Ruby O’Brien flashed her media badge at the stadium security booth before zipping into the Savannah Bootleggers’ crowded parking lot. Pulling into her reserved spot, she turned off the ignition and rested her head against the steering wheel, listening to disgruntled Bootleggers fans returning to their cars after an unexpected defeat.
No wonder Alec was in a bad mood.
The mid-season loss, the recent breakup with his ex-fiancée, Colleen, the fact his own teammate had apparently been taunting him about both… It would put anyone in a bad mood, but unfortunately, right now, the reasons for Alec’s bad mood didn’t matter.
He had to straighten up.
Yes, he was obviously going through a lot, but he had choices. And choices, as a high-profile tight end in the world of professional football, meant everything.
Lately, his choices had changed him. The charming, professionally-dedicated man she’d always known had deteriorated into a ghost of himself. For weeks now, Alec had wavered between his usual mischievous, easy-going self one minute and a short-tempered, troublemaking Hulk the next. The man was jeopardizing, not only his own image, but that of the entire Bootleggers franchise. Not to mention the reputation of her father’s publicity firm, O’Brien PR. One more bad move on Alec’s part, and the team’s contract might not be renewed.
It couldn’t happen. Not on her watch.
She had to get strict with him, and she had to start now.
As Ruby strode toward the Bootleggers’ locker room, she focused on the job at hand. She tugged down the hem of her short skirt. She’d been in the middle of a date when her father had interrupted, a desperate phone call about Alec, urgently commanding her to “get that cranky-ass boy under control!” There’d been no time to change. So while she usually wore pressed, buttoned shirts and dark suits to work, right now, she was slaying a sexy black dress, strappy heels, and hair down in loose, fiery waves. Not how she’d choose to have a showdown with any client, least of all Alec, the man she’d crushed on for months.
She’d been drawn to him from the moment she’d first met him, but while he’d been friendly, flirty even, he’d never given her any indication that he was seriously attracted to her. Then, two months ago, after he’d broken up with his cheerleader girlfriend, Colleen, he’d asked her out, multiple times. And what had she done? She’d finally caved, despite the fact she never dated clients, because doing so violated her own rules, yes, but mostly it violated her father’s business policies. In the end, it hadn’t mattered. The date never happened. Instead, the next day, it’d been all over the news—Alec and Colleen were engaged and planning an early October wedding.
To say her heart shattered before it ever got out the gate was an understatement. Water under the bridge, Ruby thought. That weak Ruby was gone now, and she was the woman she’d always been. Professional Ruby. Ruthless Ruby. No-nonsense, Non-Heartbroken Ruby. And here we go…
Pushing those double doors open was the same every time: loud, bright, chaotic, and filled with the pungent smell of sweat and buckets of body spray. Ruby marched through the swarm of players, keeping her peripheral blinders on. Do not look at the naked men. Do not, do not, do not…
For a moment, a sudden silence overtook the locker room, followed by several low whistles. An elongated “damnnnn.” Great. They were checking her out! She should’ve changed out of the dress. Oh, well, too late now. Her stride faltered, and a blush overcame her cheeks a split second before the catcalls ended.
“Hey, Red, ’bout time you got here.” Martinez, the wide receiver from LSU who couldn’t run a simple route to save his life, but could catch a ball with his pinky, shouted at her from his locker. “Ooo, LeBrun’s in trouble now. Look how pissed she is. Ow!” he howled.
She breathed a sigh of relief that the men weren’t going to razz her about her sexy dress. About Alec, yes, but that she could handle. Glancing in his direction but keeping her gaze aimed high, she waved at Martinez. “Be glad it’s not you I’m after,” Ruby said with a smirk.
Several of the boys chuckled. Notably, both quarterback Kyle Young and wide receiver Heath Dawson, Alec’s best friends, were absent, as was Connors, the player Alec had fought with. Were they with him in the medic room? Ruby had already texted Richard James, Connors’ publicist, and would be meeting with him after talking to Alec. As for Young and Dawson? They’d probably cleared out to meet their girlfriends. The men had recently found the loves of their lives and while they, unlike Alec, weren’t letting their football careers suffer, they also made sure the women in their lives were given equal priority.
“We missed you at tonight’s game, Red. We’re used to you being in the stands but looks like you had bigger plans.” That came from Plough, the left offensive end from Ohio State, who needed to get his hands up or he’d be knocked on his ass all season. “I think you’re right, Martinez. She don’t look too happy. Gorgeous but not happy.”
