There's nothing I wouldn't do to play for the Brisbane Banshees in the new Women's Aussie Rules league. I think I've proved that given that I'm willing to put up with the coach being my ex, Tony. He may have stomped over my heart, but I've moved on, and I'm focused on my team. I don't need any men in my life–apart from Levi, of course, my roommate, and friend. And my saviour, now that I've corked my thigh in our first game, and need his sports massage skills to get me back on the field. What I feel when Levi touches me … is making things very complicated.
Darcy was always my best friend's girl–Tony's girl. Two years on and she still doesn't know how I've felt all this time. There's no way I'm leaving her in pain when I can fix her injury and get her back to playing the sport she loves. No matter how much touching her makes me want to make her mine at last. Finally, I've got a bit of hope–the last thing we need is Tony suddenly deciding he wants to take Darcy back after all…
Other books available in The Women of W.A.R. series:
Game On by Nicola Marsh
Long Game by Catherine Evans
About the Author
She lives by the ocean with her husband of twenty-nine years. To keep up with her latest releases and giveaways, sign up for her newsletter at www.amyandrews.com.au/newsletter.html
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Darcy Clarke hadn't felt this freaking fantastic in a very long time. Maybe not in her whole twenty-seven years. Not after a block of lime Lindt chocolate (which never failed to zing her straight to her happy place). Not after three scoops of pineapple gelato (which totally should be mandatory treatment for depression).
Not even after sex.
Not that sex counted, considering she hadn't had any since douchebag Tony had dumped her just over two years ago. She'd had orgasms, for sure. By herself. And she didn't think self-love counted.
But that didn't matter right now. Hell, she doubted it would ever matter again because footy was better than sex — why hadn't she always known this? — and she'd done it. She'd actually done it! Her name had come up in the draft and she was going to be playing professional Aussie Rules football in the inaugural national women's competition for the Brisbane Banshees.
And she felt amazing.
She deserved it, for sure. But when had that ever made a difference? She'd busted her gut for this for years, but even twelve months ago she'd have never thought it possible. A national women's comp had been mooted for years, but as time progressed it had become more mythical than the bloody unicorn. But suddenly, the planets had aligned and the glass ceiling had been smashed and she was going to be right there in the thick of it!
Darcy allowed the chants of an invisible crowd to swell inside her head. Not that having a crowd chant your name was what it was all about but she ran with it for a moment or two, giddy on life, footy and everything. She grinned so hard, the man sitting in the seat next to her shifted sideways a little as the plane made a smooth touchdown.
But Darcy couldn't help it. She couldn't stop smiling. She knew she looked maniacal — the flight attendant had eyed her suspiciously and handed her a plastic knife to cut her roll rather than a metal one like she'd given the guy next door — but she didn't care.
Nothing and nobody was going to kill this buzz.
The plane taxied and finally docked and as soon as the seatbelt light went out, Darcy was up, dragging her small overnight bag out from under the seat in front. She was too damn excited to sit and she couldn't wait to see Levi.
Sure, he'd rung yesterday afternoon to congratulate her, but just anticipating his I-knew-you-could-do-this grin was adding to her giddiness. She'd lived with Levi Phillips for seven years now and, in a lot of respects, he probably knew her better than any of her girlfriends.
He certainly knew more than anyone how freaking hard she worked for that Banshee jersey and had never doubted she'd make it. Never. Considering there were numerous times she'd doubted it, that was saying something.
Still, she was surprised to actually find Levi waiting at the gate for her. They often made trips to the airport for the other one, but always stopping at the drop-off/pickup zones out front. He'd never come into the terminal. But there he was, standing right at the back, head and shoulders above the waiting crowd of kids and lovers and parents, a huge grin on his face, a metallic helium balloon with Congratulations emblazoned on its hide in his hand.
He looked like a crazy person, standing there with that grin and the stupid balloon with a few days' worth of scruff on his face, but her heart gave a funny little giddy-up seeing him here for her. Of course, that could have something to do with his faded old T-shirt stretched across his shoulders, barely long enough to meet the waistband of his standard loose trackpants, of which he had about a hundred thanks to his obsession with yoga.
The top half of his long, riotous, dirty-blond hair was pulled back into its regular man bun, leaving the rest to curl and twist around his neck and shoulders in its usual disorder. Even the sight of his big, bare, size fourteen feet, sticking out of his open-toed slides, did funny things to her equilibrium. The man looked like some kind of Zen lumberjack but what she liked most was that he didn't care one fucking jot what he looked like.
The crowd parted, as if especially for them and, before she knew it, she was grinning at him and running towards him, launching herself at him, crawling up him like a koala up a gum tree and wrapping her legs around his waist to hug him tight.
He laughed as he caught her, his body easily absorbing the impact as his arm anchored around her back. 'Whoa!' The low timbre of his voice licked into her ear as deliciously as the swipe of a hot, wet tongue. 'I knew you'd get picked.'
Darcy grinned even bigger, hugged him even harder. 'Yeah, yeah.' She squirmed at his unashamed bias, but her heart swelled big in her chest at the pride underpinning his statement.
