of Cafe du Coeur, Harper Falls's answer to Starbucks, sipping a steaming cup of black coffee and watching the denizens of his home town come and go. So far, he hadn't seen anyone he recognized, which he supposed shouldn't surprise him. Harper Falls had changed a lot in the sixteen years he'd been gone, growing in that time from a sleepy farming community to a decent-sized suburb of the nearby Twin Cities.
What did surprise him was that no one had recognized him. Not the slightly sullen teenage girl behind the counter with the lip ring and bright orange hair. Not the elderly gentleman wearing the Minnesota Vikings jersey who'd been standing behind him in line. Not even the middle-aged woman who now sat at the table across from his. Although she stole a glance at him every few minutes over the top of the book she was reading, he had a pretty good idea it was because he bore a more-than-passing resemblance to the shirtless hunk on the cover of her romance novel and not because she'd realized she was sitting in a coffee shop in Harper Falls with its one and only bona fide homegrown hero, Cade Reynolds. He was the quarterback who'd won the Harper Falls Eagles their first — and as yet only — Minnesota State Championship in his senior year and had since gone on to a national title at USC, a Heisman trophy nomination, and three Pro Bowls. And then there were the print endorsements and television ad campaigns he'd done, not to mention his regular appearances in Sports Illustrated and on the covers of any number of tabloids. The only way he could have made himself more famous would be by dating a Kardashian.
But since he hadn't taken a snap in the almost two years since the tackle that had shattered his collarbone and throwing shoulder, he'd been mostly out of sight, so maybe he shouldn't be surprised that his face and name had faded from the public consciousness. In a way, it was nice not to have to duck the paparazzi for a moment of peace. Notwithstanding, one would think in Harper Falls, Minnesota, of all places, he'd be as instantly recognizable as Jesse Ventura, and he wasn't sure whether to be relieved or insulted.
He was turning this over in his mind when she walked in.
Every other thought drained from his brain along with about half his blood. All he could think was that she was the most gloriously sexy woman he'd ever seen in his life.
Shoulder-length blond hair caressed the nape of her neck as she strolled up to the counter on legs that, like the last two minutes of a close football game, seemed to go on forever. Cade guessed she must be five- ten or five-eleven in bare feet, but unlike most exceptionally tall women he knew, she didn't try to disguise or underplay her impressive height by wearing flats. Instead, her feet were encased in a pair of sandals with a good two inches of heel and one of those straps that hooked around the ankle. In combination with her incredibly long, slender legs and the close-fitting calf-length pants she wore, the effect of that strap was so sexy, his comfortable jeans were getting decidedly uncomfortable. He imagined those trim ankles, encircled by that thread of leather, wrapped around his waist, and got more uncomfortable still.
When she reached the counter, the teenage barista's dour expression brightened, and the girl spoke in animated tones. Straining to hear the conversation, Cade shifted in the unpadded wooden chair that, like certain parts of his anatomy, seemed to have grown harder.
"Oh, Miss Peterson, you won't believe it," the barista said, excitement making her breathless. "I got an A on my first college calculus test. I can't thank you enough for the help."
Miss Peterson, eh? That was a definite plus.
Although calculus wasn't exactly the first thing that crossed his mind when he looked at her. No, the kind of math she made him think about was a lot more basic — as in one and one makes two.
"Oh, Hannah, I'm so happy to hear that. But you did it all yourself, honestly. I just gave you a little push in the right direction."
A wide, genuine smile spread across Miss Peterson's features as she spoke, making her look less like a fashion model and more like the girl next door. A girl he'd like to get to know better. Too bad he was only going to be in town for a few weeks, or a month at the most.
Certainly not long enough to delve into anything much deeper than basic arithmetic.
"Well, I couldn't have done it without you," Hannah gushed on, "and your drink today is on the house."
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Miss Peterson demurred, reaching into the small handbag slung over her shoulder to retrieve her wallet.
"Yeah, I do. You spent a lot of your own time helping me. It's the least I can do." Hannah leaned forward and added conspiratorially, "Besides, I get the company discount."
Miss Peterson laughed, a rich, full-throated sound that filled the shop. The woman reading the romance novel turned around and glared, obviously not pleased to be interrupted from whatever the shirtless guy on the cover was doing inside the pages; Cade suspected math of the one-plus-one-equals-two variety and envied the character his good fortune.
"All right, but only this once. You need to save up your money for college tuition, not spend it on me."
"I know, I know. Don't worry. You want the usual, right?"
