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Talking Dirty with the Player
By Jackie Ashenden, Libby Murphy
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jackie Ashenden
All rights reserved.
Judith Ashton crept around a corner clutching her laser gun to her chest. She couldn't see a thing. The dim lighting of the room was designed for effect rather than illumination, and the curls of dry ice that swirled around her feet only made the visibility worse.
Laser tag. At a wedding. What was Christie thinking? Jude's new sister-in-law was a doll, but really, having the conference room of the hotel where her wedding reception was being held laid out like a level on one of her beloved computer games was surely a step too far.
Judith blew out an irritated breath and rested against a handy pillar, squinting into the darkness.
She knew Christie had meant well by encouraging her to give the laser tag a go, but this was not her definition of fun. This was her definition of stupid. Organizing and taking the wedding photos? Now that was fun.
The dry ice swirled and a large shape seemed to loom in the darkness ahead of her. Was that —?
All at once the vest she wore vibrated and made a horribly loud noise, and the light in her gun died out.
"You're dead, Judith my darling," a deep voice said from behind her.
Oh, great. Caleb.
She gave a long suffering sigh. "I should have known. Only you would shoot someone in the back."
"Hey, an opportunity's an opportunity."
She turned around and sure enough, Caleb Steele, her older brother Joseph's best friend, stepped out of the darkness. Winning as usual, and smug about it. Also as usual.
The lights of his vest flashed jauntily as he flourished his laser at her. Dry ice eddied around his legs, snaking up powerful thighs and twining about lean hips. Then it dissipated, revealing him in all his magnetic glory like a rock star taking the stage. Typical Caleb. He always did know how to make an entrance.
"You know that vest looks ridiculous, right?" Judith pointed out. And over the top of his tuxedo, it certainly did.
Caleb grinned. "I think this is the first time you've actually deigned to speak to me all evening," he said in his deep, husky voice. "Been avoiding me, babycakes?"
Ah yes, he liked to call her babycakes. How she'd missed that while he'd been away in England playing rugby for the clubs. Not.
"I wasn't avoiding you," she said calmly, waving her laser for emphasis. "I just had other, more important stuff to do."
Caleb's smile flashed in the darkness. "What's more important than saying hello to an old pal you haven't seen for at least a couple of years?"
"A couple of years? Has it been that long? Well, well, doesn't time fly when you're having fun? And also, I'm not sure we were ever pals." She let a delicate emphasis rest on the last word.
His smile widened and Judith had to remind herself that she was now immune to its lethal charm. Completely immune. "Oh don't be like that," he said. "You missed me. Admit it."
"Yeah. Like I miss gonorrhea."
One dark brow rose. "You've had gonorrhea?"
Judith sighed. He was all about the witty comeback. If that's what you called wit. "Oh, shut up, Caleb."
"See, this is what I've missed while I've been away. I say something, then you say something, then I say something back and you end with 'shut up, Caleb'. We always have such great, in-depth conversations."
Still the same old Caleb. Patronizing, arrogant, and cocky as hell. They'd been friends once, a long time ago. And then more than friends. Until he'd broken her poor little teenage heart. She'd forgiven him for that, though; it had been years and years since their affair, after all.
Eight years to be exact.
Nevertheless, a familiar feeling began to creep up on her. An antsy, irritated feeling. Like she'd brushed up against poison ivy. Okay, so she may have forgiven him. That didn't mean he didn't bug her on occasion.
Judith swallowed her irritation and maintained her usual calm-and-in-control expression. The one that seemed to exasperate him as much as his teasing arrogance exasperated her.
"Did you have something special you wanted to say?" she asked him in bored tones. "Or are you just here to be annoying?"
"Actually, I'm here to shoot you. Though, being annoying is always an added bonus."
"Well, you shot me. Okay?" Judith pushed away from the pillar, looking for the exit. She'd had enough of this supposed "fun".
"Aw, don't spoil my good times."
"I don't care about your good times, Caleb. You know that thing I said about having more important stuff to do? Well, that."
Out of the darkness, she suddenly spotted the exit sign. Thank God.
"Come on Jude, lighten up. It's a wedding. You're a bridesmaid, I'm the best man ..."
"I'm a best woman, actually." She turned toward the sign. "And you're ... well, you're a man, I guess."
Much to her irritation, he laughed. Then, even more irritatingly, fell into step beside her as she began to head toward the exit. "Good to see things haven't changed. This whole getting-on-like-a-house-on-fire thing we have going on with each other."
"We have nothing going on with each other."
"Sure, darling. Keep telling yourself that."
"Any particular reason you're following me?"
"The sheer pleasure of your company."
"Oh sure. Like I believe that. You're doing it to be a pain in the butt."
"True. Being a pain in the butt is always fun. But as it happens," his voice altered, becoming deeper and much more suggestive, "I'm actually here to proposition you."
Judith almost missed a step. Then her brain caught up. "No."
