Subgenre: Sports, Contemporary
The Perfect Play
Book One in the Play-by-Play Series
Football pro Mick Riley is an all-star, both on the field and in the bedroom. But a sexy, determinedly single mom just might be the one to throw him off his game...
For years Mick has been taking full advantage of the life available to a pro athlete: fame, fortune, and a different girl in every city. But when he meets and beds confident, beautiful event planner Tara Lincoln, he wants much more than the typical one-night stand. Too bad Tara's not interested in getting to know football's most notorious playboy any better.
As the single mother of a teenage son, the last thing Tara needs is the jet-set lifestyle of Mick Riley; even though their steamy and passionate one-night stand was unforgettable. Tara's life is complicated enough without being thrust into the spotlight as Mick's latest girl du jour. Tara played the game of love once and lost big, and she doesn't intend to put herself out there again, especially with a heartbreaker like Mick.
But when Mick sets his mind to win, nothing will stop him. And he has the perfect play in mind.
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» The Perfect Play was a finalist for the Best Erotic Romance 2011 for National Readers' Choice Awards by Oklahoma Romance Writers of America. (posted May 2012)
» The Perfect Play was awarded the SEAL OF EXCELLENCE by RT BooksReviews . See comments from the editors about why this erotica series starter won the honor (posted March 2011)
"Adorable! This erotic romance fully indulges the fantasy of being swept off your feet by a pro athlete. Fans of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Deirdre Martin and Rachel Gibson's sports series that are looking for something extra steamy have a new author to check out."
—RT BOOKReviews Editor
Read the entire review.
"Put together a super hunky football player, a sexy single mom and the high-voltage worlds of sports and entertainment and you already have a good story — but in the hands of the talented Burton, the characters leap off the page and the romance sparkles as the sex sizzles."
— Pat Cooper, RT BookReviews
Read the entire review.
"Wow! From the hunky guy on the cover to the last sentence in the story, wow just about describes this book…This is definitely a must read for anyone who loves Jaci Burton’s books, loves hot sexy guys and loves a great romantic story."
— Terri, Night Owl Reviews
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"The Perfect Play is an outstanding start to what is guaranteed to be a phenomenal series from Jaci Burton."
— Miranda, Joyfully Reviewed
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" I laughed, smiled, and wept while reading The Perfect Play, but at the end of the day Ms. Burton gave Tara and Mick one of her special HEA’s that I’ve come to look forward to when reading one of her novels…If you enjoy a hot erotic romance, about two people who are at the crossroads of their lives for very different reasons and find love, you may like to give The Perfect Play try. "
— Lea, Book Lovers, Inc.
Read the entire review.
Start Reading Chapter One
Sweat dripped down Mick Riley's face and arms. The field workout he'd just endured had kicked his ever lovin' ass. He leaned against the wall of the locker room, the cool brick and ice-cold water in his hands not helping at all to lower his temperature. He was hot, sweaty, and he'd been knocked on the ground so many times he'd probably eaten half the dirt on the field.
He was exhausted and not in the damn mood for a party tonight. What he'd really like to do is take a cold shower, go home, and order a pizza. Instead, he had to put on a tux, a smile, and hang out in a ballroom with the rest of his team, the San Francisco Sabers of the National Football League. There'd be photographers, television cameras, and probably a horde of women who wanted to hang on him.
Years ago that would have been the highlight of his night.
When had he gotten so tired of it all? Hell, when had he gotten old?
He stripped off his practice jersey and tossed it to the ground, pulled off his pads and breathed a sigh of relief, then grabbed a towel and wiped the sweat from his face. He unlaced his pants, drained the water from his jug, and went to the fountain to refill it.
That's when he heard the a voice outside the locker room. A woman's voice.
What was a woman doing down here? He popped the door open and saw a gorgeous blonde standing a few feet down the hall twirling around in circles, mumbling to herself. Man, she was a sight with her business skirt that skimmed her knees, her high heels showcasing her gorgeous legs, and her crisp white blouse and pulled-up hair. All prim and proper, and she made him think dirty thoughts about getting her crisp white shirt all mussed up.
