Atlanta Skyline’s benched goalkeeper Brendan Young would have been happy to ride out the end of his contract after his gambling addiction was splashed all over the news media. Instead, his teammates’ injuries have unexpectedly put him back in the game. A new face in his weekly Gamblers Anonymous meeting provides another surprise spike—of pure attraction. Why is Erin Bailey, former world champion women’s soccer player, at this meeting? And why can’t he stop thinking about their red-hot one-night stand?
Six months ago, one reckless night in Vegas ended with Erin in Brendan’s bed. She’s sworn off dating athletes, especially those whose reputations could destroy her new career as the Championship Soccer League’s Director of Ethics and Advocacy. But the secret they share—and the crazy heat they generate—makes it impossible to keep her distance.
Both have choices to make about the future, but no matter how steeply the odds are stacked against them, walking away could be the riskiest move of all . . .
“This author weaves a charming tale encompassing two fantastic characters, well-written dialogue, and a fast-paced plot that includes quite a bit of sporting action.”
—harlequinjunkie.com, TOP PICK, on Crossing Hearts
“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.”
“A new angle not seen in sports contemporary romances.”
—RT Book Reviews
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The folding chair creaked as Brendan eased into it. He crossed his arms and stretched his legs, wrinkling his nose. August had started dry and hot, but the church basement smelled damper than usual.
He returned the nods of a few regulars as they took seats around the circle and gauged the expressions of the newcomers to see if any recognized him. He didn't usually expect to be known by sight, particularly now that he had a full- time seat on the bench. But since his extracurricular activities had garnered more headlines than his goalkeeping, occasionally he ran into unexpected recognition.
Anyway, none of the new faces showed any sign of familiarity. He leaned back in his chair, mentally bracing himself for the worst hour of his week.
"Let's begin with a recitation of our twelve steps." Lenny, the heavyset, bearded group leader, opened his well-worn pamphlet.
The sound of flicking pages filled the room before Lenny's voice intoned, "We admitted we were powerless over gambling, and that our lives had become unmanageable."
Brendan's pamphlet remained closed on his lap, unneeded after nearly six months of weekly meetings. He rolled his eyes to the ceiling as he muttered, "We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to a normal way of thinking and living."
He mumbled his way through the other ten assertions, then waited patiently while Lenny took the two new attendees through the twenty questions designed to determine whether someone was truly a problematic gambler. By all accounts the first person was — he'd blown his entire retirement savings on slot machines.
The second newcomer seemed to be more addicted to personal drama than the lottery tickets she claimed were ruining her life. Brendan narrowed his eyes in judgment as she answered yet another question negatively, then launched into a detailed explanation about why her weekly lottery tickets were a huge problem nonetheless.
The door behind him banged open. He glanced over his shoulder — and froze.
Five feet and ten inches of red-haired, blue-eyed velocity personified stood in the entrance. She wore an unrelentingly tight skirt and an unapologetic expression.
Erin Bailey. Of all people. The last time he'd seen her she was —
"Sorry I'm late," she breezed in a tone that clearly broadcast just how sorry she wasn't. She glided around the periphery of the circle, totally unimpeded by her sky-high heels, and dropped into the chair opposite his. She curled her strawberry-pink lips in a smile he bet no one realized was fake.
Then their eyes met. Her insincere smile vanished as instantly as it appeared.
Considering he'd spent the last ten years being paid exorbitant sums to think faster than his opponents, he probably should've come up with a better reaction. Some slow-running part of his brain tossed up suggestions too late for him to act on — a smug smile, maybe. A coyly arched brow. A subtle tilt of the head.
Instead, he stared at her dumbly, barely able to keep his jaw from dropping as a wave of memories slammed into him with the force of a two-hundred-pound striker.
Their polite greeting at their mutual friend's New Year's Eve wedding in Las Vegas. Her pleased smile as he slid into the seat beside her at the reception. The scent of jasmine, reminding him of the tangling, flowered vine climbing up the side of his house. Champagne. More champagne. Her admission that she'd had a crush on him in college. His pretense that he hadn't known. Soccer gossip. Champagne, again.