She wasn't sure how long they stood like that, with her glued to him like an oyster on a rock, people eyeing them curiously as they stepped around them. But it felt good to be in this moment — the high point of her life — with the guy who'd been there for her during all her low points.
It felt really freaking good.
'Unhand me, DC, you're making a spectacle of yourself.'
Darcy laughed at the gruff humour and unlocked her legs, sliding to her feet. He handed her the balloon and grabbed for her bag.
She took a step back. 'I can take it.'
He didn't answer, just reached for it and slid it off her shoulder, slinging it over his own with quiet efficiency as they turned towards the exit. 'Are you sure you're female, DC? Most chicks' make-up bags are this size.'
Darcy laughed to cover the sudden deflating realisation that after seven years of platonic cohabitation, Levi had probably never seen her as a female.
As a woman.
It's true she wasn't much of a girly girl. She was a sporty girl who worked a manual job, preferred loose comfortable clothes to anything fashionable, and lived for her Aussie Rules. But bloody hell, she had two C cups that pretty much put her femininity right out there.
They'd been squashed against his chest a moment ago.
Annoyed at her train of thought and why it seemed to matter so much suddenly, Darcy gave herself a mental shake. Since when had she given any fucks about this crap? 'Not only female but a goddamn Brisbane Banshee, so watch out, Levi.'
He laughed and high-fived her before stepping around a toddler who was drunkenly navigating the airport corridor. 'What did your parents say?' Darcy sighed as she also took evasive action to avoid the toddler. 'They said they were proud but could the name be changed to something less ghoulish.' Levi laughed. 'I explained the team names weren't up to me.'
'They mean well.'
'They going to go to your debut game?'
She shook her head. 'Dad's got a convention in Cambridge in February and Mum's going with him to catch up with family.'
He didn't say anything for a moment, then slid his hand onto her shoulder and gave her a squeeze as they walked companionably side by side. 'Sorry.' His hand fell from her shoulder as quickly as it had appeared.
Darcy didn't mind. Her parents were proud of her, in their own way. It wasn't their fault she'd strayed from the plan. That growing boobs and thighs at the age of fifteen had stymied her mother's Royal Ballet ambitions for Darcy. And taking up soccer and football had added insult to injury.
They were the arts and academia. Darcy was dirty hands and football on Sunday. The two were hard to reconcile.
'Well, I'll be there.'
'I should bloody hope so.' It wasn't strange that Levi's presence at the game meant more to her than her own parents being there. He'd been her number one cheerleader for years. He got it.
'All of Brisbane's going to be there, DC, just you wait and see.'
Darcy smiled at him. She hoped so. She really did. Everyone had such high hopes for the women's game taking off and being supported by the same fans who'd been watching the blokes do it for decades. There were detractors, of course. The people who said nobody wanted to see chicks playing football and why didn't they just stick to netball?
But, overwhelmingly, reaction had been positive. It was a gamble for the powers that be — no one was disputing that — hopefully one that paid dividends.
They'd all know in four months ...
'So, how're you going to celebrate? Going out with the girls?'
'No. Tomorrow night. Big night in Melbourne last night with the team.'
All the Banshee draft picks had painted the town red and Darcy grinned, remembering again, and gave herself a mental pinch. She was part of a national women's team!
'Can't party too hard.' She patted her stomach. 'Gotta keep match fit.' Levi threw back his head and laughed. The man knew the type of crap she usually shovelled into her mouth on a regular basis.
A woman coming towards them glanced at Levi, totally checking him out as she passed by. And why not? He may be just a friend but Darcy was still a woman and the man was very easy on the eyes. He didn't seem to notice her appraisal, though.
He never seemed to notice how women looked at him. And they looked at him. A lot.
Not that he ever seemed to partake. Darcy couldn't be absolutely sure — they weren't the kind of friends who talked about their sex lives — but she did live with him and if she was a betting woman, she'd say Levi had been as celibate as she had these past couple of years.
He'd dated, in the past — she'd met a few of his women at the breakfast table when Tony still lived with them. But she hadn't seen him with anyone in a long time. Not at their place anyway.
Which was a crying shame. The man practiced yoga every morning and taught it three nights a week — for damn sure he'd have some mad, crazy skills between the sheets.
Darcy blinked at the unexpected path or her thoughts. What the hell was wrong with her lately? She didn't think about Levi like that. Or his mad skills, for that matter.
'Netflix and cheese and Vegemite toasties?'
She smiled despite the unsettling direction of her thoughts, strangely happy to be the woman he chose to hang out with. 'You know it.'
They stepped out into the bright October sunshine. After a cold, rainy start in Melbourne, it was bliss and Darcy tilted her face to the sun and shut her eyes, letting the heat soak into her arms.
'When do they announce the coach?'
She opened her eyes to find him watching her. 'In a few days.'
He nodded then turned towards the travelators that lead to the car-park level. 'Any rumours?'
'A few.' Darcy rattled off some of the contenders that had been discussed last night as she followed Levi. 'The hot favourite is a guy called Doug McDonald. Heard of him?'
Darcy hadn't but Levi was one of the city's top sports massage therapists and had been on the fringes of the national AFL comp for years. He knew a lot of the Brisbane players — some were private clients — as well as the coaching and medical staff from many of the clubs.
