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Authors: Susan Andersen

Playing Dirty

BOOK: Playing Dirty
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Reviewers love
New York Times
and
USA TODAY
bestselling author
Susan Andersen

“A smart, arousing, spirited escapade
that is graced with a gentle mystery, a vulnerable,
resilient heroine, and a worthy, wounded hero
and served up with empathy and a humorous flair.”


Library Journal
on
Burning Up

“[A] fast-paced, charming romance
with plenty of heat and cool dialogue.”


RT Book Reviews
on
Burning Up

“A sexy, feel-good contemporary romance…
Palpable escalating sexual tension between the pair,
a dangerous criminal on the loose and a cast of
well-developed secondary characters make this a winner.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Bending the Rules

“Snappy and sexy… Upbeat and fun, with a touch of danger
and passion, this is a great summer read.”


RT Book Reviews
on
Coming Undone

“Lovers of romance, passion and laughs
should go all in for this one.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Just for Kicks

“Andersen again injects magic into a story that would be
clichéd in another’s hands, delivering warm, vulnerable
characters in a touching yet suspenseful read.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Skintight,
starred review

“A classic plot line receives a fresh, fun treatment…
Well-developed secondary characters add depth to this
zesty novel, placing it a level beyond most of its competition.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Hot & Bothered

Ava’s Taco Soup

1 lb ground turkey

1 onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1 large bag frozen mixed veggies (cook’s choice)

2 cans diced tomatoes & green chilies (such as RoTel)

2 cans diced tomatoes

1 can black beans

1 can white beans

2 packages taco seasoning or ½ cup Costco taco seasoning

1 cup red wine

1 cup/can chicken or vegetable broth

 

Brown turkey, onions and peppers and toss in a large Crock-Pot. Add rest of the ingredients and simmer all day long. Leftovers can be frozen in ziplock baggies for on-the-go individual servings.

Susan Andersen
Playing Dirty

This is dedicated to my little corner
of the immense Facebook community—
especially the ladies (and occasional gent)
of the SusanAndersenFanPage. You make me laugh,
make me think and—I gotta tell ya—make me
feel
much
more important than I actually am.
Your collective willingness to open up pieces of your lives
to my voracious curiosity just knocks my socks off.
You all rock.

—Susan

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Virginia Bogert of
Laughing Dog Productions for the fabulous information
and peeks into the world of a working documentary
producer. I so appreciate all the time you gave me,
your wonderful ideas and your patience
with my many questions.

I hope I did your information justice,
but if any inaccuracies arise, they are solely mine.

Also available from
Susan Andersen
and HQN Books

Burning Up

Bending the Rules

Cutting Loose

Coming Undone

Just for Kicks

Skintight

Hot & Bothered

Playing Dirty
PROLOGUE

Dear Diary,

I didn’t know you could
feel
such pain and still live.

Country Day School, Upper School building
Thirteen years ago

A
VA
S
PENCER DANCED
down the hallway toward the cafeteria, her hips slowly swiveling and her plump shoulders grooving to the Goo Goo Dolls’ rendition of “Iris” playing in her head. She supposed she could’ve picked something faster, but hey. She was in the moment, feeling good.

Really,
really
good.

“Ava! Wait up!”

Glancing behind her, she saw her two best friends hustling around a group of stragglers who, like her, were running late for second lunch. The music in her head shut down as she waited for them to catch up, only to be promptly replaced by the everyday rhythms of school lunch hour: the squeak of shoes against linoleum, the slam of an occasional locker door, the laughter of little kids out on the Lower School playfield competing with the muted roar of the teens behind the lunchroom door just down the hall.

“What’s up, girly girl?” Poppy demanded, striding up to her. The bangles on her wrist clinked as they slid down the arm she raised to brush back a curl that had strayed from the mass. “You’re looking exceptionally happy.”

“No fooling,” Jane agreed. “It’s not every day we see you boogie down the hallway.”

“I am feeling
so
fine.” If she felt any finer, in fact, they’d have to haul her down from the ceiling like a bouquet of helium balloons. She beamed at her friends. “I might even go so far as to say I’m feelin’ beautiful.”

And wasn’t
that
amazing. She felt reasonably attractive most days, pretty on occasion, but beautiful? That was something so rare it was the next best thing to never. Given her constant struggle with weight, it wasn’t an adjective anyone at home ever applied to her. Her parents were more likely to give her grief for not doing enough to lose her “baby” fat.

“Hey, you
are
beautiful,” Jane protested loyally.

