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Authors: Jeanette Murray

Romancing the Running Back

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Titles by Jeanette Murray

Santa Fe Bobcats

One Night with the Quarterback

Loving Him Off the Field

Takes Two to Tackle

Romancing the Running Back

First to Fight

Below the Belt

Against the Ropes

Fight to the Finish

Romancing the Running Back

Jeanette Murray

InterMix Books, New York

AN IMPRINT OF PENG
UIN RANDOM HOUSE LLC

375 HUDSON STREET, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10014

ROMANCING THE RUNNING BACK

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2016 by Jeanette Murray.

Excerpt from
Completing the Pass
copyright © 2016 by Jeanette Murray.

Excerpt from
Fight to the Finish
copyright © 2016 by Jeanette Murray.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information about The Berkley Publishing Group, visit
penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-41045-9

PUBLISHING HISTORY

InterMix eBook edition / January 2016

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Penguin Random House is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.

Version_1

Chapter One

Anastasia Fisher hefted another suitcase from her best friend Cassie’s SUV with a grunt. The massive case landed against her hip, and she groaned in pain.

“If you tell me you brought an entire suitcase of nothing but shoes, I will never stop laughing at you,” Cassie said as she wheeled the suitcase she’d claimed—the light one—in front of her and up the walkway of the home she now lived in with her fiancé, Trey Owens.

“No, it’s not just a suitcase full of shoes. There are also accessories in here,” Anya retorted.

“For a one-week visit? God, Anya.” Taking a quick break, Cassie let the suitcase rest at the bottom of the first porch step. Anya wheeled up behind her and set her own suitcase on four feet.

“Did Trey get a bicycle?” Anya wondered out loud, looking at the bike leaning up against the side of the porch railing. From her eyes, it looked like a pretty serious one, not something you’d buy at Target for seventy-five bucks to cruise the neighborhood. “Seems like an odd hobby to suddenly take up. Doesn’t he have enough going on, with the upcoming season and wedding prep and all that?”

“Wedding prep has been thrown completely into my lap, unfortunately. Since I’m the nerd of the relationship, he knew I would love making lists and checking things off. He failed to realize that the aesthetic portion of the event would suffer greatly with me in charge. Not to mention my sometimes-ill-advised tendency to go a little crazy when I’m stressed.”

“Which is why you brought in the ringer . . . namely, me.” Anya beamed at her. “Cass, have I ever let you walk out the door looking like an idiot when it was in my power to change that?”

“Nope.”

“Have I ever willingly let you do something crazy if I could persuade you otherwise?”

Cassie grinned. “You do your best to rein me in.”

“Then trust me. Your wedding will be gorgeous, along with proclaiming your and Trey’s special personalities.”

Cassie raised a brow. “Special personalities?”

“Aw, sweetie.” Anya rubbed her arm. “Of course you’re special.”

“Shut up. And it’s not Trey’s bike, anyway. It’s Josiah’s. He must have come over to hang out while I was gone.”

“Josiah? As in his teammate Josiah?” she wondered out loud as she followed Cassie up the steps, lugging the suitcase up each one with a thud. She was so not a football person, but she’d caught pieces here and there of Cassie’s talk about the men she’d grown to love like brothers. “If you’re going to tell me there are two able-bodied football players in there who didn’t come help us with these suitcases, I’m going to kick your knee out from under you.”

“You wouldn’t. Your aim sucks. And they’re not ignoring us. My guess is they’re watching practice film.” As she opened the front door, the sounds of . . . something filled Anya’s ears. “Yup. That’s practice footage.”

“How can you tell?” Anya called out, following Cassie inside and through the foyer to the kitchen.

“Too much time spent with my dad, and Trey, in a very short period of time. I’m surrounded. Yup, there they are.” She paused as she pointed out Trey—whom Anya had met once before—sitting on the couch alongside a lanky man wearing a backwards cap and shaggy hair. Both men were engrossed in the television, watching and making caveman-esque sounds with every bone-jarring hit that came on-screen.

Anya winced. Football was so very much not her thing. After having met Trey and his friend and teammate, Stephen, a year ago, she’d tried watching a few games. It hadn’t improved much. She’d given up.

“Hello?” Cassie called out, winking at Anya. Anya simply stood back with her luggage. “
Hello?

Neither man turned around. The volume was too high, and they watched as someone on-screen wearing a Bobcats polo shirt and a navy visor stepped up and started yelling at one of the players. He grabbed the man’s face mask and screamed something about holding his position. It looked rude, and more than a little scary.

Cassie walked up to the back of the couch, reached around Trey, and grabbed the remote, muting the sound. “
Hello!

