In this perfect book for romance and sports fans, professional sports agent Jillian Nichols knows how to play the game to get what she wants. But admitting to what she needs has always been a challenge. Will she ever let her guard down long enough to let someone in? Or will the bad boy hockey player Nick “the Punisher” Salinger have to fight harder than ever for a chance to win her heart?
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Going for the Goal
NINE YEARS AGO
Jillian Nichols had faced a lot of adversity in her quest to become a professional sports agent, but this was the first time her own bra was actively sabotaging her. She’d been in the middle of an impassioned speech trying to convince a drunken college basketball player to sign with Pantheon Sports Management when her underwire popped out and impaled her tender skin. She pushed her way through the throngs of partygoers crowding the small apartment to find the nearest exit and ended up in a cold, dark interior stairwell. Clear of prying eyes, she wasted no time digging her hand into the front of her black sheath dress to adjust the rogue wire.
The concrete floor was icy cold beneath her tights-clad feet. She should’ve grabbed her boots before slipping out, but she’d been in too much of a hurry to free herself from the push-up bra of death to think straight. She regretted that hasty decision the second her left foot sank into a wet puddle on the landing. Dear god, please let that be water.
She hissed as the thin strip of metal popped right back out of the fabric, jabbing into her chest again.
Just when she thought things couldn’t get worse, “The Imperial March” from Star Wars sounded from her purse—the ringtone she’d set for her boss. She rummaged awkwardly for the phone and answered, “Hi, Mr. Parsons.”
She winced as his loud voice boomed through her cell, demanding to know how her “networking session,” as he euphemistically called it, was going. Jillian tended to think of it as “trotting out the young female intern to get the attention of an obnoxious, hormone-driven young athlete.” This was all part of a scheme to aggressively court Matt Turner, a University of Minnesota basketball player who still had another year of college eligibility left but had more than one NBA team interested in drafting him early. He’d taken a liking to her when they’d met in the office a few months ago, and Parsons hadn’t wasted any time using her youth and gender to bend the NCAA’s rules about agent recruitment practices.
Landing an internship with a prestigious agency was the only way to make it in this cutthroat business, and Pantheon was the biggest agency on both coasts, but this wasn’t exactly the learning opportunity she’d signed up for. It was bad enough she’d been shipped out to the wilds of Minnesota for the last few months instead of working out of the New York or LA offices like she’d expected. Even when she did manage to convince some young hotshot athlete that Pantheon was the best agency out there, Parsons never gave her any credit. After four months, she was sick of it.
One day she was going to open her own agency and do things her way. No underhanded recruitment tactics, no flouting the regulations governing the profession—she was going to earn her success through hard work and honesty. Then again, that wasn’t going to happen if she didn’t get a solid letter of recommendation from Parsons and a passing grade for this internship.
“It’s fine. Great. I think Turner’s interested,” she said. No need to tell him that interest was geared more toward getting her into bed than signing with Pantheon.
She wedged the phone between her ear and shoulder so she could quickly strip off her wet tights and keep working on the stubborn underwire while Parsons prattled on, painfully unaware of his own ignorance. He’d claimed to have been impressed with her grades during her interview—she was at the top of her class—but she was pretty sure she could’ve handed him a Playboy magazine in lieu of her transcript and he still would’ve hired her. He didn’t care about her brains or talent, only that she was young and attractive enough to get the attention of male athletes.
“Good job, Nichols. Now get back in there and see if you can charm him a little more. We’re on a tight timeline. I want you to land Turner by any means necessary. Do you understand me?”
“I’m not sure I do,” she said slowly.
“I hired you for a reason, Nichols. Guys like Turner think with their dicks, not their brains. Anyone can promise to make him millions of dollars, but you have assets none of my male interns have. Assets that can easily sway Turner. Use them if you have to.”
Revulsion battered her stomach like a rockslide. Parsons had dropped some lewd hints over the past few months, but this was the first time he’d outright suggested she sleep her way to success. Her entire body shook with anger. “Actually, Mr. Parsons, I qui—”
The phone slipped out of her grasp. She managed to catch it before it crashed onto the concrete floor and brought it back to her ear.
“What was that, Nichols?”
She tilted her head back and sighed, feeling like all the air had just been pulled out of her lungs. Interning for Pantheon was the most degrading experience of her life, but quitting now would mean giving up on her dream completely. One o’clock in the morning wasn’t the time to make rash life decisions. “Yes, sir.”
She hung up and leaned against the cold gray wall to catch her breath. What she wouldn’t give to take back these last few hours.
She cast a quick glance around to make sure there were no hallway cameras, then took advantage of the isolation to unzip her dress, pull the front down to her waist, and finally yank the damn underwire right out of her bra.
