Atlanta Skyline's star Swedish wingback Oz Terim-or as the fans call him, the Wizard-has an airtight plan for his life, his career, even his meticulously renovated house, but he barely gives a thought to the Islamic faith he inherited from his Turkish parents. So no one's more surprised than he is when he's the victim of anti-Muslim hate crime. Refusing to take the threat seriously, he resists the security detail Skyline insists on . . . until he meets Kate Mitchell. There's no room for her in his plan and she's the exact opposite of what he wants. Then why can't he keep his hands off her?
After ten years in the military-and getting fired from her first post-Army job in Saudi Arabia-Kate Mitchell has slunk home to her Georgia roots. Private security isn't the career she dreamed of, nor is she thrilled to work with an uptight professional athlete who plays a sport she has no interest in. She never expected to be attracted to him-or for him to fall for her, too. As their opposite lives tangle up-and the threat against Oz grows more serious-Kate has to decide who she wants to be in life and in love.
"A well-crafted and very enjoyable sports romance that also delves into a timely subplot of the challenges faced by immigrants to America . . . Crossing Hearts delivers an exciting and passionate read."
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Kate hissed a curse as the pen rolled down the slanted cover of the three-ring binder and onto the floor. She ducked under the desk to catch it and grimaced at the array of too-personal objects stored in the footwell: a half-full bottle of aftershave, scuffed leather Oxfords, and a nail clipper with a rusted hinge.
She snatched up the pen, blew off the dust it gathered on its journey and righted herself in her chair, wrinkling her nose as she stifled a sneeze. If her boss was going to insist that VIP client meetings were held in his office, he could at least vacuum occasionally.
Not that he had any interest in this account, having pointedly informed her most soccer players are football rejects. She wasn't super excited about selling private-security services to an athlete who played a sport she'd never watched, either, but she didn't exactly have a long line of potential clients knocking on her door. She thought of her monthly sales target, the fees for her niece's after-school tutor, the hundred dollars her mom blew on online poker last month. Then she opened the binder to the first page — a printout of the logo for Atlanta Skyline, the local Championship Soccer League team.
She rolled her eyes. If Lorraine spent less time fighting with the antiquated printer in order to fill these binders with grainy copies of websites and focused on the actual content of the client's request, maybe these briefs would be done more than three minutes before the VIPs arrived.
She sighed and flipped to the next page.
A Wikipedia article about soccer.
"For God's sake, what the actual —"
A rap on the door had Kate swallowing the expletive and bolting to her feet, wobbling momentarily on her high heels.
The door opened just wide enough to admit Lorraine's teased hair.
"Clients here to see you," she announced before shoving the door open the rest of the way and ducking back into the hall. With a sinking feeling Kate realized Lorraine hadn't given her the clients' names, nor had she gotten that far in the binder, but it was too late. The two men crossed the threshold and stood uncertainly before her, glancing around the shabby office. One was in his late forties with graying, ash-blond hair and hipster glasses. The other was younger, taller, and appeared even less thrilled to be there.
"I'm Kate Mitchell." She stuck her hand out to the older of the two, assuming he'd be the one paying the bills. "Thanks for coming in."
"Roland Carlsson," he replied. "And this is Oz Terim."
"Nice to meet you, Oz." She brightened her smile as she extended her hand, committing the unusual name to memory. Its owner offered no reply, regarding her coolly through remarkably large, remarkably dark eyes.
She gestured for them to sit and did the same, noting the way they both inspected the fraying cushions before lowering themselves into the rickety chairs.
She picked up her pen and hastily scribbled their names on the back of the logo page, including a phonetic Cher-eem for Oz's last name. Then she folded her hands on the desk. "What can I help you with today?"
Roland and Oz exchanged cryptic glances. Then Roland leaned forward while Oz crossed his arms and leaned back, the sleeve of his form-fitting T-shirt riding up to reveal a tattoo wrapping his biceps.
"I manage Atlanta Skyline, and Oz is a left-back on the team," Roland began, offering a hint of an accent before cutting himself short. "Sorry, maybe you know all of this already. How much background do you want?"
"As much as you feel is relevant," she responded, quickly jotting their roles beside their names on her piece of paper. She added a question mark beside left-back as a reminder to look up what the hell that meant.
Roland looked again at Oz, who arched a challenging brow at his manager before taking a committed interest in the wall on his other side.
"This is Oz's third season at Skyline. He came with me when I joined from Boston Liberty," Roland continued, and Kate nodded, though she had no idea what he was talking about. "We've never had any problems before, here or in Boston. In fact, Oz has become a fan favorite. They call him the Wizard, because he executes so many tackles yet never seems to get booked."
She blinked. Tackles? Booked? Soccer was the kicking game, right?
Belatedly she cracked a smile she hoped was convincing. "Right. Funny."
"He's always gotten a few bigoted comments on social media, but lately the attention has become slightly more ..." Roland trailed off, his gaze drifting to the ceiling as he chose his next word. "Sinister."
