If you love sports romance, get this three-story box set today! It’s currently on sale for $2.99 (discounted from $9.99) exclusively in my bookstore. Here’s a #ThrowbackThursday excerpt from Quarterback Sneak, one of the football romances in Illegal Use of Hands.
3-in-1 Collection includes:
When Stacy Halligan is dumped by her boyfriend just before Valentine’s Day, she’s in desperate need of a date of the office party—where her ex will be front and center with his new hot babe. Max, the hot quarterback next door who secretly loves her and sees this as his chance. But he only has until Valentine’s Day to score a touchdown.
Ryan McCabe, sexy football star, is hiding from a media disaster, while Kaitlyn Ross is trying to resurrect her career as a magazine writer. Renting side by side cottages on the Gulf of Mexico, neither is prepared for the electricity that sparks between them…until Ryan discovers Kaitlyn’s profession, and, convinced she’s there to chase him for a story, cuts her out of his life. Getting past this will take the football play of the century.
Sarah York has tried her best to forget her hot one night stand with football star eau Perini. When she accepts the job as In House counsel for the Tampa Bay Sharks, the last person she expects to see is their newest hot star—none other than Beau. The spark is definitely still there but Beau has a personal life with a host of challenges. Is their love strong enough to overcome them all?
QUARTERBACK SNEAK – CHAPTER ONE: The Kickoff
“All men are assholes.”
Stacy Halligan slouched in a corner of her couch, feet propped up on the coffee table. A half-finished glass of wine—her third—rested on the side table by her hand. Somehow, the smooth flavor of the merlot hadn’t eased the sharp edge of pain she rode. Instead, it tasted more like vinegar.
“I assume present company excepted?” Max Sullivan, stretched out in her big armchair, grinned at her, and took a swallow of beer.
“You’re just a man in the generic meaning of the word,” she grumped.
His smile disappeared. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t get your shorts in a twist.” Stacy levered herself up and took a sip of the wine, making a face. “I mean, you have all the right equipment.” She ran her gaze over his tall, muscular body. “At least, I assume you do, since I haven’t seen it firsthand. But I never think of you as a man. Exactly.”
He frowned. “And exactly how do you think of me?”
“You’re my best friend. My bud. My comfort zone.” She flopped a hand at him. “You know. We hang out together. Drink beer and eat pizza. Tell each other shit. I don’t have to worry if my makeup’s messed up or I’m wearing the right clothes.”
“Yeah?” Max cocked his head. “I’m not sure if I should be flattered or insulted.”
Stacy scowled. What bothered him tonight? Usually he sat there listening while she vented about her latest romantic disaster, making appropriate comments. At least, appropriate to her.
They’d been neighbors for three years, ever since she bought the condo next to his. When he came over to introduce himself and she learned he was a football player, backup quarterback for the city’s NFL team, the Warriors, she blew him off. She had been ready to write him off as a muscle-bound jerk who used and discarded women and barely had room to fit himself and his ego in the same room.
Max, however, was persistent in his and actually turned out to be a nice guy with a great sense of humor. Since neither of them seemed to fit the other’s dating profile, they didn’t have to do the usual mating dance. Instead, they became very comfortable together, hanging out on weekends when they had no other plans, helping out when circumstances called for it.
Like now, when her latest so-called romance crashed and burned like a comet falling from the sky.
She liked Max. Really liked him. He made no demands on her except to take in his mail and keep an eye on his place when he traveled with the team. In return, he provided refreshments on nights like tonight when her life fragmented again and she needed someone to help her pick up the pieces.
How did she make such consistently poor choices where men were concerned? You’d think the feature writer for a woman’s magazine would have a better grasp of what men were all about. Would have a stronger bullshit meter. But no, she simply kept going from one disaster to another. Maybe it came from being the gray dove to a peacock of an older sister. Or a hangover from college where her roommate barely passed her classes yet scored very high in hot men. So she’d concentrated on her writing, her career, secretly hoping some man would come along and coax her out of her bland environment.
Unfortunately, she chose men very unwisely.
Why couldn’t she fall for someone like Max? And why suddenly think of Max and romance in the same breath?
She had to admit he was damn appealing, with his tall, muscular athlete’s body. Mouthwatering, even in the ragged T-shirt and worn jeans he wore. His midnight black hair, the thick kind women loved to run their fingers through, and his ocean blue eyes, framed by equally dark eyebrows and lashes, were what romance novels would call mesmerizing. Lips that looked as if they knew their way around a woman’s mouth.
Jeez, Stacy. Get over it. What’s with you? This is Max. Solid, comfortable, dependable Max. My brain must be cooked because of my latest self-inflicted disaster.