“Need some help with that?”
She yelped and jumped backward, stumbling and dropping her phone again, as a guy with a six-pack in his left hand climbed the stairs. He stopped halfway to her landing and caught her phone as it tumbled toward him.
“No, thanks,” she said, throat dry with embarrassment as she quickly pulled her dress back up to hide her lace-covered breasts.
She crossed her arms as she watched him bound up the remaining steps. How did a guy of that size move so quietly? He was well over six feet with shoulders so broad, he nearly filled the stairwell. She assumed he was an athlete with that body, but with his stubble, worn jeans, and utilitarian brown jacket, he looked more like a sexy lumberjack.
There was something strangely familiar about his rugged face. Midnight-blue eyes, a strong jaw, and a slightly crooked nose that only added to his handsomeness. The kind of face she would want to grab hold of with two hands and pull into hers until every memory of this disastrous evening was burned out of her brain—if she weren’t so mortified.
“My phone?” Thankfully, her voice had regained most of its normal composure. She kept one arm tightly pressed across her chest to hide the fact that her breasts were now lopsided, and held the other out expectantly.
Instead of handing it over, he made a show of inspecting the phone. “Looks like I caught it before the screen cracked.”
“Are you expecting a reward or something?” she snapped, letting her frustration get the better of her. She just wanted to go back to her tiny rented apartment, wipe off all her carefully applied makeup, and sleep until the entire night was a distant memory.
He gave her a wicked smile that made her knees go weak. “Pretty sure I already got one.”
She swallowed. Everything about this guy, from his cocky swagger to his enormous size, screamed “bad boy.” What was wrong with her that she actually found his whole tall, dark, and fresh-from-hewing-lumber vibe so attractive? Maybe it was because he looked like a man, unlike all the overly entitled, immature frat boys at the party, that was so refreshing to her senses. Or maybe it was because this guy was so hot, he could make a woman melt in the middle of Antarctica.
But none of that mattered. She was here to sign Matt Turner, not get distracted by some random guy who happened to check every one of her “yes, please” boxes.
He chuckled and held the phone out, and she immediately snatched it from his hand, then spun on her heel to push open the door to the hallway.
The heavy metal door didn’t budge.
“Needs a key card,” the guy said, gesturing to the black panel along the wall.
“I don’t suppose you have one?” She’d forgotten about the security in the building. Someone from the party had come down to escort her up because the elevator was key card enabled. She should’ve realized the stairwell would be locked as well.
“Nope, but I’ll call my buddy to let us in.” He pulled out his own phone and dialed. After a few seconds, he hung up and shrugged. “No answer.”
“That’s fine. We can walk down and sneak into the elevator with someone who lives here.” She could handle walking down the seven flights to the lobby, despite her bare feet, but considering it was the dead of winter, she needed to get her boots and favorite navy peacoat she’d left inside the apartment.
“Elevator’s malfunctioning. That’s why I took the stairs.”
She stared at him with eyes so wide, it felt like they were bulging out of her head. She looked for some kind of a sign that he was joking, but it didn’t come. Defeat hammered into her shoulders, killing off the last bits of her adrenaline and forcing her to feel just how tired she really was. She hung her head and groaned.
“Hey, don’t worry. My buddy knows I’m coming. He’ll look for me eventually.” He shrugged off his jacket and set it on the floor. “Here, we can have our own party until he comes.”
“Turn around first,” she ordered in her most authoritative voice.
“Why?” he asked innocently, but his eyes zeroed in on her crossed arms.
“Just do it.”
“Fine, but promise you aren’t planning to push me down the stairs.”
The idea that she could make this giant of a man unwillingly budge a single inch was so absurd, she laughed in spite of herself. He turned around without further argument, giving her the chance to pull out the underwire from the other side of her bra.
“Done,” she said with a sigh of relief. Her boobs might not look perky and round anymore, but at least they were even. She eased onto the ground and watched him remove a couple of beers from the six-pack he’d been carrying.
He slid down the wall and took a seat a few feet from her on the floor. The faint scent of his cologne pushed through the dank odor of the stairwell, making her feel like she could finally breathe again. She wanted to inhale the spicy, masculine notes until they filled her senses.
“Beer?” he asked.
When he handed her the dark brown bottle, she hesitated. Despite smelling like a brewery after some guy accidentally spilled his beer on her, she hadn’t had a drink all night. She took her job seriously, which meant never drinking when she was on the clock. But she was tired of being the good girl who never got anywhere. She was twenty-one years old, a straight-A student, and the hardest-working intern Pantheon had ever seen. For once, she just wanted to relax. “After the day I’ve had, why not?”
