A ballplayer and a team owner would give anything for a championship—even their hearts. . .
After inheriting majority ownership of the San Francisco Goliaths baseball team, Hunter Collins wants to prove to herself—and the rest of the league—that she's got what it takes to build a champion. Her first move is to trade for a hot left-fielder. He's got it all, speed, power, and a desire to win. Not to mention undeniable charm.
Marco Santiago is tired of being the new player in town. After four teams in six years, he's facing free agency at the end of the season. He wants nothing more than a long-term contract and a World Series win. Hitting on his new owner probably isn't the best way to get it, but love may be the most powerful challenger either of them has ever faced. . .
Warning: Strong language, consummated love scenes, and some baseball clichés.
"Smart, fun, and sexy. A great romance read." –New York Times Bestselling Author, Kat Martin
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Worth the Trade
By Kristina Mathews
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Kristina Mathews
All rights reserved.
"That's him. Over there." Hunter Collins recognized her new left fielder by the body language, posture, and raw physical power of a professional athlete.
"The guy in the plaid shirt?" The limo driver shook his head in doubt. "Are you sure? He doesn't look like no baseball player. He's too tall."
Marco Santiago was indeed tall. And dark. And—she hated to admit, even to herself—incredibly handsome. The expert tailoring of his shirt emphasized his broad shoulders, long, strong arms, and slender waist. Dark denim hugged slim hips, clung to muscular thighs, and she'd put good money on what they did to his taut backside.
His tattered duffel bag was slung carelessly over his left shoulder. A small leather case lay at his feet. The casual observer might interpret his relaxed pose as lazy, bored, or perhaps a little worse for the wear. But she'd watched him on the field enough to know he could spring into action with panther-like reflexes at the crack of the bat.
"He's the one." Her heart rate quickened. A little more than three months ago she'd inherited forty percent ownership of the San Francisco Goliaths. At twenty-seven, Hunter was the youngest president of one of Major League Baseball's oldest franchises. She brushed off the pain of losing her father, focusing instead on her first official player acquisition. Together they would make their mark on the new era of Goliaths' baseball.
As the driver pulled up to the curb, she noticed the slight change in Santiago's stance. His shoulders straightened and he rocked back on his heels like he was ready to chase down a fly ball. There it was, the instinct that had her drooling over him for some time. As a ballplayer, nothing more.
Her driver got out, opened the passenger door, and Santiago ducked inside.
"Whoa, you scared me. I didn't expect company." He smiled at her, flashing a set of dimples and startlingly blue eyes. He let his gaze travel the length of her body, inspecting her, before nodding his approval. "But this might turn out to be a good trade after all."
"Are you saying you're not happy about the trade?" He had no idea how hard she'd worked to make this deal happen. For the past few weeks she'd practically slept with her cell phone attached to her ear, when she'd slept at all. She'd tuned out the sports talk show hosts and beat reporters and bloggers who claimed she was too inexperienced to make a deal. As if inexperienced was a euphemism for female.
Not to mention the embarrassing and insulting offers initially given by the other team. They'd wanted her to give up half her farm system, thinking she didn't know the wealth of talent she had in the minor leagues. But once they realized she actually did know what she was doing, they were able to strike a fair deal.
"It came as a surprise." He settled into the leather seat. "Sure, I heard rumors. But there are always trade rumors this time of year. I really didn't expect to walk into the clubhouse this morning only to be told I was no longer wanted in St. Louis."
"You'll be welcomed with open arms here in San Francisco." Hunter gave him what she hoped was an encouraging smile.
"Is that so?" He looked her over as if she wore something low-cut and see-through. Or nothing at all. "So are you the welcoming committee? If they'd done their homework they'd have known I usually prefer blondes. But I can make an exception, just for tonight."
He cocked one eyebrow up and drew his mouth into a grin that stopped just short of a leer.
"I don't see why my hair color should matter to you." She tried not to roll her eyes. He wasn't the first athlete to assume the only place for a woman in pro sports was underneath him and naked. "Your last owner was fully gray. And the one before him was completely bald."
At his stunned silence, she smiled and held out her hand.
"Hunter Collins. President and Managing Partner of the San Francisco Goliaths Baseball Club." She avoided referring to herself as the acting president. A role she'd served in during her father's long illness. Hell, she'd served in that role since she was old enough to read a box score. Unofficially, of course. Henry Collins had always been the face in the meetings, the name on the contracts. But she'd been right there with him, working behind the scenes. This was as much her team as anyone's.
"My new boss." He gave her a firm handshake before sinking back into the seat and letting out a frustrated sigh. "Can we start over?"
He turned toward her, a forced smile on his face. The kind of smile he'd give a reporter after a tough loss.
"Don't bother telling me how happy you are to be here." She had to admit, she was more than a little disappointed. Why wouldn't he want to be here? The Goliaths were a first class organization. Her father had saved the team from being moved to Florida. He'd taken on partners in order to build the state-of-the-art ballpark without using public funds. The fans came out to fill the seats night after night, and the ownership did its best to offer the fans their money's worth, even though they hadn't won it all. Yet.