She blinked, suddenly aware he spoke to her.
“Huh?” She blinked again. “What?”
“Where did you go in that pretty head of yours? You zoned right out on me.”
Giving herself a mental shake, she reached for the wine again. One word stuck in her mind.
“You think I’m pretty?”
Max tilted his head, studying her. “Of course I do. You’re a damn fine looking woman.”
“Oh, great. Damn fine looking. You sound like you’re describing my mother. Or worse, my grandmother.” She lifted her wine glass then set it back down. It had truly lost its flavor for her tonight.
Max set his beer on the floor beside him and hitched forward in his chair.
“What’s this really all about, Stace? Is it that jerk, Kurt? I told you he was a loser. You should have listened to me.”
“You say that about every man I introduce you to,” she pointed out.
“Maybe you take up with the wrong men,” he suggested.
“What?” She gritted her teeth. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist. It’s just that ever since I’ve known you, the men you hook up with have been asswipes.”
“Asswipes? Good word. I like that better than assholes.”
“Anyway, you’ve had breakups before. Plenty since I’ve known you. What’s so bad about the latest one that it’s got you all uptight?”
She chewed on her bottom lip. How could she explain it to him? She shared the blame. She obviously didn’t put thought into the men she chose or the relationships that developed with them. She spent so much time on assignments for the magazine she just hadn’t put the right kind of effort into her dating situation.
She already knew the other females at work thought her a dating loser. When they talked about hot weekends, she slugged down nonfat decaf lattes and wrapped herself in the misery of her latest breakup. She’d stopped contributing to their dating adventure stories since hers always had such pathetic endings. Why couldn’t she hold onto a man?
Kurt was merely the latest mistake, but also the worst. She never should have dated someone on the staff, especially the hot marketing guy everyone lusted over. Her problem? Flattered he asked her out, she’d ignored the warnings from her colleagues that she was not his type and she’d just get hurt. Not his type? What the hell did that mean? Did they have such a low opinion of her because she didn’t flaunt her body and make an ass of herself the way a lot of the other females did? Well, whatever. Now, not only had she been dumped but she’d also been exposed to a humiliation way too public for her satisfaction. She did her best to ignore the I-told-you-so looks even as she imagined all the whispered comments.
“Stacy?” Max prompted her again, his voice gentle. “Aren’t you the same woman who’s been telling me for three years romance is nothing but a myth made up by greeting card companies and florists? The one who keeps saying it’s a line men hand out to women? That you didn’t have time for more than meaningless sex and a lot of laughs?”
“It was easier that way,” she mumbled.
“Excuse me? I can’t hear you.” He cupped his ear. “Could you repeat that, please?”
“You heard me. I said, it’s easier. You guys are all alike. All you want is a lot of laughs and a lot of sex and then a handshake when it’s over. Or maybe not even the handshake. So if I don’t take things seriously, I don’t get hurt.”
“Let’s be clear. When you say ‘you guys,’ I assume you’re lumping me in with the general male population?”
”If the shoe fits.”
He stared. “I think I’m insulted. How the hell would you know if I’m like that? Do you follow me around?”
Her cheeks heated again. “No, of course not. But I see the parade of female characters in and out of your townhouse. They could almost be interchangeable.”
“It’s hardly a parade.” Max leaned back and rested an ankle on the opposite knee. “Anyway, you’re making a lot of assumptions here, Stacy. Maybe I just haven’t found the right woman to get serious with yet. I lead a pretty busy life, you know.”
“That’s nothing but an excuse.” She flapped a hand at him. “You make time in your life for me.”
“That’s what?” she demanded.
“Different,” he finished in a lame voice.
“Because I’m not like a real woman, right?” she snapped. “I want conversation instead of getting naked fifteen seconds after we meet. I want to do something besides roll around on the sheets. And I don’t want to have to fluff up the packaging every time I turn around. Go ahead. Say it. Out loud.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth.”
“I’m sorry. Really. I’m just so depressed right now.”
“Don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way, but I’d think someone who writes features for a woman’s magazine would have a different take. Or have you been so busy producing stuff—articles, whatever—to give other women their dreams that you forgot what it takes to have your own? So again, what’s so different this time? And what makes Kurt so special?”
“He broke up with me two weeks before Valentine’s Day.” The words popped out of her mouth before she could stop them. “He told me he had something special planned. I guess this was it, damn it.”
“Valentine’s Day?” Max parroted.
“Yeah, you know. Big day for lovers? Hearts and flowers? Candy? Wine? Maybe jewelry? Big romantic dinner? The works?”