"You haven't heard what I have to say yet."
"I don't need to. Whatever it is, the answer's going to be no." Because no was pretty much her standard response when it came to Caleb Steele.
"You're not even curious?"
"Do I look curious?"
Caleb paused beside her and the strange, antsy prickling feeling intensified as his gaze ran over her. "Bit difficult to tell in the dark, but yeah, you do. You also look cute in that bridesmaid dress."
She snorted. Perhaps if she was a little bitty girly who was impressed with being told she looked cute by the world-famous rugby player, she may have had a small heart palpitation. Jude wasn't a little bitty girly. Not anymore. She was a twenty-six-year-old woman with a successful photography business and a healthy contempt for charmers and fakes.
"I'm sure it's very interesting. Sadly, I'd rather cut my lawn with nail scissors before accepting any proposition from you."
"Hey, no problem. I'll get you the scissors."
"Which part of no didn't you understand?"
"Gee, that's a real shame." He lifted his laser gun and began to examine it in some detail. "I guess me, Joe, and Luke will have to find some other photographer to help out with my awesome fundraising idea, then."
Since he'd become one of the world's most sought-after rugby players, he'd also become a big fish splashing in the shallow pool of money, rugby groupies, media attention, and sponsorship deals. A player in all senses of the word. Charity and good works? Only if his PR person thought it necessary. Photography? When his publicist needed a picture and column time in the gossip mags.
"Fundraising idea? You? Forgive me if I smirk quietly to myself."
A fleeting expression of annoyance flashed over his face, but it was gone before she could be sure. He shrugged. "Oh well, I guess if you're not interested ..."
"Not today. Not tomorrow. And I'd even go so far as to say not in this lifetime."
At that moment, a shape appeared suddenly in front of them, gun pointed. Judith's vest activated with a whine, only to erupt again in another burst of static as she was shot. Caleb's vest made the same sound a moment later.
"You both are soooo dead!" Christie said triumphantly. In her white wedding gown with its fifties Hollywood glamour, the lights glittering off the Swarovski crystals that decorated her silver Doc Martens — a wedding present from Joseph — she presented a startling picture. Especially with the laser tag vest over the top of everything.
Caleb gave her a courtly bow. "Dead we most certainly are. You should be in a Quentin Tarantino movie, Christie sweetheart."
Christie grinned at him, cocking her gun at her hip and looking radiant. "I know, right? This is such a blast."
A faint smile crept over Judith's face. Okay, so laser tag wasn't her thing but being snarky about it was impossible when faced with Christie's infectious enthusiasm. "Don't tell me — you're winning, right?"
"Of course I'm winning." Christie abruptly narrowed her eyes, looking behind Judith and Caleb. "Ah-ha! There he is, the sneaky bastard. You can run but you can't hide, husband mine." She darted away in a swirl of dry ice and a sparkle of crystal.
"Well," said Caleb conversationally. "Since we're both dead ..."
"The answer is still no, Caleb."
They reached the exit. With ostentatious gallantry, Caleb pulled open the door for her and grinned. The same charming, outrageous grin that had been plastered all over Auckland's billboards for the past month in his latest advertising campaign. This month it was underwear.
"Ah, sweetheart," he said, "you don't know what you're passing up."
Oh yes, she was. Completely immune. As an impressionable eighteen-year-old she'd fallen for his particular brand of lethal bad-boy charm. It had been a brief, intense fever that, once passed, had inoculated her against him forever.
The light and noise from the reception in the hotel ballroom flooded in as they stepped out of the laser tag room. Caleb shrugged out of his vest and handed it to a waiting attendant, and Judith gave him her coolest smile in return. "Don't tell me: sexy calendar, right?"
His grin faltered. "How did —"
She held up a hand, cutting him off. "Hey, it's obvious. A fundraising idea that requires a portrait photographer? Coming from your brain? I'm thinking it's probably a beefcake one for the ladies with nakedness and coyly placed props over the important bits." She folded her arms. "Am I getting warm?"
Caleb's dark eyes narrowed. "And pretty bloody patronizing."
"Just returning the favor."
"So I guess the answer's still no?"
"Caleb, please. Do I look like the kind of photographer who does pornographic calendars?"
Slowly, that annoyingly cocky grin began to reassert its presence. "Pornographic. Do you even know what that means?"
A flush worked its way up her neck. "Don't be stupid. Of course I know what it means."
"Uh-huh." Unexpectedly, he stepped a little closer to her.
And she found herself having to look up at him. Way up at him. An insidious and wholly unwelcome heat began to gather inside her.
In the darkness of the laser tag room, it had been easy to ignore his physical appearance. But out here in the light, with him bare inches away? Not so much.