“Whoa!” Trey grabbed for the remote, but Cassie danced out of the way. “Okay, at least pause it, please.”

“You gonna act like a polite human being and greet our guest?”

“Our gu—Anya. Right.” He flushed a little as he caught sight of her from the side. The man was seriously gorgeous—even wearing his fake-geeky glasses from the night he’d met Cassie—and the flush only gave him a charming appeal. “Anya, I’m really sorry. I forgot you were coming in today. Josiah and I were just watching some practice footage.”

“Of course. No problem.” She stood awkwardly. This was the man her best friend in the world loved, and would be marrying in less than a year. But to her, he was still all but a stranger. Cassie was the outgoing one. Anya liked people, but struggled with strangers. “Thank you for having me.”

“Hey, Cassie’s maid of honor? No problem. She told me you were the only one she could consider dress-shopping with.” Clearly not struggling the way she was, Trey came over to give her a hug. She forced herself to relax and lean into it, smiling when Cassie gave her a thumbs-up over her fiancé’s shoulder.

Anya gave her one back, along with a weak smile.

“So, do you need help carrying in anything from the car?”

“Nice timing, lover man.” Cassie grabbed a fistful of his shirt and yanked him down for a wet smooch. “But we brought them in.”

“Them?” Trey looked between them, and she saw him counting suitcases. “Four?”

“One was a carry-on,” Anya said defensively.

“That’s a lot of luggage for a visit,” came a southern drawl from the couch. The other man unfolded his lanky frame and walked over to stand beside Trey. His hair, a medium brown, sprouted in unkempt tufts from under the backwards baseball hat he wore. His eyes were hazel, she thought, though they seemed to change depending which direction the light hit them. His T-shirt was clean but worn, as were his jeans. And he wore running shoes that looked like they’d seen better days.

“Anya, this is Josiah. He’s also on the team with Trey and Stephen,” Cassie explained.

“How do you do?” He extended a hand and gave her an easygoing smile. One of his incisors was crooked. It was charming in its imperfection. Coming from her arena, perfection was achieved at all costs. That little hint of normalcy made her like him, for some reason. “I hear you’re the maid of honor.”

“Guilty. Ah, where should I put these?”

“We’ll carry them up, since you did the first part. Josiah, help me out?” Trey grabbed the suitcase Cassie held, along with the garment bag slung over it.

“Let me get those.” Josiah came over and reached for the handle just as Anya did, bumping his head into hers. His cap tumbled to the tile floor as he rubbed at his head.

“Sorry, sorry.” Mortifying. She’d just concussed a professional football player. Could the Bobcats sue her for that?

“No, it’s my bad.” Scooping up the hat, he settled it back on his head. “So, what’s in all these bags?”

“Shoes, accessories, that sort of thing.” When he gave her a blank look, she shrugged. “It’s my job. My, well, life, I guess. I’m a fashion consultant. Or, if you want to be less technical, personal shopper.”

“Can one be technical about shopping?” he wondered out loud, his smile cooling a little.

“You can be technical about anything, really.” Why was he staring at her like she’d grown two heads? “It’s a job, and I like it.”

“Uh-huh.” He stood at the base of the stairs while Trey walked back down empty-handed.

“First door on the left, man. Thanks.”

“Sure thing. Wouldn’t want these shoes to be misplaced.”

Was it her imagination, or had that been a deliberate put-down? No, she was travel-weary. That’s all it was. He’d been perfectly polite before. She wandered back to the kitchen and twisted her thick blond braid off her neck. Maybe she should start looking into pinning it up into a bun to keep it from smothering her. “Is it always this hot?”

Cassie grinned and reached into the fridge for a glass pitcher of water, then into a cabinet for a few tumblers to fill. “You bet. Drink up, because being dehydrated only makes it worse.”

“Trey, I’m taking off,” Josiah said, coming back into the kitchen. “Since I rode, it’ll take me a while to get home. I hate biking in the dark.” He grabbed his keys and wallet off the kitchen counter, then—surprisingly—a bike helmet Anya hadn’t noticed before.

“So, you’re a big biker?”

“I’m big on getting wherever I can without using a car.” He swung the helmet from the strap a little. “I don’t like waste. Like, I don’t know, a dozen pairs of shoes when one will do.”

The way he watched her told her exactly the problem that had cooled his opinion of her. She was a waste. Or at least, her career and her love of fashion were.

Cassie leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Have a good ride, let us know when you get back. Be careful.”

“Always, beautiful. See ya, Trey.”

Trey shot a hand up from the couch in a good-bye wave.

“Nice to meet you, maid of honor,” he said simply, heading for the front door.

