Authors: Melissa Blue
Text copyright ©2015 by the Author.
This work was made possible by a special license through the Kindle Worlds publishing program and has not necessarily been reviewed by Nyree Belleville, Oak Press, LLC. All characters, scenes, events, plots and related elements appearing in the original Game For Love remain the exclusive copyrighted and/or trademarked property of Nyree Belleville, Oak Press, LLC, or their affiliates or licensors.
For more information on Kindle Worlds: http://www.amazon.com/kindleworlds
ABOUT THIS BOOK:
Six months down, six to go...
After a scandal puts his NFL career on the line, wide receiver Adam Carpenter must behave for a year. No partying. No sarcastic replies to the media. No women. He'll survive the longest year of his life if he can just keep his name out of the tabloids, and his hands off a sweet redhead who needs his help. He owes her a favor. Unlike most women he knows, she only wants him to donate his time to charity.
Charlotte West never thought she'd have to ask someone named Devil of the Gridiron for a favor, but her after-school food program is in trouble. She's desperate for donations to keep it going, and a visit from a sports star could create enough social media buzz to save it. But she knows with men like Adam one little favor may be all he'll need to seduce her.
Charlotte's instinct is to run from men with wicked smiles and reckless natures, they bring nothing but trouble and heartache.
She can't seem to run from Adam, and the reformed bad boy stands to lose more than his spot on the team if he beds Charlotte—he could lose his heart.
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“Excuse me.” Adam Carpenter interrupted the shrewd-eyed reporter. “My agent just arrived. I need a private word with him.”
The words were a bald-faced lie. He didn't care. If he stood there for one more second with an asinine and polite smile, he was going to screw up all the hard work he'd done rebuilding his image over the last six months.
Apparently, it sounded close enough to the truth. The bottle-blonde nodded and turned to another one of his football teammates. Relief flooded his limbs as he stalked across the banquet hall to make his escape while he could.
He tugged at the noose of a tie the moment he hit the back room. The noise level dropped off to something that wouldn't make his ears bleed. Down the hallway, he could see servers bustling to refill trays of food and wine. They were dressed in white shirts, black vests, and slacks. They paid him no mind.
Grateful for a momentary reprieve, Adam inhaled the rarefied air of being left alone. Being good was going to fucking kill him.
A bed of my own making
. He was damned lucky the San Francisco Outlaws had taken him on—even with their list of conditions.
No sarcastic answers to the media.
Those were the rules he had to follow to the letter for at least a year. The latter was clearly still tough to abide.
How did you feel after that game-winning touchdown?
Sad. Really sad I won the game.
No more of that. Difficult as hell to bite back an answer that would only paint him as ungrateful and surly. He wasn't. Every time his cleats hit the turf, he wanted to kiss it, do a dance at just how lucky he was to have escaped a much darker fate. He got to do the one thing he loved and get paid to do it. How many people could say the same? Adam just didn't have patience.
The other things…were why he was in the hallway trying to climb out of the monkey suit. Give him a good party to let loose or a woman who didn't mind a raunchy, heady sexual encounter to blow off some steam. Six months without either and he was ready to chew metal and spit out nails.
Deep exhale and another inhale. He could do this. Football had saved him. People in his life had made sacrifices so he could be here. The new season started in a few weeks, and he'd be too buried in training camps, workouts, and traveling to even notice the constant tension buzzing at the back of his head. Another thirty minutes and he could leave the gala that welcomed the new members to the team.
“You got this,” he muttered.
End goal in sight, he stepped toward the swinging door. The long wooden slates flung at him. Out of instinct, he slammed a hand against the door to keep from getting smashed in the face.
Unfortunately, the person on the other side didn't have the same honed reflexes. A pained “Ommph” shot worry straight into his gut.
He grabbed the edge of the door, pulling it wide. His heart lurched. A woman, dressed in one of the server uniforms, was covered with leftover hors d'oeuvres, dishes littered around her feet and the tray propped up against her starched black slacks.
She held a hand up to her nose. Blood leaked between her fingers.
“Oh, God,” he said, his tone horrified and apologetic.
Adam shucked out of his jacket, giving no thought to their surroundings, and pressed the sleeve to her face. Her eyes were wide from shock—maybe that was why she simply nodded a thanks.
“Damn. I'm sorry.” He ushered her forward into the hallway with him. The door swung back, clacking against the tray and dishes. “Did I only get your nose? Anything else hurt?”
She lifted a hand up to hold the jacket to her face and used the other, the one covered with her blood, to push his forearm aside. He only loosened his hold.