Kate frowned. "Can you be more specific?"
Oz remained resolutely silent, arms folded tightly across his chest, his expression blank as he left Roland to elaborate. "The comments on Oz's social-media accounts have become hateful, and increasingly threatening, since someone posted his address in one of the Citizens First forums."
She snapped to attention at the name of the hate group gaining highly publicized traction across the country. Citizens First claimed to be an anti-immigration coalition, but they always seemed to find time in their busy schedule of xenophobia to be anti-gay and anti-woman, too. They were also notorious for flouting privacy laws and publishing private data.
She gave Oz another, more thorough once over, wondering what about him could piss off a group like Citizens First. His name was fairly exotic, though she couldn't place its origin. He was well dressed, leanly built, and she supposed his angular face would be considered handsome if you liked that gaunt, underwear-model look.
She was more a blond-stubble-and-pickup-truck type herself, or would be if she had any interest in dating. After eight years of being told where to live and what to do — and in Saudi, what to wear and how to behave — she was done taking orders. She wanted to reconnect with her family, get her career going, and plant her feet on the ground.
If the perfect man fell into her lap and fit in with all that, fine. But she sure as hell wasn't going looking for him.
"The post was removed almost as quickly as it went up, so we couldn't do much about it," Roland explained, tugging her back to the present. "But my concern is the damage is done, and I think it's time for us to look at putting security measures into place in Oz's home. That's why we're here."
Maybe he's gay. He must be gay. "May I ask in what context the address was posted?"
"The thread was "Raghead Terrorists Infiltrating America's Sports." As far as I remember." Oz spoke for the first time. His voice was deeper than she expected, and softly accented, but his sarcastic monotone fit his ornery posture to a T. His eyes found her intently as he added, "I'm Muslim."
"Really? I thought tattoos were haram."
It was an unprofessional, unnecessary reply, but it generated the reaction she wanted. Shock cracked Oz's detached façade for a split second.
"What do you know about haram?" he asked, his tone wavering between annoyed and impressed.
"Eight years in the army with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I spent the last year working in security services for an American oil company in Saudi Arabia. I'm fairly familiar with the core tenets of Islam."
The beat of silence that followed was delicious. She resisted the urge to punch the air.
"Well, I'm non-practicing. Mostly."
She nodded, briefly enjoying a secret sense of triumph at Oz's rattled composure before refocusing on the task at hand. "Did anything happen to trigger your inclusion in the list? Any particular reason you've become a target?"
He shrugged, flattening his palms on his knees. "I pray on the pitch before each match, but I've always done that."
"He was in an article about Muslim athletes a couple of weeks ago, in one of the national papers," Roland offered. "It was about a few different athletes, but the photo was of Oz at an event here in Atlanta."
"Yeah, an interfaith event at the Peace Institute," Oz scoffed, re-crossing his arms. "This whole thing is ridiculous. My parents are Turkish, I was born in Sweden, I've lived in the United States for ten years — the article even says I don't fast for Ramadan. I'm a pacifist, not a terrorist or even a fundamentalist. So one racist asshole told his racist friends where I live. They're all such cowards, I'm probably at greater risk of being hit by a bus than one of them crawling out from behind their computer and showing up at my house."
"Don't underestimate these people," Roland warned, taking the words out of Kate's mouth. "Hatred and rationality don't usually go together."
"And reacting to their hatred empowers it, and empowers them."
"I'm not having this discussion again," Roland informed him between clenched teeth. "Your safety is paramount, so let's see what Kate recommends."
Oz rolled his eyes and retorted angrily in what Kate assumed to be Swedish. Roland replied in kind, and she didn't need to be bilingual to understand the heated, clipped barbs the men exchanged. While Roland kept his composure, Oz's voice rose in volume, his speech quickened, and his expression intensified. He turned to face his manager, giving her a view of his perfect jaw, tightened and defined in irritation.
Okay, he was actually pretty hot. Shame about the personality.
She sighed inwardly, turning a page in her binder. She really did need to get laid if she was lusting after a pretty-boy soccer player.
"Moving on," Roland said sharply in English, recalling her attention. Roland's gaze landed on her resolutely, while Oz shook his head and stared out the window.
"At the moment he has no security at all, and that needs to change," the manager stated firmly. "What do you recommend?"
She looked from Roland's resolute expression to Oz's sulky one and back again. This was a wide-open opportunity to sell a long-term suite of services to a wealthy, successful, famous-in-some-circles client.
It would require a lot of contact with Oz, particularly at the beginning. But if she got this right, Peak Tactical could become the preferred provider for Atlanta Skyline. Not only could they offer personal services to the players, there was stadium and game-day security, partnerships with other firms when the team traveled, pre- and post-season event staffing, background checks, bodyguards for VIP fans ...
She folded her hands on the desk and smiled. "Let's start with the basics. Oz, does your home have an alarm system?"
"They're not putting an alarm system in my house," Oz insisted in Swedish, shoving his hand through his hair as he followed his manager across the parking lot.