"I should have taken a left. I know it was a left. You dummy, now you're going to be lost in this cavern forever, and you're going to get fired."
He leaned against the doorway as she stared down the long hall, tapped her high-heeled shoe, and mumbled some more.
"Where the hell is the office, anyway? It can't be in the friggin' basement of this place."
"No, it's not down here."
She whirled, seemingly embarrassed to be caught talking to herself. Her eyes widened for a fraction of a second, then she headed in his direction. "Oh. Thank God. A living human being. Can you help me? I'm so lost."
"Sure. You need the office?"
She stopped in front of him, and she smelled so damn good—like spring and cookies or something—that he was embarrassed, because he sure as hell didn't smell like anything appealing.
"Take a right turn, then at the first hallway go left. You'll find the elevators. Punch the button for the top floor. When you get off, turn left again and go to the end of the hall. The main office is there."
She studied him, then gave him a wide smile. "You're my hero. I was afraid I was going to be lost down here forever and I'd never get these contracts signed. I have to run. Thank you!"
She turned and practically sprinted down the hall, though how she could run on those shoes was something he'd never understand about women.
She sure was beautiful, but not in the way he was used to. She wasn't overly made up, so her beauty was natural. She wasn't the kind of woman he usually went for. Maybe that's what he liked about her.
And he hadn't even bothered to introduce himself. Or get her name.
Too bad, because he could have sworn there'd been a spark between them.
Then again, it might have just been his imagination. He could just need a slap of cold water to lower his body temperature. Too much heat today.
He went back inside, grabbed the towel, and headed for the shower.
As kick-ass events went, Tara Lincoln thought this one might be the best she'd ever put together. And it damn well better be, because it could generate more work for her, and The Right Touch needed all the business it could get.
Event planning the team summer party for the San Francisco Sabers had been a stroke of luck. The owner's assistant had gotten her card from the usual team planner, who was booked solid on the date they wanted to have the party.
It had taken four months of nearly nonstop work, but as Tara took another turn around the ballroom, she nodded in satisfaction. They'd pulled it off. From the glittery yet understated NFL team decorations to the amazing food to the bar setup to the incredible band, it was perfect, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Tara mingled, earpiece tucked unobtrusively in her ear so she was only seconds away from hearing about a disaster, answering any questions, or getting help if someone needed it. So far, all the crises had been minor ones. She monitored bar stock, checked with catering to be sure the food was hot and plentiful, and meandered in and around the crowds. No one complained, and the smiling faces all around her told her everyone was focused on what they should be focused on—football and having a good time—which meant she could take a step back and simply observe.
The band was kicking, the crowd was thick on the dance floor, media was in attendance taking pictures of the star players, coaches were giving interviews, and for the first time that night, Tara exhaled as she leaned against the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that showcased the beautiful city.
"Why aren't you out there dancing?"
She lifted her gaze to the six and a half foot tall hunk of gorgeous man in a tux who'd stepped up in front of her. Black hair, striking blue eyes, she knew exactly who he was—Mick Riley, San Francisco's star quarterback, and her savior from earlier today. She'd been so rattled after having gotten lost in the basement of the team's practice facility that it hadn't even registered who he was until the elevator had taken her to the top floor. Okay, not just rattled, but a little tongue-tied. Who wouldn't be when faced with a shirtless, sweaty, gorgeous hunk of muscle? God's gift to women. Good Lord, he'd looked sexy. Unfortunately, all she could do at the time was ask for directions.
But then her synapses had fired, and she'd realized who she'd been talking to.
Mick Riley. The Mick Riley. Everyone who lived here knew who he was. Everyone who watched football knew him, too, no matter where they lived. His endorsement contracts put him on every television in America, and probably overseas, too, hawking every product from deodorant to power tools. He was an icon, the all-American success story. And damn fine looking, too.
"We met earlier today," he said.
"Yes, we did. And thank you again for the directions to the office."
"You're welcome. So, you're a guest here tonight?"
She offered up a smile. "No. I'm not a guest."
He arched a brow. "Party crasher, huh?"
She laughed. "No, I'm the event planner."