“I'm fine, just a bit startled. And bleeding.” Her words were muffled.
His stomach decided to make a home in his throat. Adam was paid to have quick, violent hands to shake off a lineman, or hell, a horde of them, and he'd used every bit of that strength and skill to stop the door. All against a woman who barely reached the top of his shoulders.
“Let me see,” he murmured. “No. Don't tilt your head up. It's down for a bloody nose.”
Her eyes widened at the absent correction. The clarity of her blue irises knocked the breath out of his lungs for a second. There was such a vulnerability and openness to her gaze. He could read the surprise and maybe a hint of something else that tightened his gut and had nothing to do with concern.
But Adam's reflection in her eyes was exactly that of a man who would know a lot about bleeding noses, and likely broken ones. That blunt truth drew him in. He'd played the part of a good, responsible man for months. He'd almost forgotten that old skin—the one that didn't tear at his rough edges. Adam had to fight the urge take another step and steal the rest of the space between them.
Instead, he cupped her nape to keep her head steady and pulled the jacket away. Breath gone again. The lashes framing her wide, doe eyes were long and thick. If not for the red staining the skin beneath her nose, everything about her face would be delicate and feminine—beautiful.
He gentled his touch as he wiped at the remnants of blood. “Doesn't look swollen or bent.”
She swallowed, still looking caught between shock and pain. “Just hurts,” she said.
With the jacket out of her way, her voice rang clear, crisp and sultry. Sweet face, sexy voice.
The little devil on his shoulder asked.
You injured a woman and now you
Before the angel could finish, Adam trailed his gaze down the rest of her, this time, his attention catching the curves the drab uniform couldn't hide. His cock didn't need much to stand to attention these days, but his visceral and immediate reaction to her and their close proximity was ridiculous.
Adam's base response to her only drew his attention to what this must look like. He held a woman, a firm grip on her neck, her head tilted back to hold his stare while his jacket was balled in his other hand. The Outlaw's PR team would lose their minds. This looked like more of the same bad behavior that got him into trouble. Worse, he was putting moves on a server.
The truth wasn't any better. He'd practically coldcocked a woman who looked sweet and kind with a door. Her reaction didn't come across as though she knew him on sight, but eventually, she'd put two and two together. Or someone else would gleefully help her.
Bad Boy Adam Carpenter Leaves Server Bloodied.
Just what he needed.
“Listen, I'm sorry about this…” Hearing his tone, Adam had to stop. His borderline smarmy pitch sounded like the start of a bullshit speech. Yet he needed her to keep this incident between them.
“It was an accident,” she interjected. “But that seems to be the nature of my night so far. I'm already a server short and now this.”
He winced, dropped his hands, and took another step back from her for good measure. “If there's anything I can do…”
She glanced down at herself, covered in food with a bloody hand.
. His stomach clenched. Her eyes were misting over. The only thing worse than a crying woman was one he'd made cry.
“It's f—” She pursed her full mouth and then shook her head. The movement freed some red, curly strands. “It's fine.” She lifted her chin and pushed back her shoulders. “I am going to survive tonight.”
Her reaction pulled him straight. She had mettle. Lust sluiced down his bones and he had to clench his jaw. A pretty face was fine—got his blood going—but a backbone…
Adam Carpenter Hems Up and Kisses Server During Gala
didn't need to be the headline.
She likely wanted nothing to do with him, and here he was planning a seduction. Being good was bad for his brain. Digging into his pocket, he produced a card—one that had his personal cell phone number. One he only gave to a very short list of people. “If you need anything, call me first. I owe you.”
She took the card and nodded. “Really, it's no big deal.”
“Charlotte!” came from down the hall behind him.
He bit back a curse and she jolted.
“Excuse me,” she said, leaving him without another word.
Her scent lingered—a sweet, spicy musk that made his groin tighten with need. Six months was a long time, especially if an innocent-looking woman managed to get under his skin. Hell, a redhead without the added bonus of freckles or the stereotypical hot temper. He was losing his edge.
Exactly what he needed for the next six months. Yeah, it was going to kill him. He sighed and considered this more than enough for one night.
Somehow, Charlotte West had survived the night from hell only to have the universe try to finish the job the next morning.
“What do you mean they're cutting the funding?” Her voice bordered on shrill, but she couldn't help it.
Mona winced at her across the desk. She speared a hand through her blonde strands, a nervous gesture that only made Charlotte's stomach tighten. Her friend wouldn't be here with this news if there was another way.