“Valentine’s Day,” Max said again, taking another swallow of beer.
“You say that like it’s a foreign concept,” she snarked. “It happens every February fourteenth. Surely you’ve heard of it before. Sent flowers to your gaggle of females. Oh, wait. You probably have so many, you order an assistant do it. Someone at the team complex.”
Max slammed his beer bottle down on the floor beside his chair. “Stacy, what in the fuck has gotten into you tonight? I don’t have a—what did you call it?—a gaggle of women, and you know that. I’m better than that. And I didn’t think you were so shallow all that crap meant life or death to you.”
She wanted to cry, something she seldom did. Why be nasty to Max because of her disappointment in herself, in what her life had become? All work and meaningless play.
“Stace?” he prompted.
“Every year we do a special issue for V-Day.” She nibbled a fingernail. “Our issue this year is spectacular. Lots of shots of lovers in romantic settings. Great ads that promise all kinds of fantasies from pleasant dreams to gigantic orgasms. With the situation so hot and heavy with Kurt, I bought into the myth myself.”
Max’s eyebrows rose. “Gigantic orgasms? Where’s that ad?”
She waved a hand at him. “You know what I mean.”
He looked at her, curiosity stamped on his face. “I do?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, dropping her gaze to the floor. “I don’t know if it was Kurt himself, to tell you the truth. All the women drooled over him, though, and I finally thought I was a big deal because we were a couple. He made it no secret when we broke up because he’s trolling for his next conquest.”
“And he’s the guy you’re crying over?” Max had an incredulous look on his face.
“Okay, I’ll say it. He fed my ego.” She let out a long sigh. “And now, I won’t have a date for the big Valentine’s party. Again. What makes it worse is he’ll be at the event. The publisher demands everyone’s attendance, so I’ll have to show up and watch him playing touchy-feely with someone else while putting up with everyone’s pity all night long.” She brushed a stray hair from her cheek. “Damn, Max. How did I get it so wrong?”
“Maybe, subconsciously, you knew all these other guys weren’t worth your time, so you forced the breakup. Did you ever think of that?”
“Huh?” She stared at him.
“Stace, don’t get mad at me but think for a minute. If you were really into any of them, you’d be a lot more than ticked off. You’d be devastated. They might just not be what you’re looking for. Maybe first you have to figure out what you really want.”
“If I tell you what I want, you’ll think I’m a brainless female.”
“You’re not,” he protested. “You are a beautiful, desirable woman who happens to pick men who are self-centered jerks.”
“Yeah, right,” she snorted.
“Come on, honey,” he coaxed. “This is me. Good old Max. We can say whatever we want to each other, right? So let’s hear it.”
“I’m going to sound really stupid.” She sighed.
“The only stupid thing is not saying what’s on your mind.” His mouth curved in a crooked grin. “Go ahead. Let’s hear it.”
Stacy dropped her gaze to her lap. “I want—” She shook her head. “Never mind.”
Max leaned his elbows on his knees. “What would you really like here, Stacy? Another man in your life? Someone to make Kurt jealous? Make him realize what he’s thrown away so he’ll come crawling back to you? Someone you can show off to the females you work with?”
Was that what she wanted?
Stacy nodded. “Yes. Like that. Sort of. Let him—all of them—see what they’re missing.” She chuffed a laugh. “And I want a really hot date for the Valentine’s party.”
“Clue me in on the party you keep talking about.”
“The publisher hosts one every year for everyone on the editorial staff and in the marketing and sales departments. For five years, I’ve always been on the downside of a breakup. My so-called dates have usually been someone I coerced into going with me, or else I went alone.” She glanced down in her lap. “Three of the women on the staff recently got engaged, and two more are in the middle of planning their weddings. One time—one time—I want someone to say, ‘Wow! Look who Stacy showed up with.’”
“That’s what you want.”
“Uh huh. Oh, and preferably a guy who’ll romance me for a week or so leading up to it, so the office gossips will be full of jealousy rather than pity.”
“Romance you,” he repeated. “Take you to the party.”
“Yes. See? I told you it was stupid. “ She rubbed her forehead.” Forget I even brought it up.”
“No, no, no. Not forgetting anything.” Max picked up his bottle, drained the rest of his beer, set it back down. “Okay, then. I’ve got a suggestion.”
I have to be out of my fucking mind.
Max studied the woman across from him and wondered what level of insanity prompted him to speak so freely. Putting his hand in a vat of boiling water might cause less distress, yet he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
His very well-kept secret was he’d wanted Stacy Halligan from the day she moved in next door to him. His first glimpse of her—trim figure clad in cutoffs hugging a very sweet ass, a ragged University of Michigan T-shirt, thick auburn hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, kissable lips in a face free of makeup that he sure didn’t think it needed.