"Is that right? You did a good job."
Oh, man, she was getting warm all over. "Thank you. I'm glad you think so."
"Not that I know a damn thing about throwing a fancy party, but I like to eat, and the food was good. There's plenty of name-brand booze behind the bar, and the band is kick-ass."
Okay, her cheeks hurt from smiling so much. "Thank you again."
Now if he would only say all those things to Irvin Stokes, the owner of the team. That would go a long way to cementing her future.
"How late do you have to work?"
She tilted her head back and frowned. Was he hitting on her? She scanned the crowd, going blind from all the stunning female beauty in the room, many of whom had their gazes trained on Mick. Surely Tara was just misjudging his politeness for something else.
"I stay until the last person goes home."
He laughed, and the dark husky tone skittered down her spine. "Honey, you could be up all night, then. These guys know how to close down a party."
That's what she expected, why she'd told the hotel they'd want the room for the entire night and guaranteed overtime for the band and extra staff for catering and the bar. "I do what needs to be done."
"And you look fine doing it. How come you're not wearing one of those butler outfits or a white apron?"
"I'm just the event planner. Everyone else does the real work."
"So you get to dress up, supervise, make sure every play goes off without a fumble."
"Something like that."
"And look good in case someone wants to talk to you about booking a party."
"Perceptive, aren't you?"
"And they say football players are dumb."
She liked this guy. He was funny and smart, but she still didn't understand why he was talking to the help when the cream of the crop was here.
"I should probably move on," she said.
"Someone beeping you in your earpiece or screaming for help?"
"Well . . . no."
He scanned the ballroom. "Something on fire somewhere or some high-strung chef in need of a Valium?"
Her lips quirked. "No."
He moved toward her and took her hand, then slipped her arm in his. "Then you don't really have to move on, do you?"
"I guess not."
"Good. I'm Mick Riley."
"Nice to meet you, Tara Lincoln." He walked her away from the crowd, outside the ballroom.
"I really should . . ."
"You have communication central in your ear. If something comes up, someone will holler. And your job is to make sure your guests are happy, right?"
"I'm a guest, and I'd like to get the hell out of this ballroom and talk to you. Which means you're doing your job in making sure I'm happy."
True enough, though for some reason she felt like she'd just been blindsided by a lineman.
And now who was thinking in football terms?
He sat her down on one of the cushioned benches in the outer lobby area beyond the ballroom. She had to admit it was blissfully quiet away from the noise of the party. And oh, what she wouldn't give to be able to slip out of her heels for just a few minutes. Looking fashionable was required, even if it hurt. "Why aren't you inside partying it up with your teammates?"
He shrugged. "Needed a break."
"You needed a break from that awesome party I put together?"
"Your party is fine," he said, leaning back and resting his arm over the back of the bench. "I'm just not a party kind of guy. Standing around making small talk just isn't my thing."
"And yet I see you in magazines at nearly every big event in New York and Los Angeles and here in San Francisco. Right in the center of it all, usually with some gorgeous woman right next to you."
His lips quirked in a devastatingly sexy smile that made her belly quiver. "That's just PR, honey."
"Uh-huh. That's not what the tabloids say."
She felt his arm brush against her back. Very disconcerting.
"Don't tell me you buy into those rags."
"Don't tell me all those women you've been hanging out with for the past ten years have been just arm candy and nothing more."
"Okay, you got me there. But I've never been seriously involved with any of them."
"So you're saying you're a man whore?"
He choked out a laugh. "Wow. You don't hold back, do you?"
She smiled at him. "Just call them as I see them."
"Don't believe everything you see on TV and read in the magazines. That's not who I am."
"Really. And who are you?"
"Hang out with me after this is over, and you can find out."
He was definitely hitting on her. No doubt about it. And she had no clue why. But admittedly, it felt good. Star quarterback, fine-looking, and it had been a long time since a man paid attention to her. Plus there were some stunning women inside that ballroom, and for some reason he’d chosen her. Her ego had just climbed a few rungs up the ladder. Okay, maybe it had climbed to the top of the ladder.
Nothing was going to come of it, of course, but she was going to bask in his attention for just a few moments longer.