“They can't do this to the boys,” Charlotte added, as though that need had ever mattered to number crunchers.
“I know. I know, but they are.” Mona worked at the Williamson Center for Troubled Youths. She was also the point of contact between it and Delicious Delights Catering.
Every week for the past three months, Charlotte had conducted cooking classes. It wasn't cordon bleu training, but it kept the at-risk teens off the streets and gave them something to look forward to in their week.
“You know how it is,” Mona said, her frown deepening. “The arts and other elective activities are the first to go. They want us to focus on homework help and job training.”
“Two months,” Charlotte said, holding up her fingers as though that would make her argument stronger. “In two months, I've managed to get at least five of those boys a job in a restaurant. Eli is going to culinary school, and when he's done, he might even score a sous chef position.”
“Preaching to the choir.”
Charlotte flopped back into her chair, crossing her arms over her stomach. She hated this, but what could she do? Her catering business did well. She'd picked up the Outlaws gala from word of mouth. Despite all the disasters behind the scenes, the team's manager had promised to throw more work her way during the season. That meant travel and more opportunities to get business that did more than pay the bills. Yet she couldn't afford to fund the program on her own.
She tugged at the pins holding her hair up in a bun. Her temples were screaming with a threat of a headache. “A program like this…” She stopped, her throat constricting with emotion.
Mona leaned forward, understanding softening her face. “I know.”
Her brother Lance was a sore spot and always would be. They'd grown up on the wrong side of the tracks. She kept her head down, studied, saved, and did everything she could to escape the cycle of poverty. It wasn't until her senior year in high school that her life truly changed.
Their mother had done her best, wanting Charlotte to focus only on graduating. Lance was the oldest, but he would rather party and give college a hard pass. Extra income would keep food on the table and the lights on, so Charlotte picked up a waitressing job.
The owner in the beat-up diner—more like a mama to everyone in the neighborhood—had taken her aside and taught her to cook lavish meals for fun after long days on their feet. More than once, Layla had joked that teaching fine cuisine kept her sharp. Serving up nothing but omelets and burgers dulled her kick-ass cooking skills.
And that simple outreach had saved Charlotte.
Her brother didn't get the same opportunity. A year after she'd graduated, he'd died in a drunk-driving car crash. He'd been the one drinking.
So this news was knotting her stomach—an emotional response rooted in her own pain. A day didn't go by that she didn't wonder—if someone had mentored Lance would he still be alive? He was reckless, a hot head, a damn-the-consequences kind of man, but also loving and kind. She missed him.
Mona sighed. “I don't know what we can do. Maybe we can start a campaign on social media. A donation page, too. Something so people will know this program exists and it won't if we can't get funding from somewhere else. We've tapped out with the grants. There's—I don't know.”
If you need anything, call me first.
A flush rose up her face, and she put a hand to her nose, remembering Adam's promise. Never in her life had Charlotte ever been struck speechless by the sight of a man. He'd rung her bell a little with the door, but given her work, it wasn't the first time the klutz demon had had its fun with her. But then a big, strong hand had gripped the door, and there he was—all six feet of him.
His shoulders practically filled the entry. His long, dark hair and even darker brows were such a contrast to the startling green eyes pinning her right where she stood. The stark slope of his cheeks and jawline chiseled handsome into every facial feature. He had only needed a chin dimple to top off his masculine physique. Still, he probably ate testosterone for breakfast.
The most shocking was to have a man who looked like that worried about her, touching her gently and taking care of her like she was something fragile, precious. And from what she'd learned from kitchen gossip, Adam Carpenter's nickname off the field was actually the Devil of the Gridiron. For the past few months, though, he'd tried to reform his wicked ways. That wasn't the man she'd met and definitely not the one who apologized for an accident. Charlotte couldn't help but wonder if the media, as always, had gotten it wrong.
If you need anything.
She shook her head at the thought. There was no way she could ask a stranger for help. Mona shifted forward another inch. “What? You have an idea?”
Adamant, she shook her head again. “I couldn't possibly do it.”
“What?” Mora urged.
The boys loved her class. For the first few weeks, they’d grumbled about cooking being for girls, but when they’d had the perfect and easy meal to gorge on, she had them hooked. She smiled. Boys and their stomachs.
“Come on, Charlotte. If you have a way to help, then help.”
She groaned, knowing what she had to do. “I can call in a favor. I could
squeeze one day of good press, this Friday. Let's set everything else up and get a buzz going around needing donations and what we do.”