He removed the cap with his hand and tossed it into the corner of the landing, then took a long sip.
She copied his movement, wrapping her hand around the top of the bottle and twisting. “Ouch!” The metallic edges of the cap dug into her palm, leaving a harsh red imprint.
“Let me.” He leaned over, covered her hand holding the bottle with his, and popped the cap off like it was nothing.
“Thanks,” she muttered, cheeks burning as his hand lingered over hers. The dual sensation of cold glass and his warm skin made her whole body tingle.
With a sly grin, he slid his hand away, no doubt completely aware of the effect he had on her. “If it makes you feel better, I’m super claustrophobic.”
“Really? Or is that just a feeble attempt to cuddle up to me?”
He winked, and she rolled her eyes. “What? I’m a man who likes to take advantage of a good opportunity. And from the way you keep biting your lip, I can tell you’re thinking about it, too.”
Her hand flew to her mouth.
He punched her lightly in the shoulder like she was one of his jock buddies. “I’m just messing with you. So are you in a terrible mood because the party sucks, or is it my company making you miserable?”
“I can’t say I’m happy to be stuck with the guy who saw me fixing my bra, but I can’t really blame you for that. Bad timing.”
“For the record, I disagree. That was miraculous timing.”
Thank god the lighting was dim, because she could feel a flush creeping up her neck. “Anyway, I’m sure the party is fine if you’re actually here to party.”
“What other reason is there to be at a party?”
She took a sip of beer. She hated IPAs, but the hoppy, malty flavor was less bitter on her tongue than anything else she’d had to deal with tonight. “Work.”
He raised his eyebrows in shock. “Uh, no offense, but you don’t really seem friendly enough to be a prostitute.”
She couldn’t stop the high-pitched laugh from bursting out of her chest. “I’m not a prostitute, I’m a sports agent. Or at least I will be. Right now I’m just an intern.”
His grin returned. “That makes more sense. But I wouldn’t have pegged you for an agent.”
“You’re a woman.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” she said sarcastically.
“Well, you could always unzip your dress again if we need further proof,” he responded with mock seriousness.
The half bottle of beer she’d drunk must’ve already gone to her head, because she was starting to find his incessant flirting and cocky attitude more charming than annoying. Somewhere along the way, the tension had eased from her shoulders, and the millions of thoughts roaring in her mind had faded to a dull whisper. “I’ll pass.”
“I’m Nick, by the way.” The smile he gave her was genuine, and made him look even more devastatingly handsome.
“Jillian Nichols, currently with Pantheon Sports Management,” she added drily.
“So, Jillian, why do you want to be a bloodsucking leech when you grow up?”
Taking a page from his book, she punched him in the shoulder.
“Ouch, you’ve got muscles there, Nichols.”
“No, I don’t. See?” She flexed her pathetically thin bicep. “I literally hit you as hard as I could. It doesn’t matter how many weights I lift, or even if I eat a crate full of steroids. I can’t put on a single pound of muscle no matter how hard I try. I also can’t throw a ball of any shape or size without tripping over my own feet, and I’ve been cut from every team I’ve ever tried out for. Oh, and I’m completely injury-prone. Swear to god I once broke my collarbone just by looking at a baseball bat.”
He laughed. “That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard a woman brag about.”
“I’m not bragging. I’m explaining why I want to be an agent. I suck at sports, but I love them and want to be involved. I’m also smart and know how to get what I want. Distractions can make or break an elite athlete. How can someone focus one hundred and ten percent on their training when they’re worried about a contract dispute or whether they’re getting traded next year? Athletes need someone to look out for them, make sure they’re not getting worked over by the real leeches out there. Being an agent means I can stay involved with the sports I love and make a real difference for the athletes who need someone on their side.”
She quickly knocked back the rest of her beer to mask her embarrassment. She’d been rambling on like a Miss America contestant. Where had that even come from? She wasn’t the type to share her life story with strangers.
“So you want to help people. That’s cool,” he said with what seemed to be genuine sincerity. She had a pretty good bullshit meter, but she’d known Nick for less than ten minutes. She couldn’t help but be suspicious of a guy who went from jerk to Prince Charming that quickly.
“All right, tell me how you’d help Dean Sanderson.”
“The Toronto right wing? He hasn’t lived up to his potential at all.” Every nerve in her body seemed to electrify with his question. He was challenging her, but she was more than up for it.
“Yeah, but he’s still got some good playing days left.”
“And that’s why I’d try to get him a trade to the lowest-ranked team in the league that’ll take him. He needs a new start. Somewhere he can feel like he’s actually contributing rather than taking up space on the bench.”