“Yeah, ‘She’s got such a pretty face,’” Ava quoted dryly. “What a shame she’s so plump/heavy/hefty.”
That
was a conversation she’d overheard more than once.

“You know Janie better than to think she implied that, Av,” Poppy said. “She said you’re beautiful—and you are.”

“I love you both for saying so, but that would be you, Poppy, not me.” With her Nordic blond hair and breezy confidence, Poppy was in a category all her own. She could’ve been part of the popular kids’ clique if she’d given a rat’s ass about that sort of thing. Hell, Ava thought proudly, Poppy could’ve
ruled
that crowd. She and Janie, on the other hand, would have never made the cut.

Not that Jane wasn’t attractive, but it was a quiet
prettiness that sort of snuck up on you. She had shiny brown hair and really great legs, but the clothes she wore made Goths look colorful. Plus, she was a brainiac—something most of the so-called in crowd were too stupid to appreciate.

Ava gave a mental shrug. Neither she nor Janie gave a rip any more than Poppy. The kids in that crowd were mostly asses, and the three of
them
had something worlds better than winning a high school popularity contest—each other. They were tight. BFFs. They’d met at this very school in the fourth grade and been a unit ever since.

Ava sure wished, however, that she were a size zero—okay, eight—like Janie and Poppy. Usually, in fact, she was fairly green-eyed over the knowledge that, no matter how nice her clothes, she always seemed to look like a sausage that had been packed too tightly into its skin—while her friends wore their Old Navy duds like runway models.

Today, however, it didn’t matter. Because last night Cade Gallari had kissed her, touched her, made
love
to her. And since the moment she’d opened her eyes this morning, she’d felt almost skinny, wholly desirable and, yes, beautiful.

Not that her first foray into sex had been completely wonderful. If the truth be told, the foreplay had been awesome, but the actual penetration part…well, that had been uncomfortable and over so fast she’d never actually gotten the chance to cross the finish line. But hey, it had been her first time, so it wasn’t as if she’d expected angels to sing or anything.

Still, Cade had made her feel special. Between kisses, he’d told her how gorgeous her lips were, how pretty her hair, how soft her skin, how awesome her breasts.
And afterward he’d held her as if she were more precious than platinum.

Which didn’t prevent her from being blown away that she’d done it with
him
. She sure never would have predicted that. Up until six weeks ago, in fact, she’d have sworn it wasn’t even a remote possibility, since she couldn’t remember a time when Cade hadn’t been a giant pain in her butt. They’d known each other since birth, practically—yet at the same time hadn’t truly known each other at all. But the little she
had
known of him?

She hadn’t liked. He was part of the crowd that reveled in ridiculing anyone who didn’t fit their standards, which, face it, was nine-tenths of the student body. So when she and Cade had been assigned partners in Mr. Burton’s year-end seniors science project, she’d seen
Titanic
stamped all over it. Because, c’mon, her and Gallari? On a project that accounted for a quarter of their grades?

When the two of them were eight, he’d pulled her hair and trod all over her toes in cotillion class. In the tenth grade the guy had looked up her skirt from beneath the bleachers, for God’s sake, then told everyone she wore pink panties! Before last night, in fact, her blood had congealed at the thought of him seeing her fat thighs and probably laughing about them with those asshole buddies of his.

Yet over the past month and a half, she’d seen another side of Cade, a sweet, funny, thoughtful side she hadn’t dreamt existed. And sitting across from each other in the library or at the coffee shop tables they’d taken to staking out to work on their project, an insidious attraction had begun to grow. Soon they were sitting in the
dark in his car just talking, talking, reluctant to call it a day.

Until one night he’d kissed her. And once that frontier had been crossed, there was no going back. Every time he’d kissed her these past couple of weeks, every time his hands had grown bolder charting new territory, she’d just melted, finding it really difficult to call a halt as, little by little, he’d pushed the envelope on their intimacy level.

Until, last night, she just couldn’t make herself say they had to stop. Her lips curled up in a secret smile.

“Okay, that’s it!” Stopping in front of the cafeteria doors, Poppy grabbed Ava’s arm. “What is
up
with you?”

She laughed.

Tried to keep the news to herself.

Then ultimately caved, because they were a sisterhood and she told them everything.

“I did it, Poppy. I thought for sure I was going to graduate—if not die—a virgin, but last night I…” Heat crawling up her chest, she suddenly turned shy at the idea of saying the words aloud.

Jane’s mouth dropped open. “Oh. My. Gawd,” she said slowly. “You did the deed?”

She nodded.

