Country music’s It Girl Jessi Tucker is fed up with her family’s stifling security measures. The threat of a dangerous stalker has gotten the men in her life—including her football star cousin, Tuck Tucker—monitoring her every move. To get the freedom she yearns for, Jessi hatches a plan to recruit Max Grayson, Tuck’s sexy brawler best friend, to play the role of her new boyfriend. But if her scheme works, will she be forced to hide her true romantic feelings for the sake of her independence? Or will she finally steal the heart of her dream man?...
Max has been pining for Jessi for years and would do anything to protect her, but a professional cage fighter with too many skeletons in his closet has no business being with one of America’s sweethearts. Yet while Max does his best to keep Jessi at arm’s length, the Tucker family persuades him to accept her offer.
Max believes he can keep Jessi safe from danger, but can he shelter her from his own dark secrets, the media’s unforgiving spotlight—and a mutual desire that’s harder to resist each day…
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To Win Her Heart
A Players Series Novel
By Mackenzie Crowne
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Mackenzie Crowne
All rights reserved.
Jessi Tucker needed a man. One with sharp edges. Some bite. A man other men feared.
Not a scary, biker gang kind of guy, of course. Her family would blow a collective gasket if she showed up on the red carpet with a Hells Angel. No, for her plan to work, her supposed boyfriend needed to be someone her father couldn't steamroll and wouldn't reject out of hand. Someone who projected the perfect mix of toughness and respectability — with a little bad boy thrown in for good measure.
Lucky for her, she knew right where to find him.
Slipping the designer sunglasses from her eyes, she scanned the half dozen occupants of the brightly lit fight center. A pair of men squared off on one of three large mats while several others called out encouragement to the combatants inside the netted, octagon ring in the back corner. Bare, well-developed male chests seemed to be part of the dress code, but Max Grayson's muscled body was nowhere in sight. A hum of feminine disappointment vibrated in her throat.
"Can I help you?"
Jessi turned to face the approaching woman. Short, spiky, pink hair covered her head over an angular face. At least a head taller than Jessi's five-four, her slim build didn't detract from the buff and toned arms, legs, and bare midriff between her cut off T-shirt and spandex shorts.
Her big, chocolate brown eyes grew wide. "You're Jessi Tucker! Wow. I mean, wow! My boyfriend and me are huge fans. Your cousin, Tuck, got us tickets when you and Spence were in town last year for your Country Thunder tour." Her teeth flashed in a grin. "Oh, man. Eddie's gonna be so jealous when I tell him you were here. I'm Tina." She stuck out her hand. "I'm the junior self-defense instructor. Are you here to take a class?" Pumping Jessi's hand, excitement increased the volume of her voice with every word. "Oh my God. I can't believe this. You'd want something private, right? I'm available at the moment. The ring is booked for the next two hours, but there's a mat open."
"Actually", Jessi tugged free and cut in before Tina could catch her breath, "I came by to speak to Max. I guess I should have called first to see if he'd be here."
Disappointment damped Tina's smile, but whether because Jessi wasn't interested in her private lesson or she was here to see Max, she couldn't tell. She eyed the painful looking bar piercing Tina's left brow. The thirty-something instructor didn't look anything like the string of Barbie Dolls who clung to Max's arm whenever he appeared at one of her family's frequent gatherings. Then again, according to Tuck, women were Max's type.
Jessi wouldn't know, since he mostly ignored her.
Tina's smile brightened almost immediately. "No problem. He's upstairs in his condo."
"Oh." Jessi's gaze flicked to the staircase climbing along the back wall to the second floor. "Is he alone? I wouldn't want to disturb him if he's ... ah, busy."
Knowing laughter twinkled in Tina's eyes. "The coast is clear, honey. Max has a way with the ladies, but he keeps things strictly professional during business hours."