An oversized, Peak Tactical-branded pickup had parked beside his two-door Mercedes AMG, and it hung over the line so badly he wasn't sure he could get the driver's-side door open. He exhaled in disgust.
Roland stopped beside his own, larger Mercedes, apparently oblivious to the pickup's violation of Oz's parking space. "What's wrong with an alarm system? Everyone has one nowadays. Mine was preinstalled when I bought the house."
"It's invasive, that's what's wrong with it. It's an intrusive, pervasive, aggressive assertion about faith in humanity, and it's not the kind of statement I want made in my home."
Roland unlocked his car, opened the door and rested his elbow on its top edge. "It's a white box with lights and buttons that makes a noise and alerts the security company if someone forces open a window or a door. How is that a statement?"
"It says my house is a fortress that needs to be protected. It says I can't trust people outside its walls. I don't want to live like that."
"After a week, you won't even know it's there."
"Of course I will," Oz protested. "I'll have to set it every time I leave the house and disarm it every time I come in. And where are they going to put the panel — right beside the front door? What if I want to come in through the garage? Or the back door? You know how hard I've worked to get that house exactly how I like it, and —"
"Özkan," Roland interrupted, and he instinctively shut up at the use of his full name. "Enough. You can't intellectualize at me until I go away, not this time. I wouldn't do this if I wasn't genuinely concerned. These people are dangerous, and they're getting braver by the day. Did you see that story about the mosque in Idaho?"
Sobered, Oz nodded. "The one they set on fire."
"And put three people in the hospital with severe burns. This is more serious than your interest in minimalist design, or pacifism, or whatever other abstract philosophical point you want to make. Understood?"
Oz studied the man he'd followed for the last ten years, from Gothenburg to Boston to Atlanta. Roland was the only manager who'd been able to penetrate his arrogance as a prodigious teen, teaching him the discipline, patience, and humility that had saved him from becoming yet another early-twenties burnout whose potential was never quite fulfilled. Oz trusted Roland implicitly, and he knew he wouldn't win this argument.
Maybe he shouldn't win this argument. As much as it annoyed him to admit it, the outpouring of hatred on his social-media accounts had shaken him. He never imagined anyone could be offended by his cherry-picked commitment to Islam, and certainly not to the vehement, violent extent that had been unleashed. Roland was right — this was too much to handle on his own.
"Fine," he huffed, shoving his hands into his pockets. "And, thank you. For putting the team's money behind this, and for coming with me today. I know you could've asked me to do this on my own, or sent one of the Assistant Managers, but it was good to have you here." He exhaled before his next admission. "Apparently I still need you occasionally."
Roland gripped his shoulder briefly. "We'll get this nonsense sorted out."
Oz nodded, then added with a smile, "I do want it on record that I think alarm systems are cynical symbols of mistrust that degrade civil society."
Roland grinned. "If you find someone who cares, I'm sure they'll be happy to make a note of your objection. See you tomorrow."
"Later." Oz climbed into his car — that pickup wasn't as close as he thought — and started the engine, then threw the car into reverse and beat Roland out of the parking lot.
That's my one victory for today. He turned up the volume on a Swedish techno track as he headed for his home in Ansley Park, distracted and unsettled as he navigated the busy Atlanta streets.
When his best friend, Glynn, had texted that his address was on a Citizens First website, he'd laughed. Then he'd put his phone in his locker and spent the next several hours training with Skyline. When he picked up his phone again it had flashed with missed calls and panicked messages from a slew of friends and relatives. Although it had been removed within an hour, news of the list had found its way onto a lunchtime segment on one of the major broadcasters and taken off from there.
Suddenly his publicist was fielding calls from reporters asking how it felt to be outed as Muslim, whether he'd received any death threats, and vying to be the first to get his exclusive interview.
"You can't out someone for something that was never a secret," he'd told her over the phone in the hallway outside the locker room, still wearing his training kit. "And I'm happy to be interviewed on the subject of American professional soccer, since none of them seem to care enough to cover it on a regular basis, but my personal life is off-limits."
Except the messages kept coming. Hundreds of Islamophobic comments littered his social-media pages, punctuated by racist images and hideous language, each one worse than the last.
Oz took advantage of a red stoplight to scrub his palm over his eyes as comment after remembered comment flashed behind his eyes.
Get ready to die, filthy haji. We're coming for all you sand rats. Run back to the desert while your head is still attached to your shoulders.
But the one that scared him the most — the one that still sent a chill down his spine whenever it popped up — was by a user whose comments were always the same. Several times each day, across all the social-media platforms Oz used, a brand-new commenter appeared with a random jumble of numbers as a username. No amount of blocking seemed able to stop the phrase that posted over and over again: Ausonius 70.
Ausonius was a reference to a serial killer who'd shot immigrants in Stockholm in the late 1990s. Seventy was Oz's house number.
Excerpted from "Defending Hearts"
Copyright © 2017 Rebecca Crowley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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