Miss Peterson nodded and stepped away from the counter, leaving Cade to wonder what "the usual" was. He hoped it wasn't one of those fancy sweet drinks women seemed so fond of that were more like milkshakes than a good old cup of Joe. A person who drank coffee should actually enjoy coffee, not cover it up to make it taste like something else.
She turned away from him and bent over to rifle through the rack containing discarded sections of the newspaper, treating him to a near-heart-attack-inducing view of her curvy backside. By the time she straightened back up, he was lightheaded. Then he got downright dizzy, because she hadn't selected the Fashion or Arts section, or even the front page, but Sports.
"Here's your nonfat latte with an extra shot," Hannah called.
Holy hell, maybe he'd died and gone to heaven. A tall, beautiful blonde with a great figure who liked sports and took her latte with an extra shot? She was almost too perfect to be real.
She deposited the Sports section back in the bin, retrieved her coffee from the counter, and turned to leave the shop. He was prepared to run out after her if necessary, because there was no way he was letting her get away without asking her out to dinner. Fortunately, he didn't need to go to such drastic lengths. Her gaze swung toward the corner he was sitting in and came to rest on him. And rest it did, long and hard, her blue eyes narrowing for a second before widening again and flickering with recognition.
Cade Reynolds was no longer incognito.
* * *
Angie clutched her coffee cup so hard, she nearly crushed it.
Cade Reynolds. Bigger than life and twice as natural. Okay, maybe three times as natural. Because Cade Reynolds had never done anything by mere doubles in his life.
What on earth was he doing here? Not just here in Café du Coeur — which wasn't even as popular with the locals as the Starbucks ten miles away in Chisago City — but here in Harper Falls? A place he'd left almost immediately after graduating high school, followed in short succession by both his sisters and then his widowed mother, who had retired to Florida after raising three kids on her own. What possible reason could he have for coming back after all these years?
As if his presence weren't unsettling enough, his eyes met hers. They were just like she remembered — thick-lashed, dark brown, and intelligent — but also blazed with a sentiment she'd certainly never been the object of sixteen years ago: open, unapologetic lust. Her body reacted as if she were still fourteen and in the throes of the crush she'd nurtured her entire freshman year. Her stomach flip-flopped, and her heart twisted with nervous excitement.
He lifted his coffee cup in salute and gestured in silent invitation toward the chair from which he'd just removed his booted feet. Jeans and cowboy boots. Angie mentally rolled her eyes. He'd spent too much time in Texas, obviously.
But that didn't make him any less hot. In fact, she doubted anything could make him less hot, short of a restraining order from an ex- girlfriend.
Not that she'd harbored any illusions about his attractiveness in the years since he'd left Harper Falls. She'd watched every televised game he'd played at USC and then subscribed to NFL Sunday Ticket after he'd signed with the Texans, and that meant she'd been a party to his transformation from drool-worthy boy to sex-on-legs man. As a teen, Cade had been almost pretty, his hair worn just long enough to curl at the nape of his neck and around his smooth, boyishly handsome face. Girls had swooned over him the way they swooned over members of the latest boy band. He'd been desirable but safe somehow, his sensuality muted by youth. Over the years, however, everything about his appearance had hardened and sharpened, from the planes of his cheeks and square jawline to the deep cleft in his chin. He'd cropped his hair short, too, accentuating the stark male beauty of his features. There was nothing remotely safe about him any longer, and Angie knew it as well as anyone who'd ever watched him answer questions at a press conference. Still, there was a big difference between admiring a gorgeous specimen of masculinity through the TV screen and being in the same room with him, because she was pretty sure he was sucking up all the oxygen in the small café.
And he was looking at her as if she were having the same effect on him. Which absolutely blew her mind.
One thing was clear, however. He had no idea who she was. He thought she had recognized him because he was Cade Reynolds, NFL quarterback, not because a half a lifetime ago, they'd shared the same high school and a few conversations about life, the universe, and football. Well, technically, football was life, the universe, and everything.
With a concerted effort, she relaxed her grip on the coffee cup and walked toward his table. All gentleman despite the fact that he'd spent the past several seconds undressing her with his eyes, he stood as she approached. Even in her heels, she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze, an unfamiliar but not unpleasant sensation.
"Cade Reynolds," he said in his deep baritone, stretching out his hand in greeting.
Her knees wobbled as she took his hand and shook it. It was warm and dry and positively engulfed hers. He was even bigger and more masculine than she remembered he'd been or imagined he might have become.