She wanted to ask about after hours but thought better of it. If Max agreed to her proposition, she'd be doing her best to find out for herself. After thanking the woman, and promising to send along a signed copy of her latest CD, Jessi crossed to the stairs. The echoing thuds from below quieted as she reached the second floor landing and rounded the corner. A set of double doors beckoned from the end of a short hallway.
She stalked forward, stopped before the doors, and frowned at Spence's voice echoing in her head. When are you going to stop acting like a scared little girl, afraid to do anything unless Daddy says it's okay? Irritation simmered, but while her partner's sneering insult pissed her off, the underlying truth in his words rankled. A derisive sniff fluttered her nostrils. Her father would have a conniption if he knew what she was up to but, damn it, Spence was right. It was time she take a stand.
Breathing deeply, she refused to consider what she'd do if Max laughed and slammed the door in her face. Positive thinking was in order. She sucked air through her nose and closed her eyes to visualize the next few seconds, the way she did whenever she was about to step on stage.
Excitement raced through her as the giddy scenario played in her head. Max would open the door. Surprise would light up his long-lashed gray eyes and one side of his mouth would lift in that sexy, crooked smile that made her toes curl. He'd take her hand and tug her inside, and he wouldn't be able to wait until the door was closed before he kissed her. He'd wrap his muscled arms around her, tuck her close, and ...
Her eyes flashed open and she slapped a hand to her belly. She was going to throw up.
No, I'm not!
She swiped her damp palms over the thighs of her jeans and, rolling her shoulders, she knocked briskly. No sound came from within. She knocked again. Nothing. The silence taunted her, but she couldn't chicken out now. This was too important. Pressing her ear to the door, she listened intently — and choked on a strangled squeak when the door suddenly swung inward.
Off balance, she stumbled forward and shot out her hand to keep from tumbling over the threshold. Heavy muscle covered by taut skin arrested her fall and scorched her palm with delicious heat. Her fingers tingled with the desire to investigate further, and she might have done just that, but for the deep clearing of a throat.
She snatched back her hand and, focusing on the sight in front of her, nearly swallowed her tongue.
Shirtless, Max's broad shoulders and chest filled the doorway. She blinked at the black tribal tattoo riding one well-developed pectoral. The bold design swirled over his left shoulder and ended in a half-sleeve.
Her gaze flew up, past his face, to the water gleaming in the cropped, ebony hair covering his skull. Helpless, her eyes followed as a droplet trickled down the side of his cheek and jaw to hang suspended from his stubbled, square-cut chin. The sparkling bead plopped onto the center of his chest and slid through the line of short, black curls stepping down the ridges of rock hard abs until it disappeared beneath the towel wrapped around his trim waist.
Her throat clicked on an audible swallow, and she dropped her gaze to his bare feet before making the return trip to his face. If the surprise she'd been expecting had been in his eyes, she missed it. By the time her gaze locked with his, wary disbelief darkened the slate gray orbs.
Arching black brows slammed together. "What the hell are you doing here?"
She stifled a wince. Not exactly the greeting she was hoping for. So much for her fantasy. She shrugged inwardly. Knowing Max, that wasn't going to happen anyway, at least not today, but if she pulled this off, she'd live her fantasies soon enough.
She cocked her head and offered him a friendly smile. "Hello, Max."
He leaned forward and turned his head to look down the empty hallway. His lips were flattened in an unhappy line when he straightened and faced her again. "Where is he?"
She blinked. "He who?"
"Your idiot cousin." He raised his voice as he double checked the hall. "Tuck. If you've got a camera running, I'm gonna kick your ass." He straightened once again and pinned her to the spot with a steely-eyed stare. "Look, Squirt, whatever punk he's got going, don't let him suck you into it."
She ground her teeth at the annoying nickname, but was nonetheless relieved. Preoccupied with Tuck's supposed prank, Max was less likely to realize how crazy her plan was. All she had to do was get him to agree before he did. She crossed her arms. "Are you going to invite me in?"