“I don’t get it, Mick. Why me?”
“Because you’re real.”
“And all those women inside the ballroom aren’t?”
He grinned. “Pretty much, yeah. But it’ll be time for me to get back to some serious work soon. And what better way to end my time off than with a woman who’s honest and not a game player.”
“You had a great last season. Congratulations. But I can’t imagine you wouldn’t enjoy your off season by basking in the glory of a beautiful actress or model or someone to help you relax.”
“Thanks. We did have a kick-ass season. And I have a top-notch agent who likes to toss these cover models and whoever’s the current hot actress at me. Good for my image, ya know.”
She leaned back to study him. “Yes, I can see how that would put you front and center in the entertainment news. And maybe get more people coming to your games.”
“Exactly. But it’s tiresome. And maybe once I’d just like to be with someone who isn’t—”
“Famous? Connected? Isn’t going to drag you onto the cover of the tabloids?”
He laughed. “Something like that. Someone I can just talk to, have a real conversation with. Be with because she just wants to be with me, not because it’s good for her career.”
She’d always envied people like Mick Riley and the women on his arm. Maybe she shouldn’t have. “It doesn’t sound like you’re having much fun.”
“Oh, on the field I have a lot of fun. Off the field . . .”
“Oh, come on. It can’t be that much of a hardship having to be with all those beautiful women.”
His chest rose when he inhaled, and Tara wished he wasn’t wearing that tux. She watched all of the Sabers games. In his uniform, Mick was something to behold. He had an amazing athlete’s body. This afternoon when she’d run into him in the locker room? Wow. She didn’t know they made bodies that sculpted. She had to admit she wouldn’t mind a closer inspection. Did that make her shallow?
“Most people don’t understand why I’d complain about dating the model who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or a popular actress without a single flaw. Sometimes I wonder about it myself.”
“It’s not always about looks. Granted, physical attraction is what gets you in the door. But there has to be something beyond that to want to keep you there.”
He cocked his head to the side. “You understand.”
“Of course. I like a good-looking man as much as any woman does. But there has to be some substance beyond just his great looks. Something that keeps me coming back for more. Otherwise you’re left feeling empty.”
“I don’t have these kinds of conversations with the women I meet.”
“Have you tried?”
“You mean do I try to talk to them beyond just having sex with them?”
“Yeah, I do. We don’t get very far. They’re more interested in talking about themselves and their careers. It isn’t too long before I’m bored and out the door.”
She smiled at him. “Maybe you’re just not meeting the right woman.”
“Probably because I’ve never looked for her.” He stood, held out his hand. “Let’s go dance.”
A rush of panic hit her. “Oh, I can’t.”
“Again, because I’m working.”
“Bullshit.” He tugged her along, and she went helplessly as he opened the door and led her back into the ballroom, through the crowds, and onto the dance floor. He pulled her against him, slid his arm around her back, and drew her close.
How timely. A slow song. The lights had dimmed, and couples were pressed intimately against each other. She cringed, certain she was the center of attention, but when she took a quick glance around, no one seemed to be looking at them. Maybe it wasn’t unusual for Mick to grab random women and dance with them. She prayed the media was off interviewing someone else or taking pictures of Katrina Strauss, the latest Hollywood It girl. Maybe she was safe from the cameras at least.
But Tara was certain any moment someone from management was going to drag her off the dance floor and fire her. She tried to search the ballroom for Mr. Stokes or his assistant or anyone else on his staff, but the dance floor was too crowded.
“Hey, would you relax?”
She snapped her gaze to Mick. “What? Oh, sorry. I’m feeling kind of guilty.”
“You’re here to celebrate. I’m here to work.”
He slid his hand up her back and wished she hadn’t worn such a revealing dress. The feel of his warm hand against the bare skin of her back made thinking clearly a near impossibility.
“You are working. You’re keeping the guests happy.”
“Ha. I’m keeping one guest happy.”
“The rest of the guests don’t seem miserable. Relax.” He pulled her close and swayed with her around the dance floor. He had decent rhythm for someone so big. She expected a football player to be clumsier, but he glided around like he knew what he was doing.