"But then, I think you already know that," he added.
She was a little aggravated by his arrogance, but then she remembered the Sports page she'd been perusing and decided there wasn't much point in feigning ignorance.
"You're right, I do."
"I'm flattered," he said, holding on to her hand a few seconds longer than could be considered strictly polite. "I haven't exactly been front and center lately. Out of sight, out of mind, you know."
Okay, she liked him better already. Maybe fame and fortune hadn't turned him into a self-centered jerk after all.
"How's your rehab coming?" Even as she asked the question, the awful image of the tackle that had sidelined his career flashed through her brain.
The linebacker had jumped the snap count and shot straight through the line. The referee blew the play dead, but the linebacker either didn't hear the whistle or flat-out ignored it. Cade had been completely unprotected when the other player's helmet collided with his throwing shoulder. The offending linebacker had been ejected, suspended for six games, and fined a hefty sum for the infraction, but it wasn't enough to put Cade's shoulder back together. Angie didn't think she would ever be able to wipe from her memory the image of Cade walking off the field, his lips twisted in a grimace of silent agony, his right arm hanging limp and useless at his side.
As he released her hand, however, she noted that his right arm seemed far from limp or useless now. In fact, based on the musculature rippling beneath his snug-fitting black T-shirt, there was nothing wrong with the man. She swept him head to toe with her eyes. Nope. Nothing at all wrong.
Which did make her wonder whether the rumors of a dependence on prescription painkillers — rumors she'd discounted — might be true, because she could see no visible reason he shouldn't be staging his comeback on the football field instead of killing time in the back corner of a rinky-dink coffee shop in Harper Falls.
"Oh, slow but steady. These things sometimes take longer than we expect," he said with a lazy shrug of his broad shoulders.
"Well, you look fine to me," she blurted, then felt herself turn ketchup-red as she realized how that must sound. She hadn't said it with the emphasis on fine, but she might as well have. Because Cade Reynolds was fine in every way.
His brown eyes twinkled with amusement. "I'm glad you think so. Maybe you could get the message to my physician?"
She breathed a small sigh of relief. He wasn't going to make her feel like a stupid, tongue-tied adolescent fan girl, even though he could have.
"I'm not sure he'd take my word for it."
"He's a she, but you're probably right." Cade gestured again toward the chair. "Sit down and talk a while? I'd like to get to know you better." The husky timbre of his voice said better meant something a lot more intimate than talking.
Not that she was complaining about his intentions. She didn't do one- night-stands or casual flings and never had, even before she'd become a high school teacher in a small town where everyone knew everyone else's business and discretion was unheard of. But for Cade Reynolds, she was willing to make an exception. She'd wanted him for almost half her life, mostly from afar. Now that he was here in Harper Falls and, surreal as it seemed, might want her in return, she wasn't about to turn and walk away.
With a nod, she slid onto the straight-backed wooden chair. "I'd like that, too."
He sank into his own seat and stretched his legs out in front of him. Angie resisted the urge to fan herself as she involuntarily conjured the image of him doing the same thing ... sans jeans.
"So, you teach math?" he asked.
She stopped examining his thighs — okay, to be honest, his crotch — and looked at him in surprise. "How'd you know that?"
"I overheard you talking with the barista."
She clapped her hand over her mouth. "Was I that loud?" Her voice had a tendency to carry, which was useful in the classroom and during football practice but a nuisance pretty much everywhere else.
"No, not at all. Actually, technically, I didn't so much overhear as try really hard to eavesdrop."
Her cheeks flushed, this time with pleasure. That should probably seem more stalkerish than flattering, but it didn't. At least not coming from him.
"So, Miss Peterson, do you have a first name? And can I use it?"
Oh, God. Her name.
He hadn't recognized her yet, but once he heard her name, he might recall a clumsy, four-eyed freshman girl named Angie Peterson. When he did, he'd react like all the other men she'd known in high school did. Like Erik Larson, who remarked at their ten-year reunion — which Cade, blissfully, had missed due to training camp — that, wow, she wasn't coyote-ugly anymore and he'd do her in a heartbeat. Yeah, that had been charming. Or like Matthew Thibodeaux, whom she'd dated for a few months before he dropped his guard and admitted his friends couldn't believe he was shagging the girl they all used to joke about paper- bagging so they could stand to screw her.
Excerpted from Skin in the Game by Jackie Barbosa, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2013 Jackie Barbosa. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.