Even then, she’d had attitude. The movers carried in the heavy pieces for her, but she seemed determined to haul the stuff from her car herself, refusing help when the movers offered. The day was hot and within an hour she’d sweated through that T-shirt, her nipples like sweet cherries nudging the soft fabric. And every time she bent over to get another armful from the trunk or the back seat, those shorts outlined every inch of her delectable ass.
He could have hidden in his condo. However, curiosity got the better of him. So, he pulled his car out of the garage and proceeded to wash it in the heat of the day, despite the inevitable water-spotting. It gave him a chance to watch her, and also allowed him to hide behind the vehicle to disguise the painful erection poking at his jeans.
Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore. Waiting until the last of the boxes and bags and suitcases were in her place, he grabbed two bottles of beer from his fridge and carried them over there. She opened the door, her face set in a fierce frown. He’d never met a woman with quite so much attitude, and he wondered where the hell it came from. For a moment, he thought she might send him away. But he held up the beer and offered a hopeful smile. “Hi, I’m the welcome wagon.”
Then her eyes lit on the beer and her tight mouth relaxed into a rueful grin. “I sure could use one of those—moving day is always a bear.”
Not that Max didn’t have plenty of women in his life. Even as a backup on the team, he was sought after by the football groupies. Plus, all his friends who were coupled kept trying to fix him up. He played it casually, never indicating a situation was anything but relaxed and fun. He had yet to find a woman he wanted to see more than three or four times, and certainly not one he considered making a part of his life.
Then Stacy marched into his life, and he’d been hooked ever since.
He struggled with being her friend when he wanted to rip her clothes off, drag her into his bed, and tell her how he felt. Especially since, from their conversations, she considered him a friend, no more, so he took what he could get. Only it burned his ass the way she constantly chose—okay, her word—assholes who didn’t treat her the way he thought they should.
Three years later, he remained in the first quarter, except here was a chance to revise the game plan. He would have to do it very carefully, like the field general he was.
Stacy’s voice penetrated his mental fog, startling him.
“Your suggestion?” she reminded him. “Although you’ve been looking at me like I have grease on my face or something, so I’m not sure I want to hear it.”
He cleared his throat. “Got any more beer?”
She waved a hand toward the kitchen. “Help yourself. And bring me one, too.”
He frowned. “Really? You’ve been sucking down that wine, and I don’t think they go together too well.”
“Who are you, my mother?” she snapped.
“Not hardly,” he said in a soft voice. “I’m your very good friend.” And then so low he half-hoped she didn’t hear it, “And maybe even a little more than that.”
When they were each holding ice-cold ones, he sat down, hunched forward, elbows on his knees, and took a long swallow of the cool, fortifying liquid. If she said no to his suggestion, he was shit out of luck. All the way around.
“I have a game plan to propose.”
She lifted one eyebrow. “Oh? Well, give.”
Another swallow. Jesus, he wasn’t this nervous even before a kickoff.
“What if we pretend to be a couple? I could be the guy who sweeps you off your feet. Sends you chocolates and flowers.” When her eyes flew wide, he hurried on. “Just hear me out. Not to brag or anything, but I am the Warriors’ number one backup quarterback. I get my share of publicity. Women tell me I’m not bad looking. I know not to wipe my nose with my hand, and I always wear clean clothes. I’ve been told I have a high profile in the hot guy department.”
She gaped at him.
“I can certainly do the whole Valentine’s schtick you mentioned before,” he continued. “You know, come to your office to pick you up for lunch. Send flowers and gifts. Give you a little squeeze and a peck so word gets back to the asshole. And anyone else who needs an attitude adjustment.”
He waited for her to make a comment. Why didn’t she say anything?
“Well?” His nerves were doing a jitterbug. Had he blown his chance with her? “What do you think? We could make it work.” He paused. “Unless, of course, you hate the idea.”
“Um, no.” Finally, she snapped out of her trance. “No, I don’t hate it.”
“Then what’s with the funny expression on your face?”
She gave an unsteady chuckle. “I’m stunned you would make such an offer. For me. Like this.”
“Hey.” He tried to smooth his features. “That’s what friends are for, right?”
“Don’t you have your own women to romance? Do all the romance crap with? I’d hate for some jealous female to show up and scratch my eyes out.”
“No.” He shrugged. “No one special.”
“And what about all the stuff the Warriors always do over holidays? For instance, I happen to know the owner and his wife have a huge party every year. Remember, we did a story about it last year?”
“One night. Big deal. When’s your shindig?”