“You dance really well.”
“I took ballet lessons.”
She tilted her head back to search his face, certain he was joking. “You did not.”
“I did. Several of us on the team did. Good for coordination.”
Resisting the laugh that bubbled up in her throat, she said, “Somehow I can’t picture you in tights and a tutu.”
But he did laugh. “We made sure no one with a camera got within miles of the studio.”
The more time she spent with him, the more she liked him. Dammit. Why couldn’t he be an arrogant son of a bitch, full of himself and talking of nothing but his career and his stats? It would be so much easier to walk away from him if he was self-absorbed. But not only was he gorgeous, he was also funny, was interested in her and her career, and she liked spending time with him.
And how long had it been since she’d danced with a guy? She couldn’t recall. That meant it had been too long. It felt good to feel his warm hand at her back, to clasp her other hand in his, to feel the pressure of his thighs against hers as he expertly managed the steps and moved her around the dance floor. He smelled good, like pine trees and outdoors. She leaned in a little and inhaled, amazed at the sheer size of him.
And when he dipped her at the end of the dance, her lips parted and she let out a small gasp. “Bet you didn’t learn that in ballet class.”
He brought her upright, a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Don’t tell anyone, but my mom is a dance teacher. I might have learned a few things watching her classes.”
“Your mother is a dance teacher? Like ballroom dancing for adults?”
He slipped her hand in the crook of his arm and led her to his table, then pulled out a chair for her, and she sat. “No, the teach-all-the-little-kids-how-to-dance kind of teacher.”
She saw the pride in his eyes, and her heart melted just a little bit. “What a wonderful profession. I’m sure she loves it.”
“She does. Though she was disappointed to have two sons who would rather be outside playing football and baseball than becoming the next Baryshnikov.”
“How sad for her.”
“She made up for it by having our little sister, who was forced to endure all the dance lessons.”
Tara laughed. “She didn’t want them either?”
“Oh, she put up with them as a kid, but she would have rather been outside being tackled by my brother and me. She’s pretty tough.”
Tara leaned forward and laid her elbows on the table. “Sounds like you have an amazing family.”
“I do. What about yours?”
Now there was a topic she didn’t want to get into. “Oh, nothing at all like yours.”
“Tell me about them.”
Yeah, that would send him running in a hurry. “My family just isn’t hearth and home like yours seems to be.”
He laughed and placed his hand over hers. “Not everyone’s is, honey. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to know about your life.”
Really, he didn’t want to know about her life and the screwed-up mess that was her family. Fortunately, the caterer took that moment to beep in with a problem. She placed her hand at her ear and stood. “I need to go.”
“Yes. Thank you for the dance. It was a lovely break.”
“Come back after you see to whatever crisis you have to deal with.”
“Surely by then you’ll have found some other female to hang out with.”
He leaned back in his chair and picked up a glass of water, the look he gave her sending goose bumps down her arms. “No, I won’t. I’ll wait for you.”
She hurried off, warmed to her toes by Mick Riley. He would be a dangerous man to get to know better. But he intrigued her, and it had been a long time since any man had done that.
Unfortunately, it was hours later before she freed herself again. The caterers had run out of one of the meats, the head bartender had a meltdown about a waitress who decided at the last minute to have a fight with her boyfriend via text message and storm out in tears, and Tara had to make a couple frantic phone calls to get every ruffled feather smoothed. By the time all that had been dealt with, she’d had to make a once around again to make sure no other brush fires had erupted.
The party had mellowed out by then. Many people had left, and only a few diehards remained. But Mr. Stokes’s personal assistant had stopped her and told her that Mr. Stokes was very pleased with the party, and he would likely use her company again. She resisted the squeal that hovered at the back of her throat, calmly thanked him, and said she’d be happy to provide event services at any time. Hopefully he’d recommend her to others. She needed her business to grow.
Another couple hours, and everyone was out the door. Tara made sure the band packed up, and she thanked them, as well as the bar staff and the caterers, for doing such a great job.
Once everyone left, she looked around the empty ballroom, unable to resist a smile. She’d done it. Her first major event, and she’d pulled it off perfectly.