His brows shot up comically. "Hell, no, I'm not inviting you in." Suspicion narrowed his eyes as he shot a quick glance over his shoulder. His head whipped back around, and he fisted his fingers around the knot of the towel. "Did he sneak a camera into my condo?" He dipped his head around the doorjamb once more to shout, "Forget kicking your ass, I'll kill you."
She grinned. Talk about paranoid. "There are no cameras. In fact, Tuck has no idea I'm here. There are, however, several people downstairs who are bound to come running if you keep shouting, so I suggest we move this inside."
"Forget it." He gripped the towel tighter and flicked his other hand toward her in a shooing motion. "Go away. Whatever you Tuckers are up to, I don't want any part of it."
"Fine. We'll have this conversation right here in the hallway, but don't blame me if —"
"Max! Is everything okay?" Feet thudded as one of the men from downstairs took the steps at a run.
She smirked and didn't bother to finish her warning. Ha! As if this six-foot, two hundred pound bruiser needed protection from her.
Her eyebrows shot up as at least part of her fantasy came true. Max grabbed her arm and yanked her inside.
Gripping her elbow, he shoved her behind him and held her there as he spoke to the unknown man. "I'm good. I'm expecting an equipment delivery at two. Make sure Tina goes through everything before she signs. They stiffed us a half dozen sets of gloves last time."
"Sure thing, boss."
Max shut the door on the unseen man and immediately released her arm. He moved several steps away and pierced her with a narrow-eyed glare. "Don't move an inch."
As he stalked across the room in a long-legged stride, her greedy gaze catalogued the muscled expanse of his back. She swallowed, her attention snagging on the adorable set of dimples peeking just above the low slung towel. Heat simmered in her belly, and she found it hard to catch a breath.
Disappearing through a doorway, he slammed the door shut behind him. Her cheeks puffed out on a blowing breath, and she tugged the scarf from her neck. Yeah, that hadn't exactly gone as planned, but at least he hadn't sent her packing. Her shaking fingers fumbled to slip open the buttons of her coat as she glanced around Max's inner sanctum. Having never been invited to his home, she'd been curious at how he lived. She planned to take full advantage of the opportunity to poke into his private space.
Shrugging out of her hip-length, woolen houndstooth coat, she draped it and the scarf over the back of an oversized leather couch. For a bachelor, he had a good eye. A long, black granite island separated the modern kitchen from a comfortable living area. Floors of old-wood planks, aged brick walls, and exposed ceiling beams gave the open floor plan of the converted warehouse a warm, yet masculine, air.
The creamy smooth, mahogany hide of the couch was luxurious under her skimming fingertips as she meandered deeper into his lair. Opposite the couch, orange flames licked at several logs in an inviting brick hearth below a huge, flat screen TV. Beneath the far wall of high windows, a built-in bookshelf caught her attention. Tossing a glance at the closed door where Max had disappeared, she crossed the room and bent to study the titles.
Considering his career, the many health and fitness books made sense, but there was also a wide selection of novels. She plucked one hardbound title from the shelf and scanned the back blurb. A smile tugged at her lips. How about that? Max had a taste for fantasy fiction. Replacing the book, her gaze fell on the heavy bag hanging from a beam in the far corner.
Her heels clicked on the hardwood as she approached the fat, leather cylinder. A vision of Max, sweaty and intense as he worked the bag with fists and feet, honing his fighting skills along with the hardened plains of his athlete's body, flashed in her mind. Heat simmered low in her belly at the idea of a private demonstration. With a hum of anticipation, she balled her hand into a fist and threw her best punch. The bag didn't budge.
"I told you to stay put."
Startled, she jumped and whirled around as Max stalked by her into the kitchen. The towel was gone, which was too bad. The man certainly knew how to wear white terry cloth. She shook off her disappointment. For the coming conversation, the casual jeans and T-shirt covering his muscled frame were probably better than mostly naked and sexy as hell.