“On Valentine’s Day itself. A week from Saturday.”
“Well, there you are.” He leaned back and took a calming sip of his beer. “The Warriors party is on Friday night. No conflict. Anyway, all I have to do is put in an appearance there then split.” His eyes lit up. “Hey! Why don’t you come with?”
Stacy frowned. “Get real. I don’t fit in with that crowd. I refuse to wear a barely-there cocktail dress, flaunt my boobs, and trowel on enough makeup to pave a sidewalk.”
Max laughed. “I should be insulted, you know. Don’t you think I have better taste than that? Besides, there are a lot of really nice women at these parties. Wives, fiancées. Like that. So does that mean you won’t be my date?”
“I think Saturday night will be enough obligatory duty for you. Thanks anyway, though.”
“You know I mean the invitation,” he insisted.
“And I appreciate it.” She chewed her thumbnail again. “You know this will get in the papers. The starting quarterback has been hurt so often, you’ve played in a bunch of games the past season. It certainly elevated your profile. The media will sniff out what’s happening and be all over it like white on rice.”
He laughed. “I’ll have a hotshot writer on my arm. And a gorgeous one at that. Besides, it will be a big improvement over the women they usually pair me up with.”
“Hah!” she snorted. “As if.”
“Whatever.” How could he tell her no woman measured up to her in his mind? She’d never believe him. At least, not right now. “We’ll put on a good show and have some fun doing it, right?” He waited another heartbeat. “So, what’s the answer? Shall we do it?”
“Uh, well, okay. If you’re positive you want to.” She grinned at him. “There’s going to be gossip for sure. Everyone will be stunned that a handsome stud like you has scooped me up.”
“Stacy.” His voice sobered. “You sell yourself way too short in that department. I keep telling you, you’re—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she spat. “All those things you said. So, how do we go about it? When do we start?”
“Tomorrow’s good for me, if it works for you. It’s Monday, and we have almost two full weeks until Valentine’s Day. By then, we’ll have the jerk begging you to take him back. How about if I pick you up for lunch?” He held up a hand when she opened her mouth, objection written all over her face. “No, you’re not meeting me at the restaurant. The plan only works if we do it where everyone can see us. Right?”
“Uh, right. Okay. Wow!” She took a sip of beer. “This will be an eye opener for everyone.”
“Which is exactly what it’s supposed to be.” He set his empty bottle aside and stood up. “I should probably let you get to sleep so you can be bright-eyed and sharp tomorrow.”
“So I can play my part.” She nodded.
“Absolutely.” But I won’t be playing at all. For me, it will be real.
“Thanks again, Max,” she told him as she walked him to the door.
“My pleasure, sweet lady.” He turned and put his hands on her shoulders. “I probably will kiss you when I come to get you tomorrow, so maybe we should have a couple of practice ones. You know, so we can get it right.”
“K-kiss?” She swallowed hard. “P-Practice?”
”Sure.” He grinned. “It’s easy. Let me show you.”
Arms around her, he cupped her head in one hand. Expecting he’d have to take his time, coax her into it, he brushed his lips over hers very slowly and carefully. At first, she stiffened, but he kept her in a light embrace and continued to tease at her mouth. Then he pressed a little harder before running the tip of his tongue across the seam of her lips. He didn’t know what he expected. It certainly wasn’t the jolt of electricity that singed its way through his body.
When she opened for him with a sigh, his tongue slipped inside. Nothing he had imagined even came close to the hot sizzle of the kiss, to the explosive connection between them. Jesus! His cock hardened, butting against her thigh. Lucky for him, she didn’t try to pull away. He couldn’t have backed off if his life depended on it. The taste of her mouth was so sweet, her tongue like liquid velvet. Unexpectedly, she slid it across his and joined him in a sensual dance.
He wanted to keep at it all night. This, and a lot more. But some remnant of his brain told him not to push the issue. With more control than he thought he had, he lifted his mouth from hers and eased his hold on her. He had to swallow a smile at her stunned expression.
“Yeah, I think this will work okay. Don’t you?”
She nodded, touching her lips with the tips of her fingers.
“Okay, then. Lunch, tomorrow. I’ll be at your office at twelve-thirty. Oh, and wear something sexy.”
He could almost feel her eyes boring into his back as he walked away.
Tomorrow was the kickoff.
He had one chance to let Stacy know how he felt about her. If his plan worked, maybe they could finally have the relationship he’d been dreaming about. But as he walked next door to his own place, two questions rattled around in his brain. How would he get to sleep tonight with a shaft hard enough to pound nails? And how could he keep their little charade from blowing up in his face?
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