The images blurred as the night went on. The casino floor. Slot machines. Poker tables. Blackjack. Champagne, champagne, champagne.
When he looked at her in that harshly lit basement room he saw the view from the hotel balcony, fireworks exploding above the sweeping, glittering expanse of the Vegas strip. The pale peach contours of her body against the crisp white linen. Her bright green dress discarded on top of his dark gray suit. His fingers threading through red hair as vivid as a desert sunset. The line between her eyes as she moaned his name and clamped her hands on his hips to force him deeper, harder, faster.
When his vision came back into focus she stared at him. He wondered if she saw those things, too, or if she was too busy panicking that he was aware the Championship Soccer League's newly appointed Director of Ethics and Advocacy was a gambling addict.
Maybe she was regretting that phone call in February after his name had been one of several high-profile athletes whose gambling habits had become painfully public when online betting site SportBetNet was hacked and lists of its professional-athlete members appeared in the press. Maybe she wished she could take back her frosty insistence that their one-night stand couldn't possibly lead to anything more — not even friendship — and that she trusted he'd understand the position this put her in and be suitably discreet.
He finally found a hint of a smirk.
The lottery ticket enthusiast answered her last question, barely managing the seven of twenty "yes" answers that supposedly qualified someone as a gambling addict. She leaned back in her chair, satisfied, and Lenny turned to Erin.
"Welcome," he said warmly. "Would you like to introduce yourself?"
"Sure." She ripped her gaze away from his, and the lighting in the room seemed to dim at the lost contact.
Her too-bright smile was back in place as she offered the circle a little wave. "My name is ..." She stole a glance at him, and he could read her backpedal as easily as a debut striker's first attempt on goal.
She would've lied about her name. Now she had to tell the truth.
"My name is Erin. I'm a compulsive gambler," she announced decisively. "It's been three weeks since my last bet."
"Hi, Erin," the group chimed in unison.
"Is this your first meeting?" Lenny asked.
She shook her head, and Brendan thought Lenny looked slightly relieved at not having to run through the questions for the third time.
"Well, you're very welcome," he repeated. He turned to a lanky, well-dressed man with graying temples. "Jeremy, you're our speaker today. Are you ready to share your recovery story?"
Jeremy began by recalling the pressures of law school and Brendan zoned out almost immediately, fixing his eyes on Erin — the last person he ever expected to run into at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
He shifted in his seat, attempting to redirect his attention to Jeremy's story. As he angled his body he met Erin's gaze again. She looked away as rapidly as she had earlier, but not before he saw the flash of blue-flame heat in her eyes.
Brendan exhaled, trying to calm the sudden increase in his heart rate. In that moment he knew she remembered everything. The bright lights. The pumping adrenaline. The blazing lust.
The scalding, breath-stealing connection that was as bright and beautiful and fleeting as the fireworks that had popped overhead.
Brendan took his time stirring milk into the cup of coffee he didn't particularly want, hovering beside the oversized carafe and keeping Erin in his peripheral vision. As he anticipated, a handful of the meeting's male attendees descended on her as soon as the session finished. He'd already overheard two offers to be her sponsor and now Jason — who'd lost his college tuition money on online poker — had practically pinned her against the wall as he pumped her for details.
Brendan waited just long enough to hear her fabricated backstory — she told him she was a marketing executive for a bottle manufacturing company — before moving in, the second cup of coffee in hand.
"Sorry to interrupt." He edged around Jason, extending the orange ceramic mug to Erin. "Skim milk, no sugar."
Erin gave him the first genuine smile he'd seen all evening as Jason glanced between the two of them.
"You know each other?" he asked, giving Brendan a reassessing once-over.
"For more than ten years."
"We went to college together," she explained.
"Cool," Jason replied insincerely. He eased away but kept his attention on the two of them for a few moments longer than necessary.
Comfortable Jason was out of earshot, Brendan turned to Erin. "Hi."
She took a long sip from her coffee mug, her gaze never leaving his over the rim. Eventually, she lowered the mug and flashed him a sheepish grin. "Hi, yourself."
"I didn't know you moved to Atlanta."
"League headquarters are here."
"Didn't think that meant you had to be. Can't you supervise our ethics from New York City?"