'Yeah. He's good. Tough but good. Big on a healthy diet.' Levi strode onto the travelator, grinning at her. 'You're probably going to hate him.'
Darcy laughed. 'If you're trying to kill my buzz, it won't work. Nothing's going to kill this sucker.' Darcy doubted she'd ever come down from this high. 'And if the coach wants me to eat carrots till I turn orange, I will. The coach can have whatever the hell he wants.'
Because this was her big chance and she wasn't going to blow it.
* * *
Levi knew the second he flipped the paper over a few days later and found himself staring into the face of his one-time best friend that Darcy's buzz was going to be no match for this crappy piece of news. Tony's shit-eating grin leapt from the back page and Levi's heart sank as the headline jumped out at him.
Tony Cameron scores coveted Banshee coaching position.
Well ... fuck! Darcy ...
There'd been the tiniest niggle at the back of Levi's brain for days. The knowledge that Tony could be a possibility as coach. No matter how outside. That's what he did after all — coach. But last Levi had heard he was somewhere in Indonesia setting up coaching clinics there.
A long way away from here.
But apparently he wasn't that outside after all.
Damn it! He should have listened to that niggle. Yoga had taught him to listen to his body and he did that without hesitation, but he wasn't as good at listening to his gut. Trusting his intuition.
If he had, he could have prepared Darcy for it a little. Put it out there, given her time to get used to it. Just in case.
Christ. Tony — the life and soul of any party, the one who people gravitated towards — was going to be back in their lives. After leaving it so spectacularly two years ago. Turning his back on Darcy and gutting her in the process.
Levi had heard her crying in her bedroom late at night for months after Tony had left. He'd tried to be there for her during that time, be a shoulder for her, but she'd been so devastated. And then she'd woken one day and announced herself over him. He hadn't heard her cry again. And they hadn't ever really talked about him since.
But would Tony's reappearance bring all that grief back again and was she really over him? Or did she, deep down, still love him. As far as he knew, she hadn't been seeing anyone. So had she really moved on?
Or did she still lie in bed at night and pine for Tony as Levi lay in his bed next door and burned for her?
He sunk to the couch, reading the article without really taking anything in. He knew Darcy didn't see him as anything other than her ex-boyfriend's ex-bestie. A roommate. She'd firmly friend-zoned him and that had been enough to begin with because she'd needed a good guy to lean on.
But every day that passed it was harder to pretend he didn't have deeper feelings for Darcy. Feelings he'd not looked at too deeply for the five years his best friend had shared Darcy's bed. Feelings that had grown in the last two while he'd waited for his moment.
Waited. Prevaricated. Lost his nerve.
Too afraid to jump in case he fucked it up altogether. Got it wrong. Misread the occasional flare of heat in her weird, green cat's eyes. Caused her to flee. Because being her friend, being near, sharing her life, was pretty damn good.
It sure as shit was better than nothing at all.
Christ. He was pathetic. And now this. Tony fucking Cameron smiling at him from the back page.
Her words from a few days ago came back to him. The coach can have whatever the hell he wants. Yeah. That's what Levi was worried about.
'Anything good in there?'
Levi almost went into cardiac arrest at the unexpected intrusion. He glanced at her lounging in the archway that separated the kitchen/dining area from the lounge room. She was in her regulation work clothes — roomy high-vis long-sleeved shirt, baggy King Gee shorts that reached her knees, thick protectors pulled over her socks and dusty steel-capped boots, her hair haphazardly tucked up in her Gerry's Market Garden cap.
It was possibly the most shapeless, asexual uniform he'd ever seen. She shouldn't look hot.
But she did. Fucking hot.
Trumped only by how she looked at the end of the day, her face all red and sweaty, her boots caked in mud, dirt under her fingernails and her hair clinging limply to her neck, happy and smiling and relaxed after a day doing what she loved.
Christ. What was wrong with him? Had Tony's imminent reappearance tripped some kind of Cro-Magnon switch in his head?
Levi didn't know. All he knew was he wanted to yank that hat off her head and kiss her. So damn hard.
Her spoon scraped along the bottom of her usual bowl of rice bubbles loaded up with Milo — poor man's Coco Pops — before shovelling a spoonful in her mouth, spilling milk down her chin and swiping at it with the back of her hand.
'Jesus.' He grabbed his chest. 'Sneak up on a guy why don't you?' 'Yeah. You look like you're heart-attack material.'
She pushed off the archway, totally unconcerned for his cardiac health. Plonking herself down on the couch beside him, her arm warm against his, her thigh brushing his, she glanced at the paper. Levi angled it out of her line of sight.
'Hey.' She frowned at him. 'I'm trying to read that.'
'They've announced the coach.'
She gasped and her eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. 'Who is it?' She shoved the bowl on the coffee table in front of them, a bit of milk slopping over the side as she made a grab for the paper.
He held it just out of reach, wishing he didn't have to tell her. Wishing it wasn't so. She made another grab for it and he held it above his head.
Excerpted from "Fair Game"
Copyright © 2018 Amy Andrews.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd..
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