Poppy looked perplexed. “With who?” Then her eyes narrowed. “Oh, crap, please tell me it wasn’t Buttface Gallari!”

“Don’t call him that!” Okay, so she was the one who had given him the title way back when. But still—

“Just…don’t, okay?” she said in a softer tone and shook her head. “Look, I want to tell you guys everything, and I will—after school when the potential to be overheard isn’t so high.”

“Yeah, all right,” Poppy agreed. “But the minute we’re clear of this place, I’ve got some questions for you, sister.” Turning Ava loose, she pushed open the lunchroom door, and they walked into the chaos and bedlam of second lunch.

Trays and crockery clattered, voices reverberated off walls, and students seemed in constant motion as they either moved between the long tables or jockeyed for position at them. Peering around a couple of jocks tossing a baseball back and forth, Ava looked for Cade. Not wanting to appear too obvious when she didn’t immediately locate him, she followed her friends to the lunch counter.

She’d picked up a tray before she noted an unaccountable lessening in the noise level. It was never quiet in here, yet except for a few conversations still going on at the farthermost tables, the usual babble had faded to near silence. She looked over her shoulder to see everyone looking at her.

Someone snickered.

She smiled uncertainly, so damn dumb that even
then
she didn’t get that she was the butt of some joke. It wasn’t until Dylan Vanderkamp, the biggest ass in Cade’s crowd of mega-asses, rose to his feet, smirked at her and brandished a fat roll of cash that she began to get an inkling that this was not going to be good.

“Here you go, Gallari,” Dylan said, “two hundred bucks.” He extended it across the lunch table. “A bet’s a bet, my man. You said you could bag the fat girl, and by God you did it.” Giving Ava a slow up and down that left her feeling naked, he curled his lip. “I’d say you more than earned it.”

It was a bet?
a voice shrieked in her head.
I’m the “fat girl” he slept with on a bet?
Her hands went numb,
her legs lost strength and sickness rose in a sour tide up her throat.

Dylan stepped to one side, and for the first time she saw Cade, who was lounging on his tailbone looking bored. He glanced at her, and for one crazy, hopeful second, she thought he’d slap the money out of Vanderkamp’s mitt. But he merely raised a languid hand and plucked it from the other boy’s fingers.

“Thanks,” he said and tucked it in the front pocket of his jeans.

Everything inside her turned to ice. At the same time, all those eyes avidly waiting for her reaction seemed to burn pinprick holes everywhere they touched.

But she couldn’t simply stand here, taking shit off Cade’s group of over-entitled Neanderthals. Her chest might feel as if a two-ton rock sat on it, and God knew she desired nothing more than the ability to turn invisible—but she and her friends had always given back as good as they’d gotten from these idiots. Suckered by Gallari’s sweet talk, she’d forgotten for a while who she was dealing with.

She sure as hell remembered now. And, dammit, she
would
get a handle on herself, if it killed her.

A bitter laugh almost escaped her. Because the treacherous, lying, two-faced bastard had gotten a jump on that, hadn’t he? Still, if she was going down, she’d at least do so dealing a little damage of her own.

“I think I should get part of that,” she managed to drawl past the huge lump in her throat. “One session with Quick Draw McGraw here pretty much put me off sex for life—and if that doesn’t entitle a girl to a cut, I don’t know what does.”

It was the slightest balm to her wounded heart that a few people laughed at Cade’s expense rather than her
own. It wasn’t enough—she’d prefer that his dick shrivel up and drop off—but it would have to do. That lump was growing and she couldn’t force out another word.

As if she knew, Poppy placed an unobtrusively supportive hand on her back. “Yeah, what was it she told us, Jane?”

Jane shrugged. “That if she ever got over the trauma of Gallari’s fumbling and worked up the nerve to try it again, it would be with someone who knew what the hell they were doing.”

Cade continued lounging and looking bored, but Ava had the satisfaction of at least seeing a little dull color climb up his razor-sharp cheekbones.

She’d take more pleasure in seeing him experience a fraction of her humiliation, but God, she just hurt so bad. She felt shattered, as if her insides had been torn apart, then put back wrong. She would never, ever forgive him for setting her up this way, for lifting her up—only to slam her down.

Swallowing hard against a rising tide of grief, she turned her back on him, blindly grabbed a bowl of Jell-O and slapped it on her tray. No way would she be able to swallow a bite.

But damned if she intended to turn tail and run from Buttface Gallari. Even if, inside, a piece of her had just died.

BOOK: Playing Dirty
6.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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