"Apparently not. What?" She arched a brow in challenge. "Were you expecting me to call you when I landed?"
He couldn't stop his smile. That was the Erin he knew. Sharp, smart, sexy as sin.
"Be nice to me or I'll tell Lenny you want to share your recovery story next week."
"Don't worry, there won't be a next week." She glanced over his shoulder at the mingling crowd, then back at him. "Let's get out of here. I'm feeling less anonymous" — she bracketed the word in finger quotes — "by the minute."
He put his untouched coffee on the table and pushed open the door. "After you."
His gentlemanly gesture was self-serving, and he enjoyed a front-row view of her rear end as he followed her up the stairs, through the musty lobby into the humid summer night. They stopped halfway down the path toward the parking lot. He glanced down at the moths clustering around the ankle-height lights embedded in the grass, then back up to find her watching him.
"So." She shifted her weight. "How've you been?"
"Great, if you ignore the three-month suspension and my permanent seat on the bench."
She cringed. "Do these meetings help?"
"If I needed help, maybe, but I don't. I only turn up because it was one of my manager's conditions for staying on the team."
"But don't you think that —" She stopped herself, rephrased. "You had a lot of activity on that betting website. Huge sums of money in and out. All on soccer games."
"Soccer games in Europe," he corrected. "I never bet on my own league. Gambling never interfered with my career or my personal life, and I won far more than I lost. Everyone at these meetings talks about hitting their rock bottom and realizing things had to change, but that didn't happen to me. I had a hobby — a hobby that certain people decided was in violation of some dubious moral code."
He drew breath to say more, then reined himself in. Those certain people were her bosses, now — the Board heavyweights at League headquarters. He shouldn't hold her responsible for their actions.
And he shouldn't assume anything he said wouldn't get back to them.
Which reminded him to ask, "What are you doing here?"
She glanced away and back, a sure sign that whatever she was about to say wasn't true. "Oh, just checking it out, seeing how it all works. Some of the league execs want me to start up an anti-gambling task force so I thought I should know what resources are available for players with problems."
He didn't believe a word of it, but he didn't need to say that. She was smart enough to know he saw through her. "Congratulations on the new job, by the way."
"Thanks. And sorry."
"Anything I've done that deserves an apology."
She didn't look away this time. They shared a gaze across the short distance, in the deepening dark, the church grounds hushed and empty.
He weighed what had gone between them, allocated fault like poker chips, assigned each mistake with as much fairness and objectivity as he could muster. In the end, he supposed their piles were pretty equal.
"You're fine," he said quietly.
She exhaled. "Good. We've known each other a long time. Now that I'm here in Atlanta, it might be nice to see each other occasionally. As friends," she added.
He shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'm moving at the end of the year."
"You're leaving Atlanta Skyline?"
"I'm leaving soccer."
Her eyes widened in shock. "Are you serious? Don't tell me Roland fired you over this gambling thing."
"My contract was up at the end of this season anyway. Roland's been looking for a reason not to renew it since the day he inherited me from the previous manager."
"But you could sign with another team. I can think of five other managers who'd love to get you on their roster. You're the best American goalkeeper in a generation."
"Except I'm thirty-three, and there's a whole new generation of players hitting their prime." He shook his head. "I'm done. Time to retire."
Her expression was solemn. "That's really sad, Brendan."
He shrugged. "I've had a good career. Longer and better than most. Everything ends eventually."
"What are you going to do?"
"Head home to Nebraska. I bought a house I'm going to renovate. I'll focus on my family, and on my sports foundation. My brother has — "
"— Down syndrome. I remember. I met him once during college."
He smiled, recalling the confident, ambitious girl she'd been even then. "Of course. Anyway, that's the plan. My house is already on the market."
"Well. I guess we'll have to make the most of the time we have, then."
"I guess we will," he agreed, knowing with absolute certainty they probably wouldn't see each other again for years, if ever.
Soccer was the loose tie that had occasionally tightened to throw them together, but he was stepping out of its range while she got closer to the center with every professional move she made. Within six months she'd be a go-to pundit, the public face of Championship League Soccer, with more hours clocked on news shows than in her brief career as a professional player.