She had the most bizarre feeling again. The one that said he’d cut her down, but in an invisible way she’d never notice. What
was
clear was that he considered her frivolous.

What did it matter? He was Trey’s friend, not Cassie’s. Other than a few events here or there, she’d never really have to worry about dealing with Josiah again.

*   *   *

Josiah Walker pulled into his apartment building and walked his bike up the stairs. Eventually, he needed to look into getting a house. It just made financial sense, plus the amount of work he could do to it to make it more efficient would trump the inconvenience of being an owner rather than a renter. But for now, his semi-studio apartment sufficed.

His friends joked about the bike. The fans found it an amusing quirk. The media thought it was novel.

It was just a damn bike. But it was also a conversation-starter to get people going about conservation. So he didn’t mind, in general, when someone asked or joked about his preferred mode of travel.

Not that he was an idiot. He believed in being practical. Lugging around the gear he needed for practice some days wasn’t going to cut it on his street bike. So he had a hybrid SUV. Maybe he would have gotten better gas mileage with a Smart Car, but he’d found the SUV for a song, and believed in being conservative with his money as much as with natural resources. Plus, just imagining piling his friends—huge football players—into a tiny Smart Car made him think of a circus clown car. Pass.

He could be practical. What he didn’t understand was being frivolous. Frivolous was bringing four freaking suitcases for a one-week visit. Who did that? Princesses and other high-maintenance folk.

He pulled out his canteen from his pack and headed to his fridge to fill it up from the filter pitcher.

The maid of honor—Anya—couldn’t be more different from Cassie. Cassie was bright, nearly genius level with computers. She was a geek with heart and sass. She wore funny, nerdy T-shirts with sayings he didn’t always understand and listened genuinely when he went off on a tangent about making solar panels available to the masses.

Anya looked like she’d rather club him with a sandal than hear ten seconds about something that didn’t pertain to her, or clothing and buttons.

Maybe he was judging her too harshly. Josiah sank down on his couch and let his feet land on the coffee table—a Goodwill find because who cared what happened to it? He hated when people judged him for being a dumb jock, despite the evidence to the contrary. He should probably not write her off. Cassie was cool, and she loved Anya. There had to be more to the chick than what earrings went with which top.

It really didn’t matter anyway. She was here for a week stay to do what she did best—shop.
Personal shopper.
Then
she’d come back for the wedding, and it wouldn’t matter. He had a season to prep for, a wedding to help his best friend survive, and Stephen to watch out for relapsing. His plate was full already.

It didn’t ease his mind that later that night, her face drifted in and out of his half-conscious dreams.

*   *   *

“What exactly are we celebrating?” Anya asked as she pulled out the vegetables for the cookout.

“The guys will be heading out tomorrow for their first preseason game. It’s exciting, but it’s the start of a long season of missing them. So, we’re doing a nice barbecue where Trey can show off his manly grilling and have some guys over. A few you haven’t met yet.”

“No Stephen?” she asked, as he was really the only Bobcat she knew by name. Since they had met at the same time Cassie and Trey had, they’d formed a sort of odd, long-distance bond from being two witnesses to their best friends’ happiness. She’d called and checked on him a few times while he’d been at rehab. He was a fantastic guy, if troubled, and she thought of him sort of like a brother.

Anya set the onion and tomato down on the counter and went back for the lettuce.

“No, Stephen and his, uh, girlfriend, are pretty well holed up, enjoying each other. You’ll see him sometime. He’s over here often. We’ll invite Margaret to come hang out with us during games. You’ll like her.”

“Sure.” Anya didn’t hesitate to notice Cassie had spoken as if she weren’t staying for just one week, which was the current plan. Best-friend intuition was a scary thing. “Anything to even out the testosterone level around here.”

“No kidding,” Cassie said with a laugh. She started mixing the ground beef with eggs and spices, using her hands. “Josiah is coming, I think. You met him the other day.”

“Yay,” she said under her breath, then reached in for another head of lettuce. “I’m sorry, how much lettuce do you imagine these guys are going to be putting on their burgers?”

“It’s also for salad. I like rinsing a whole head and keeping it chopped and in the fridge for lunches during the week. I take my lunch, mostly.”

“Gotcha.” Anya started washing the tomatoes first, stopping when a few extremely large gentlemen walked in through the front door without knocking, coming straight into the kitchen. They all gave Cassie hugs, with a few planting kisses on her cheek as they wandered by and through the open back door to the deck. Cassie wasn’t a short woman, but these men dwarfed her. “You’re definitely friendly with the team, if they’re all on ‘enter without knocking’ level with your home.”

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