"Yes, well." She cleared her throat and trailed after him. "An aversion to orders is why I'm here."
"Meaning?" He wrenched open the refrigerator door and his head disappeared inside.
She slid onto one of the island's four high stools. An alliance with Max, whether real or farce, was her best hope of breaking the chains her family had wrapped around her so tightly she couldn't breathe.
And she was sick of Max looking through her as if she weren't there.
She'd been in love with the big jerk since the first time she met him and, since she was determined to shake up her world, she meant to do something about his habit of giving her the cold shoulder.
She folded her hands in her lap. "Meaning, I have a proposition for you."
His head popped up and a wary frown pulled down the corners of his lips. "I don't like the sound of that." Straightening, he closed the refrigerator door and propped his hips against the counter to unscrew the cap on a water bottle. "Listen, I don't know what your cousin promised you to help him with his game, but I'll make it worth your while to forget it."
Oh, she liked the sound of that, but she wasn't about to forget it. She propped her elbows on the counter and leaned toward him. "Worth my while, huh?" Pursing her lips, she dropped her voice to a flirtatious tease. "How would you do that?"
His Adam's apple bobbed on a swallow, and she could have sworn his gaze dropped to her mouth — before he scowled. "Does your father know you're here?"
"Nope." She fluttered her lashes. "There are some things a woman's father doesn't need to know about."
He jerked straight and the wariness in his eyes slid back into suspicion. "Cut that out."
"What?" She blinked and played dumb. If nothing else, she was going to make Max Grayson finally see her for the woman she was.
He bumped out his chin. "Don't try using those baby blues on me. It won't work. I've watched you work your wiles to get your way too many times. What's going on?"
She sat up straight. He'd watched her? That was news. From her perspective, he did his best to ignore her most of the time, but he was wrong about her getting her way. If she did, she wouldn't be here. Okay, that wasn't quite true. If not today, she would have worked up the nerve to approach him eventually. Whether he knew it or not, Max held her heart in his hand, and he was either going to hold it properly, as he did in her dreams, or give it back once and for all.
Bold truth was called for, or at least as much truth as she could afford without tipping him off to the personal side of her agenda. If he agreed to help her, there would be time enough later to ease him into the concept of exploring a real relationship between them.
"I'm here because I need your help."
"With getting my family off my back."
"How am I supposed to do that?" He shook his head and pulled a long sip of water from the bottle.
She fidgeted with the hem of her blouse and had to take a deep breath before she could force the words out. "By pretending to be my boyfriend."
He coughed, spewing water over the counter between them. His thick forearm dragged over his mouth as he stared at her, his eyes full of wary horror. "That's not funny."
"It's not supposed to be. I'm completely serious."
"What you are is certifiable."
She frowned. "No, I'm desperate. The Country Times Awards are in a few days. I need a date." She nibbled her bottom lip. "But what I really need is a man in my life, and you're the only one I know who my family won't be able to run off."
He shook his head. "I don't know what you're up to, but even if I wasn't old enough to be your —"
"Brother?" She offered him an innocent smile.
His dark brows dropped into a scowling V. "I was going to say uncle, and —"
"Women date older men all the time." And the nine-year difference in their ages was no big deal. Not to her, anyway. Hoping to head off his obvious refusal, she let her gaze slide over his solid body and welcomed the surge of excitement in her belly. "Not that you're ancient or anything."
His nostrils flared with his scoffing snort, and her smile slid into a grin.
"My advanced age is beside the point. Your father would rip me a new one if he found out I got anywhere near you." He snatched a paper towel from the holder on the counter and swiped at the wet island.
"I'm sure he'll try." Her smile faded. "But he respects you, and I need a guy my dad can't intimidate, which makes you perfect."
He tossed the towel in the trash and a half smile tipped one corner of his mouth. "Who says he doesn't intimidate me?"
Excerpted from To Win Her Heart by Mackenzie Crowne. Copyright © 2015 Mackenzie Crowne. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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