He'd be the guy sitting alone at the bar, pointing to the hot redhead on the screen and telling anyone who'd listen that he used to know her.
"So," she said, articulating in a single word the sense of closure that had suddenly descended on their conversation.
"Good luck in the new job."
"Thanks. Maybe we'll bump into each other before you go."
"Maybe," he offered noncommittally. "Can I walk you to your car?"
He nodded. Yes, she was. She always had been. "I'll see you around, then."
He lifted a hand, then watched her cut across the grass to the parking lot. The headlights of a brand-new sports car flashed and chirped as she unlocked it remotely. A door slammed, an engine revved, and she was gone.
He took his time on the walk to his own car, parked at the other end of the lot. This would be the first of lots of goodbyes, he reminded himself, and probably one of the easiest. No sense in getting maudlin about it.
Still, he lingered beside his car for an extra couple of seconds, enjoying the warm air, the clear night sky, the knowledge that tomorrow he would train with the best soccer team in the CSL.
In three months everything would be different, but tonight he knew exactly where he belonged. He might as well enjoy it while he could.
"And that's how we can significantly increase match attendance and ticket sales with relatively little capital expenditure. In time, I truly believe this could elevate the profile of the women's game worldwide and expand opportunities for female soccer players for generations."
Erin clicked to the last slide in her presentation: a photograph of three preadolescent girls of different ethnicities, arms linked, soccer balls at their feet, broad smiles on their young faces.
She turned to face the boardroom table, lined on both sides by white men — and one woman — all over the age of fifty. The Executive Board of the Championship Soccer League.
Her heart ran at a pace competing for a hundred-meter world record. Her whole body trembled with nervous excitement and adrenaline, and her stomach informed her there was a very real possibility she might throw up. But she smiled as though no one had told "no" — as though she hadn't spent her entire career hearing that word over and over.
"We have a few minutes left, and I'd be happy to answer any questions."
She looked from person to person. The chief marketing officer smiled encouragingly but said nothing. The deputy commissioner glanced at the clock on the wall. The HR director — the only other woman in the room — stifled a yawn.
Randall Morenski, the chief financial officer, and her line manager, finally broke the silence. "What's happening with the gambling task force?"
She blinked. "Uh, well, I'm reviewing the work that's been done by the regulatory affairs and compliance teams."
He wrinkled his nose. "We can't put that in the annual report."
Had the floor just dropped slightly, or was it her imagination? "I wasn't aware you required any content on the task force for the annual report."
Excerpted from "Saving Hearts"
Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Crowley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
the latest atlanta skyline novel, saving hearts, focuses on goaltender brendan young, benched for being linked to a gambling website, as part of his rehabilitation he is forced to go to gambler's anonymous meetings. when he runs into erin bailey, the league's new director of ethics and advocacy, attending a meeting for a compulsive gambling problem things between them get heated. erin and brendan have a history. from college there's always been an interest, an attraction, an awareness. then one night in vegas, things between them burn. and afterward, erin wants to pretend to forget it. erin doesn't believe in relationships. but brendan is looking to make a life with someone. here's the thing, brendan does gamble, but he gambles because he's got a crazy memory and a brain that works too quickly. he's analytical and can easily calculate odds and probabilities. it's what makes him the brilliant player he is. and gambling is one way to quiet his overactive mind by giving it something specific to focus on. and i guess i'm one of those people who doesn't understand why gambling is viewed as such a vice. especially since brendan's particular brand of gambling is most akin to playing the stock market. erin and brendan come up with a crazy plan that allows them to indulge in their gambling, while also following all league rules. the time they spend together changes the boundaries of their relationship. soon erin has to admit that even if they aren't having sex she and brendan have a relationship. so why not put sex back on the table. and then when everything is on the line, brendan steps up. and in order to make sure they can have it all, erin has some hard choices to make. and she finally does step up. the thing about these two is that brendan is very much the grown up in this relationship. erin is still figuring everything out, and if it weren't for the crazy chemistry that sparks between them, it's very easy to wonder why brendan tries at all. **saving hearts will publish on march 20, 2018. i received an advance reader copy courtesy of netgalley/kensington press (lyrical shine) in exchange for my honest review.