"I am happy to be here. I just ..." He ran his left hand through his hair. She didn't need to check for a wedding ring. He was single, no family to uproot for the cross-country move. "My flight was delayed. I lost half my luggage. And I haven't had a good night's sleep in weeks. So I apologize if I seem less than thrilled."
"I suppose you'll be happier when you can get out on the field." She'd been around athletes her whole life. Enough to know they were creatures of habit. Rain delays, schedule changes, and especially trade rumors could wreak havoc on their routine. Those distractions upset their rhythm and could only be remedied by getting back to work.
"I wish I could have been here in time to get out there tonight." He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. His thighs trembled with nervous energy. "But maybe a day off will do me some good."
"You didn't have the best series against Philly." She'd followed his career closely. Probably knew his stats better than he did. "I imagine the trade rumors had something to do with it. I know you guys say you don't pay any attention to that kind of thing, but it's got to be a big distraction. Not to mention, a little hard on the ego."
"So I take it you're a hands-on kind of owner." His voice was smooth, rich, sensual. The thought of his hands on her body popped up into her imagination. Not what she needed right now. His hands were going to make good catches, good throws, and big hits. His hands were going to make them a lot of money if they made the playoffs. When they made the playoffs.
"I like to keep up with my players. It's good for business." She had to turn away from him, from those blistering blue eyes. Where'd they come from? He had the dark hair, dark skin, dark stubble of a Latino player. He should have dark eyes, too, not neon blue ones.
"Don't worry, I won't disappoint you. You'll get exactly what you paid for." He looked down at his hands. Long, straight fingers. Short, well-manicured nails. Thick, strong wrists.
"My father always thought highly of you. He wanted to trade for you last year, but St. Louis beat us out." She needed to remember why they were both here, in this limo that felt so much bigger before he slid into the seat next to her. Now it felt like they were thrown together into the back of a Smart Car. Not that a Smart Car even had a back seat. "So, I decided to carry out his wishes and make the deal happen. I'm sure you'll prove yourself. On the field."
"Your father?" He edged away from her. "Your father was Henry Collins."
She just nodded, unable to speak past the sudden lump in her throat.
"I'm sorry for your loss." His voice lost all traces of teasing. "He was a class act. The league will miss him."
She chose to take his words as a compliment for her father, not an indication that he thought she wasn't up to the job.
"Thank you." She needed to pull herself together. The last thing she wanted was for him to see her as soft or weak. "Let's get you to your hotel, get you settled in so you'll be fresh for the game tomorrow."
"Is the game over?" Santiago pulled out his phone, scrolled though the screen. "Nope. It's the bottom of the seventh. Goliaths on top three to one. Why don't we swing by the ballpark? I'd like to meet my new teammates tonight."
"Right now?" She hadn't expected him to want to get out there tonight. Especially after a long flight, lost luggage, and his disappointment at her not being a blonde.
"Unless you have something else planned for me." He raised an eyebrow and flashed one of his dimples. He knew all too well how irresistible that smile was. "Because you own me now. So ..."
"The ballpark it is." Hunter leaned forward to alert the driver of their change of plans. She didn't want to think about what she could demand of him, other than a division title. That was the only thing she wanted from Marco Santiago.
The limo driver pulled up to the players' lot and checked in with the security guard who waved them inside.
"I'll see that your bag is sent to your hotel." Hunter's—Ms. Collins' tone was cool. Very impersonal and businesslike. "I'll send the driver back around when the game is over."
"Aren't you going to stay?" Why that disappointed him, he had no idea.
"No. I've had a long week." She heaved a sigh, sinking back against the seat. "I think I'll go home, take a nice long bath."
Marco closed his eyes, trying not to conjure up the image of her slipping naked into a tub full of warm water. Bubbles. Perhaps some scented oils. Damn. He shifted in the plush leather seat, his jeans becoming uncomfortably tight.
Please don't let her notice. She was his boss. The worst thing he could do would be to get all worked up trying to picture what kind of underwear she wore under her various shades of gray. Her loose-fitting charcoal pantsuit was a little on the drab side. Almost as if she'd borrowed it from her father's closet. Her blouse, the color of fog, was buttoned up to the hollow of her throat. But it was just soft enough to hint at the womanly curves she was trying to hide.
Still, something about her drew him in. Her eyes were a warm, golden brown. Her hair was pulled back in some uptight updo, but a single loose strand that curled behind her right ear looked soft, silky, and entirely too touchable. Like the delicate skin of her neck. He couldn't help but wonder how she'd respond to the lightest brush of his lips, right there. Would she shiver? Sigh? Moan?
He'd made the innuendo about her being his own personal welcoming committee. Talk about stupid. Just put her on the defensive. But it had also injected a charge into their interaction. A sexual energy that might have stayed under control if he hadn't opened his big mouth.