Her feet were aching. She fell into the nearest chair, kicked her shoes off, and twisted open the top on the mineral water she’d snatched from the bar before they’d closed up. She took a long drink and sighed.
“I thought they’d never leave.”
She jerked upright in her chair, half turning to see Mick walking past the rows of empty tables. “I thought you’d left hours ago.”
He pulled out a chair across from her and sat, surprising the hell out of her by grabbing her legs and propping her feet on his lap. “Me and a couple of the offensive linemen ended up in coach’s room for a couple hours, rehashing the last season.”
“Oh. And how did that go?”
He lifted one of her feet and began rubbing the arch. She bit her lip to keep from moaning at how damn good it felt.
“We ended up blaming the division championship loss on the defense.”
She laughed. “How convenient.”
He shrugged. “The defense was probably in the defensive coordinator’s room blaming it on us, so why not?”
She wanted to tell him she’d missed him, that she’d sort of casually looked for him while she was wandering around the ballroom, but she couldn’t bring herself to admit that out loud. It sounded too desperate. She barely knew him.
Then again, her feet were in his lap and he was giving her a delicious foot rub that made her nipples tingle and her panties dampen. What did that say about her?
What it said was that California wasn’t the only place that had been in a drought for the past several years. And she was alone in a massive ballroom with one very sexy man with amazing hands. She wondered what else he could do with those amazing hands.
“You don’t have to rub my feet.”
“I saw you wince when you kicked your shoes off. And heard you sigh.”
“It’s been a long night on very high heels,” she said with a laugh. “I freely admit I’m more of a blue jeans and flats kind of girl.”
He cocked his head to the side. “I could definitely see you that way. I’m more of the same way myself.”
“Blue jeans and flats?”
He laughed. “Uh, no. But this tux is killing me.” He loosened the bow tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons, then shrugged out of his jacket. “That’s a little better.”
“If you’re going to start stripping, maybe you should head on home,” she teased.
“Why? Never seen a man naked before?”
She choked out a laugh. “No, that’s not it. But I don’t think this oversized mausoleum of a ballroom is going to offer you the privacy to take off everything you want to take off.”
“And how do you know how much I want to take off?”
She dropped her chin to her chest and shook her head. “I’m digging the hole deeper and deeper, aren’t I?”
“Is there someplace you have to be right now?”
Her head shot up, her gaze meeting his. “No. Why?”
“Come with me.” He laid her feet on the ground, bent over and retrieved her shoes, then grabbed his coat and slung it over his arm.
Tara followed him out of the ballroom. “Where are we going? And shouldn’t I put my shoes on?”
“Nah. We’re not leaving the hotel.” He pushed the elevator button.
“You have a room here?”
“Everyone does. The team didn’t want the guys driving tonight after the party. You know, in case there was overindulgence of all that great alcohol you provided.”
She stepped in while he held the door open for her. “I don’t recall seeing you drink anything but water.”
He shrugged and pushed the button. “Not much of a drinker at events like this. Too much of an opportunity to make a total ass of yourself in public. And the media loves getting shots of players partying a little too hard.”
She turned to him. “You prefer to do it in private, then?”
“Ha-ha.” The elevator doors opened, and he led the way down the hall, retrieving the key card from his pocket. “I prefer not to do it at all. Got all that out of my system when I was younger.”
He opened the door for her and held it while she walked in. Since they held the party at one of San Francisco’s premier hotels, the room was nice. Really nice. A suite, actually, with an outer room and a hallway that must lead to the bedroom. Tara walked to the window and stared at the killer view of the city skyline, rubbing her arms as she did.
She half turned to face him. “A little.”
He put his jacket over her. “Slip into this. I’ll adjust the temp in here.”
She slid her arms into his jacket, which was miles too big for her but instantly warmed her. His scent surrounded her again as she pulled his jacket around her. She turned to face him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” His fingers lingered over the lapels of his jacket, his knuckles resting on the swells of her breasts. Even though the fabric separated his hands from her skin, she still felt the pressure of his hands there, and that warmed her more than his jacket ever could. Her heart kicked up a fast beat, and she became aware that she was in his room—alone. She didn’t do this, didn’t blindly follow men she didn’t know to their rooms. And she wasn’t easily captivated by fame, so who he was meant nothing to her.