He twisted to face her and narrowed his eyes. “Interesting strategy. And what about Joe Symonds?”
“Forty-one and refuses to retire? There’s no question he’s getting sent down to the minors at the end of the year, so I’d push for a trade with Dallas. From what I can tell, the only thing he cares about is getting on the ice. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing for or what league. Dallas’s farm team is close by, which means he could stay in a big city, making his wife and daughters happy, and he could keep playing until his body disintegrates.”
“Impressive. You know your hockey. ” He continued to lob questions at her, amiably debating some of her assertions, until she’d completely lost track of time.
Eventually she was yawning too much to answer coherently.
“Am I boring you?” He flashed a cocky grin that suggested he wasn’t all that worried about the possibility she wasn’t enjoying his company.
“No, just tired.” She smiled, realizing she’d been anything but bored. In fact, she’d actually managed to have some fun in spite of the late hour and cold concrete chilling her butt. Nick was easier to talk to than she’d expected. Sweeter, too. She hadn’t experienced this kind of connection with anyone in a long time. But she was here for work, not pleasure. Unless she wanted Parsons to fire her tomorrow, she’d best remember that.
He shifted closer, letting his knee rest against hers. “Want another beer?”
She shook her head, trying to ignore the wave of heat bursting from the spot where their bodies touched. “We should try knocking again. Maybe someone will hear us.” She stood up and banged on the door.
He was on his feet behind her in less than a second. She didn’t actually hear him stand up, but she could feel the heat of his body radiating behind her, like her nerves were wired to detect him.
“Your zipper,” he said gruffly. He wrapped one hand around her hip, causing her to suck in her breath, while the other slowly pulled the metal tab up to her nape.
“Thanks,” she said breathily.
Instead of letting go, he tightened his hold on her side. It was possessive. Thrilling. “You’ve got freckles all over your shoulders.” His finger ran along her skin like he was tracing a line between the little brown dots.
“My mom says they’re the devil’s kisses. One for each of my sins.”
“She’s wrong. I think they’re beautiful.” His whispered words caressed the sensitive skin on her neck like a kiss.
She shivered and braced her hands on the metal door. How would it feel to let go of her responsibilities just once and act like a normal twenty-one-year-old? One who remembered that parties were supposed to be fun, not high-stakes business meetings. One who had a seriously dangerous attraction to the guy currently setting her skin on fire.
His hand crept around to her stomach, pulling her closer and making her core feel like a volcano about to explode.
Her resolve shattered under the weight of her desire. She twisted to face him and ran her hands along his chest, emboldened by the hungry look in his eyes. He dipped his head, and her heart fluttered. She wanted to kiss him. Lose herself in him. She pressed up on her toes to close the distance, anticipation ratcheting in her belly with each disappearing inch of space.
The door behind them swung open, smacking her square in the butt.
“Salinger! You made it!”
She jumped out of Nick’s arms and rubbed her tender butt cheek while he engaged in some sort of secret handshake with the frat boy. Under the weight of her growing embarrassment, the stairwell started to feel uncomfortably small, like the walls were closing in. She wanted to push her way through the two burly guys, grab her stuff, and get the hell out of there. But that would mean reminding Nick of her presence. Right now, she kind of appreciated that her almost-make-out partner had already forgotten she existed.
Exhaustion won out over embarrassment. “Excuse me,” she muttered, slipping between the door and the other guy’s arm and heading straight into the heart of the pulsing bass to find Turner.
He was passed out on the floor with an empty vodka bottle still in his hand. Disappointment mixed with relief in her stomach. Parsons would be pissed, but there was nothing she could do about it now. Time to go home.
She located her coat beneath another girl’s butt on the sofa. The boots, buried in a massive pile of footwear near the front door, took a little longer to find. Nick breezed into the apartment just as she found the left one.
“The Punisher’s here!” a random voice yelled.
Oh my god. The guy she had nearly jumped in the stairwell wasn’t just another college jock. He was Nick “the Punisher” Salinger—first-line defenseman for the Minneapolis Warriors and the biggest goon in the NHL. She’d just spent the better part of an hour trapped with one of the top rookies, and instead of acting like a professional, she’d turned into a puck bunny. Her desperate urge to leave amplified a hundred times over. She needed to get out of there.
“Hey, Jillian, wait up. I never got your phone number.”
She froze. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Another guy stepped in front of her, blocking the exit. “Maybe you should give me your number instead,” he slurred. She tried to push past him, but the guy didn’t move. He seized her upper arm, squeezing so tight she yelped.
“Let her go,” Nick growled.
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
The only thing she saw was Nick’s fist flying toward the guy’s face before all hell broke loose.