Minus the vest on his six-foot-five length of long, lean muscle encased in the tuxedo, he was pretty much the perfect male specimen. With cropped black hair and eyes the color of the darkest espresso, smooth tawny skin he'd inherited from a Maori ancestor, and the powerful shoulders that made him one of New Zealand's best rugby players, he had most of the country's female population swooning. Even those who didn't like rugby.
Not you, though. Immune, remember?
His grin deepened as if he'd seen something on her face he liked and the heat inside her gathered a little tighter. "Perhaps I forgot to mention that you'll be photographing me?"
Caleb, naked in her studio, reclining on the —
Okay, stop right there. Don't think about that. Think about his unbelievable arrogance. His massive ego. His bad-boy reputation. Think of how he came to your door eight years ago, after that night you had with him, to tell you that was all he'd get from you. Because you were too young and he wasn't into relationships. That his career was more important than you ...
Judith cleared her oddly constricted throat. "Sorry, but that makes agreeing to your stupid idea even less likely. I do tasteful portrait photography. Not wet jock shots." Like his current ad campaign for instance. Caleb's half-naked torso, water dripping off muscled abs, his head thrown back, a pair of tight black boxers molding to lean, hard buttocks ... No. Not thinking about that. She took a breath. "Could you stop looming? It's very irritating."
"I'll have you know I never loom." There was a smug expression on his face, though God only knew what had put it there. "Oh well, I guess I'll have to find some other photographer. There must be someone who's dying to get some free exposure." He raised a brow at her. "Perhaps you could send me some names?"
"Don't you have some minion who can do that for you?"
"I use my minions for more important tasks, like getting me invited to parties." His eyes gleamed with unholy amusement, the way they always did when he teased her. "Sure you're not interested? Not even a flicker? No? Ah, don't worry about it. I'll find someone myself." He turned toward the ballroom where the rest of the reception was in full swing. "See you around, darling. If you change your mind, you know how to get hold of me. Though, don't wait too long. The opportunity won't be around forever."
Judith watched him go, realizing she'd been holding her breath like a diver about to leap off the highest platform. She let it out with a huff. Her heartbeat seemed strangely accelerated, her muscles tight. Nothing to do with him, of course. She never let him get to her, not anymore.
Forcing a smile that probably looked as tight as the back end of a cat, she handed her vest and gun to the attendant, adjusted the green silk of her best-woman dress, and reflexively checked the bun the hairdresser had put her hair up into. Still messy, damn it.
A burst of laughter made her turn to see Christie and Joseph come out of the laser tag room. Christie's face was flushed, and Joseph was surreptitiously wiping lipstick off the side of his jaw.
"Hey," Chris yelled as she spotted Judith. "Did you have fun? Didn't I tell you it was great?"
"Sure, it was awesome," Judith said, hopefully sounding completely genuine.
Joseph came up behind his new wife, sliding an arm around her waist. "Did Cal tell you about his fundraising idea? I told him you might be interested."
Judith tried for diplomatic. "The calendar? Oh, yes, but it's not really my thing, Joe."
"No, it's different. You could use different."
An eye roll was tempting but she ignored it. "A sexy calendar? Different? Doesn't every fire department and police station in the country do stuff like that? No, it's kind of unoriginal and I'm not really —"
"It's for charity. Not the Turner Prize."
Great, now her brother was making her feel like a selfish bitch. "I'm not talking about art awards. I mean, come on, studio portraits aren't exactly high art. I just ..." She stopped, realizing that her objections to Caleb's idea had less to do with the subject and more to do with Caleb himself.
"Just what?" His blue eyes glinted. "I know you and Caleb don't get on —"
"We get on fine," she interrupted, ignoring Christie's eye roll.
"In that case, why not listen to what he has to say?"
"Because I'm busy. The wedding photos aren't going to take themselves, you know."
Judith opened her mouth to protest. Then shut it.
Just what are your objections anyway?
Actually, she wasn't entirely sure. Okay, so she and Caleb had an uncomfortable history, a history she'd never told anyone else about. But that was all H20 under the harbor bridge these days. Certainly he didn't seem to care, not given the number of groupies he always surrounded himself with.
So he was an arrogant, cocky playboy only interested in rugby, fame, and women. Those weren't good enough reasons to say no. Especially when it came to charity.
"Okay, fine," she said on a long breath. "What's it all about anyway?"
Joseph's smile was suspiciously similar to his friend's. Smug. "I'll let him explain that to you himself. I'm too impatient to dance with my lovely wife here."
Ignoring Christie's groan at the word "dance", Joseph dragged her off toward the ballroom, leaving Judith twitching with irritation.
She glared at her brother's retreating back, smoothing her green silk dress down again.
All right, so if Caleb wanted to talk about his silly idea, she'd listen. And that was all.
It had been years since he'd dumped her. Years and years. And she was over it. She totally was. She could even be pleasant if the occasion demanded.
Excerpted from Talking Dirty with the Player by Jackie Ashenden, Libby Murphy. Copyright © 2013 Jackie Ashenden. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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