Where had her common sense gone?
Mick had been with plenty of women in his lifetime. From college to the pros, women had gravitated to him like he was an irresistible magnet. And he’d never been one to turn down a beautiful woman who wanted to crawl into bed with him.
So he’d never had to pursue a woman. Until tonight, until he’d seen Tara leaning against the wall of the ballroom, not participating, just watching, the sparkles on her champagne colored dress lifting the light from the chandeliers and all the candles shining around her as if she was the main event in the ballroom.
She’d captivated him from the first moment he’d seen her in the locker room area today. He’d hated missing the opportunity to meet her then, and finding her at the ballroom tonight had seemed like it was meant to be.
She’d been polite but hadn’t fallen all over him when he’d introduced himself. And oh man, had he liked that. A lot. Surprisingly, a lot. Especially when she’d walked away from him. Women tended to latch onto him like he was the Holy Grail, and once they did, they never let go. That, he didn’t like. But Tara actually seemed more interested in doing her job than in being with him. It was damned refreshing.
So he’d stood back and watched. She was good at her work. Efficient. He’d noticed she had a couple assistants working with her, and she treated them like equals. No browbeating, no talking down to them like they were ants under her feet. But when she gave instructions, people moved and moved fast. And she seemed more than willing to get in there to do whatever needed to be handled to get the job done. She’d opened bottles of wine with efficiency, folded table napkins, directed a new waitress on what tables were hers, and calmed down a very agitated bartender with quiet words and more patience than Mick could have ever come up with.
He liked to watch her move in her high heels, her long legs giving him glimpses of what must be spectacular thighs. She was slender, but not too much. She looked like she actually ate three meals a day, unlike a lot of the women he’d been forced to spend time with. She curved in all the right places, and he was fascinated by her neck, which was nicely visible, since her blonde hair was pulled up in a fancy hairstyle that didn’t suit her at all. He’d bet she usually wore her hair down or in a ponytail or in one of those messy hair clip things. She didn’t seem the type of woman who messed with her hair so that it had to be perfect. She had full lips and a narrow face and the prettiest brown eyes he’d ever seen.
But what he’d liked best about tonight was talking to her. She was a real person, not interested in furthering her career by being seen on his arm, but an actual, honest-to-God real woman. Funny and warm, with her own career. She hadn’t once searched out the media so they could take pictures of Mick and her. In fact, she’d done her best to avoid having the media see the two of them together.
It felt good to just be in this room with her. He wasn’t in any hurry, had no place to be for the rest of the weekend. It had been a long time since he’d really wanted to be with a woman—hell, had he ever really wanted to be in the company of a particular woman? He couldn’t think of any. As a release, yeah. To kill time, definitely. Someone thrust on his arm by Elizabeth for PR—all the damn time. But no woman had captured him enough for him to really want to be with her. They’d all been in and out of his life like some damn revolving door. Faces and names all blurred together, and he couldn’t remember a single one of them other than he’d met them and fucked some of them. He’d forgotten them as easily as they’d forgotten him.
Now Tara, he’d definitely remember.
There was something about her that made him want to do more than just fuck her.
Except right now he really wanted to kiss her and touch her and get her naked so he could explore the rest of her skin and see if it was as soft as the parts he’d already touched.
Easy, man. Not too fast. He didn’t want to scare her away. She wasn’t like any other woman he’d ever met. And for the first time in his life, he didn’t want to run the clock down too fast. He wanted this night to go into overtime.
Mick hadn’t said much for the past few minutes, just seemed to content to stare out the window with her. Tara waited for discomfort to set in, but it hadn’t. There was something special about him, something she’d noticed from the start, and it had nothing to do with his career and everything to do with who he was as a man. She liked Mick, liked him more than she had any other man in a very long time. Since she had the entire weekend to herself, why not indulge?