This wasn't the first time Marco had experienced lust at first sight. But usually it was for a woman who had all her feminine assets on display. Showcased in tight, revealing clothing. Flashing tons of makeup and broadcasting her availability for a night or two of fun.
Hunter was the opposite. The way she dressed was the least of it. She wore hardly any makeup. Her lips were bare. Pink, soft, and lush enough to make him wonder what she'd taste like. No artificial cherry-vanilla flavoring, or glossy chemical taste. Just pure, unenhanced woman.
Who was one hundred percent off limits.
"Well, thanks for picking me up." He winced. Every word out of his mouth tonight dripped with sexual undertones. "From the airport. And ... uh ... thank you for bringing me to San Francisco. I'll make it worth your while. You'll see."
"I'm counting on it." She glanced down at his lap and quickly turned away, color spreading across her cheeks. Damn. She'd noticed the effect she had on him. "Are you going to get out of the car? Or should I tell the driver you've changed your mind?"
"I'm going. I'm going." He slid away from her. Reached for the door to make his exit, but he couldn't quite pull the handle.
"Have dinner with me?" Maybe it was jet lag. Sleep deprivation. Or some seismic anomaly affecting his brain waves. Maybe going more than six months without sex had been a really bad idea.
"I'm sure you'll find plenty to eat at the post-game spread." Did her hesitation mean she was rattled? "We have an excellent caterer."
"No. I want you to have dinner with me." He leaned toward her, knowing she'd deny him, but he wanted to linger near her a little bit longer.
"I can't." She squirmed, avoiding his gaze. "It would be a conflict of interest."
"You're only conflicted because you're interested." He kept his smile to himself. He was getting to her. Almost as much as she was getting to him. Even though she wasn't at all his type. Or maybe she was, she just worked so damn hard trying to hide it.
"I'm only interested in winning the division and making a strong run in the postseason." She turned her head to look out the window as if to show she was unaffected by the chemistry between them.
"Aren't you a rotten liar?" He chuckled softly. Oh yeah, he was definitely getting to her. "Don't join in the poker game at the next owners' retreat. You'll be wiped out."
She whipped her head around so fast the car shook. "I happen to be a very good poker player. I can hold my own against anyone. Any time."
Interesting. Her strong reaction told him two things. She was insecure about her place among her fellow owners. And yes, she was interested in him on more than a professional level.
"That explains your wardrobe." He leaned back, not ready to leave her just yet. "You dress like you do to fit in with the old boys' club. But you can't hide the fact that you are all woman."
"And you can't hide the fact that you don't want to be here." She dared look him straight in the eye, but couldn't hold his gaze.
"I'm starting to come around." He gave her one last smile. "I think I'm going to like San Francisco. I think I'm really going to like it here."
Marco slid out of the seat and headed into the ballpark acting like he owned the place.
The game had ended by the time he got through security and onto the field. The Goliaths had held their lead and a good portion of the crowd lingered, singing along to Tony Bennett. One of the on-field reporters recognized him and rushed over to be the first to interview him.
"Rachel Parker here, with the newest member of the San Francisco Goliaths, Marco Santiago." The crowd cheered, as word of his arrival spread and they played the interview on the scoreboard. "Did you come straight from the airport?"
"I sure did." Marco flashed his million-dollar grin. He earned the rest of his salary with his bat and his glove. "I'm just so happy to be here. In this ballpark. With these fans. And this team ... This team has a real good chance of going all the way. I can't wait to get out on the field and make a contribution. To thank the ownership for bringing me here."
"We're happy to have you here in San Francisco." The reporter was friendly, almost too perky. "What does your family think of the change?"
"I'm sure my mother will be happy for me." Guilt hit him at the realization he hadn't talked to her since the trade went down. She had to hear it on the news like everyone else. "But she's always been proud of me."
"You're not married?" Was she asking for herself or all the single ladies who might be watching the broadcast?
"Just to my job." He hoped she would drop the subject of his personal life. He didn't have one. Didn't want one. Not until he was settled more permanently. "My focus is on helping my team get to the postseason. The ownership and management took a chance on me. I won't let them down. I won't let the fans down."
He didn't want to let anyone down.
The rest of the night was a blur. He signed quite a few autographs, took tons of pictures, and introduced himself to his teammates. His manager, Juan Javier, made him feel welcome, as did the coaches, trainers, and support staff. It probably didn't hurt showing up after a victory, when the whole ballpark was buzzing from the win.
The atmosphere had a much better vibe than in his former clubhouse these last few weeks. They weren't officially out of it, but with such high expectations the season had been more than disappointing. When management started trading away all their star players it started to feel like they were giving up. Rebuilding. In other words, dumping big salaries and trying to salvage their financial asses.
Excerpted from Worth the Trade by Kristina Mathews. Copyright © 2014 Kristina Mathews. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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