“Are you going to tell me?” Mona urged.
Charlotte still couldn't believe what she planned to do. How many people probably had their hands out to Adam? He was famous. He had money. Even though she only needed a little of his time, a stranger asking for it could be just as bad as the rest.
She held up a hand to waylay any questions. “If it works out, I'll give you the details.”
Mona stood, nodding. “Okay, Ms. Mysterious.”
Her friend left and that just left the tumultuous churn in her gut. When Mona closed the door, Charlotte pulled out the business card. She sucked in another breath for fortitude, picked up her phone, and dialed.
She scrunched up her face as though bracing herself, but that was a big
. Maybe he didn't pick up unknown numbers. The ringing stopped, and so did her heart.
How was it possible that he sounded better on the phone? His voice was smooth and deep, and it thrilled her to have his timbre caressing her ear.
“Hello?” he asked.
He was going to hang up, and probably wouldn't answer again, if she didn't speak soon. She sat a little straighter in her chair.
Just blurt it all out. Think of the boys. They need this.
“This is, uh, Charlotte from last night. And…you told me to call you if I ever needed anything.”
A tense silence filled the other end of the line. “I see, and what is it you want from me, Charlotte From Last Night?”
Oh, God. His tenor had gone from warm to cold in seconds. Normally, she'd break under such an imposing and intense tone, but the boys needed her to be brave and brazen. She'd gone into catering because, night after night, the high stress of a restaurant's kitchen had frayed her nerves. As a caterer, not only was she in charge, but so much of her job involved preparation.
The boys needed her, and if she were honest, she needed to give back, to somehow make up for getting lucky and having a mentor. Where would she be if Layla hadn't invested in her future?
“I…” The word came out meek. She steeled her spine. “I just need an hour of your time, and then we can call ourselves even.”
He grunted. “And for this hour, what would we be doing?”
The cold was gone, but now there was heat in his voice. Her nape tingled, remembering how rough and warm his touch had been on her skin.
She swallowed. “I volunteer at the Williamson Center for Troubled Youths. I teach them how to make simple, healthy meals. For the holidays, I do something more on the weekend.”
Stop rambling, Charlotte.
“They've decided to cut the funding, and we need buzz. If you dropped by for a cooking session, that could be everything we need to get donations going or even have the board rethink cutting us out of the budget.”
“Huh,” is all he said in reply.
The tension was getting to her. She picked up a stray pen and chewed at the end.
“That…actually seems reasonable.” He sounded taken aback by it. “When do you need me?”
“Friday. I can email all the other information you would need or text it to this number.”
“Email. I'll run it by PR to give this a little extra push.”
Her heart fluttered. “Thank you so much, Adam. This can help, and the boys are probably going to go wild when they see you.”
He chuckled and that, too, went down as smooth as chocolate and just as delicious. “You’re sweet. Didn't think people like you existed anymore.”
She huffed at that. “I'm not a unicorn.”
“The jokes I could make about rainbows… But I don't want you blushing again. It makes me think of you…” He trailed off and cleared his throat. “Anyway, I'm headed to the gym.” He spouted off his email address. “Looking forward to seeing you, Charlotte—”
“West,” she offered up.
“From Last Night had more of a ring to it.”
She laughed. “Yeah. Thank you again. I promise you won't regret it.”
They said their good-byes. The moment she heard the silence on the other end, she sprawled back in her chair, drained from the high and low of the short conversation.
And, goodness, Adam. Even over the phone, he was larger than life and sexy as hell. Her stomach was flipping. She pressed a hand to her heart, which refused to slow. How was she going to survive an hour with him?
She shook her head. Something to worry about later when the time came. What was important was that this could save the program. She dialed Mona and sent up a thanks to the universe for going easy on her.
I don't want you blushing again. Makes me think of you…
Of course, her face flushed now. Didn't take a big leap to imagine what a blush made Adam think. Maybe he wasn't completely reformed from his bad boy ways. Something akin to a thrill and need shivered down her spine. Her nipples pulled tight. No. No. Being nice and kind couldn't offset his past, reckless ways. After their short conversation, the media may have exaggerated, but there was too much truth in his public reputation. The men in her life needed to be stable, and definitely not famous football players who went through women like tissues.
Thankfully, Mona answered her phone and that made it easy to nix the train of thought. Adam wasn't something Charlotte needed to worry about. He called her sweet. Men like him didn't go for sweet women. He was likely a huge flirt, and just having fun with her.
Nothing to worry about at all.