“Would you like some champagne?” He motioned to the bucket sitting on ice. “They delivered it earlier. I think we all got one as a thanks from the owners.”
“I’d love a glass.”
He popped the top and poured some into a glass, handed it to her. She took a sip, the bubbles tickling her nose. “It’s very good. Aren’t you going to have any?”
“I’m more of a beer kind of guy.”
She laughed. “Me, too.”
“Yeah? You’re dressed like a champagne kind of woman. Your sparkly dress even matches.”
She looked down at her cocktail dress. Admittedly, she loved it. Tiny straps hung on her shoulders, the bodice dipped across the swell of her breasts, hugging them tight. It fit her well and was her favorite. “Only when I work events like this. Believe me, there’s no champagne stocked in my refrigerator at home. Only beer and soda.”
“Chips and hot dogs?”
She laughed. “Two of my favorites. I’m sorry to say the elegance only comes out as part of my job. You’ll typically find me barefoot, wearing jeans, with my hair up in a ponytail.”
He examined her near-perfect updo. “So that doo-dah hairstyle isn’t the norm for you?”
“Hardly. It’ll be hell getting all these pins out.”
“Want me to help?”
Heat swirled around her. “And shatter my Cinderella image? I don’t think so.”
“Okay, Cinderella. Your secret is safe with me.”
She sipped her champagne and tried not to openly stare at him, but it was damned difficult, considering it was just the two of them in this room with the lovely view of the city. She stared out the window, still wondering what the hell she was doing here with Mick Riley.
He came up behind her. “You’re a beautiful woman, Tara.”
She turned to face him, wishing he knew the real her. But he never would, because the real Tara was light-years away from his world. “I usually don’t follow strange men up to their hotel rooms.”
He smiled down at her. “You don’t? Damn, and I thought I’d found a sure thing in you.”
Everything he said either made her laugh or made her hot. Why hadn’t some woman grabbed him by the hair and dragged him back to her cave by now? There had to be some chink in this knight’s armor. “Sorry. You should have gone for one of the actresses or models.”
“Not interested in them. They have agendas.”
“What makes you think I don’t?”
“Because I came to you. You didn’t come to me.”
“Maybe that’s part of my evil plan.”
“Honey, I don’t think there’s a damn thing evil about you.”
“I’m hardly innocent, Mick.”
He took her glass and set it on the table, then grasped the lapels of the jacket and pulled her closer. “Is that right?”
Liquid heat rushed through her veins, opening her up to desires and emotions she hadn’t felt in far too long. She normally closed herself off to men. Too busy. Too many other priorities. Right now there was no other priority but the feel of him against her. She leaned into him and tilted her head back, giving him the green light. “That’s right.”
He shifted his fingers, and the fire he’d stoked began to burn even brighter. There was a sizzle of magic between them. She’d be a fool to walk away from that, even if it was only for one night. And that’s all it could ever be—just one night—so why not go for it when she had the chance? Who knew when something this good would come along again? With the way her life was structured, probably never. And she’d have this one hot night to look back on and remember forever.
“I didn’t bring you here to seduce you, Tara. I just wanted to spend more time with you.”
She covered his hands with hers. “Maybe I’m seducing you. You wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings by rejecting me, would you?”
His lips quirked. “I’d never do that.”
“Then kiss me.”
She saw the spark ignite in his eyes as he gathered her against him and pressed his lips to hers.
Ahh, contact. An explosion of heat and liquid fire melted her from the inside out. Oh wow, it was everything she imagined—and so much more. Tenderness as his lips brushed hers, and then the power of his mouth as he deepened the kiss. His tongue slid between her teeth to capture and slide and lick as his hands pressed in along the curves of her body.
Tara suddenly couldn’t breathe. It was like being kissed for the very first time, when her head and her emotions tangled with everything her body felt. Only she wasn’t a kid and neither was Mick. This was a man’s hands on her body, and a woman’s desires coursing through her. And what they were doing wasn’t going to stop with a kiss. She already knew this, already knew where she wanted this night to go.
Cinderella wasn’t going to make it home before she turned back into the dour scullery maid with bare feet and blue jeans.
And she didn’t care.
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