“Hey, Red, how come you never come just to see us? Why it always gotta be LeBrun, LeBrun, LeBrun?” That was Hewitt, rookie quarterback the Bootleggers drafted first round from Stanford. Denser than a bag of bricks, but basically a nice guy who threw beautiful spirals to Alec every time.
“’Cause he’s the only one who needs reprimanding, gentlemen.” Her mind wandered, as she thought about all the ways she wished she could reprimand Alec for his misbehavior. In another world, another lifetime, where publicists and clients ravaged each other as post-game punishment.
None of that, Ruby. Keep it together. Alec just asked you out to fill in the space Colleen left behind when they broke up that first time at the end of the summer. As soon as he had the opportunity to get back together with her, he couldn’t forget about Ruby fast enough. Hell, they’d never even discussed the fact he’d asked her out and she’d accepted—when she’d seen him again, she’d simply congratulated him on his engagement. And though he’d looked tense, like he wanted to say something more, in the end he’d simply said, “Thanks, Ruby,” and walked away.
It hurt. Like a mothereffer. But Ruby was great at moving on, and so she did. Chin up and all that. She never should’ve agreed to a date in the first place.
Past the hoots and hollers, past the ass-staring—she knew they were doing it even with her eyes facing forward—past the not-so-clever quips, Ruby made her way to the medic room where she spied a man sitting on the exam table through the cheap, bent blinds. He faced away from her, as the team doctor dabbed a cotton swab to his cheek. She’d know that strong back anywhere—the twitching ripple of his muscles, the width of his shoulders, the expanse of his delts, the thickness of arms that would never, ever, wrap around her. There he was—Alec LeBrun in all his hot mess glory.
Time to put him in his place.
But then, Dr. Kelstrom—who everyone called Dr. K—turned away from
Alec, revealing his exhausted figure slumped on the table. From the way he ran both hands over his face and shoulders, every line of his body defeated, she knew she couldn’t be ruthless. Crap, this guy needs compassion, not a tongue-lashing, she thought.
When he turned his head slightly, she caught a glimpse of his profile and gasped. Not because Alec’s left eye was swollen and bruised around the butterfly bandage covering what was surely a nasty gash. Not because his bottom lip—such a beautiful mouth—was split.
But because his whole being radiated pain.
And an answering pain began to squeeze her chest.
Despite the fact Alec was obviously mourning the loss of Colleen—it was a safe assumption given the timing of their breakup and Alec’s recent behavior—Ruby wished she could console him. Not as his publicist, but as a woman. Just wrap her arms around him and tell him it’d be okay.
But she couldn’t give into her stupid fantasies. She was here to protect Alec’s career and nothing else. She could talk to him, figure out what was in his mind and heart, but only to do her job. After a deep, long breath, Ruby shoved the door open.
Alec straightened, shoulders stiff. “Is that her?” he asked, peeking over his shoulder. His melodramatic tone clued Ruby in that, despite the hurt she’d witnessed on his face just seconds ago, he was going to play this off as cool.
Let the games begin…
Dr. K winked at Ruby then turned back to Alec. “It’s her.”
“Does she look mad?”
Ruby crossed her arms.
Dr. K glanced at Ruby, gauging her expression. “Oof. Very.”
“Worse than when I got fined for celebratory salsa dancing with that Eagles’ cheerleader in the end zone last week?”
Ruby rolled her eyes.
“Oh, yes. Much, much worse than that, Mr. LeBrun,” Dr. K said with a severe tone.
The giant man with amazing dimples on the medical table shivered. “Worse than two weeks ago, when I took the Ferrari for a test drive a little too long the day before the big game?”
Ruby blew out an impatient breath. She’d almost forgotten that one. The man drove to Miami on a test drive. From Savannah. Georgia. To Miami!
Dr. K nodded. “Oh, yes. I would say five hundred percent worse than that.” The doctor removed his gloves and tossed them in the garbage. He threw away the bandage wrapper, patted Alec on the shoulder, then gave Ruby his customary kiss on each cheek. “Give him hell,” he whispered.
Ruby pursed her lips into a smile. “You know I always do, Dr. K. Connors?”
“Already been cleaned up and is meeting with his publicist as we speak.”
“He look as bad as Alec here?”
Dr. K winced and shrugged, which meant Connors looked worst.
Dr. K slipped out of the examination room. As soon as they were alone, Ruby walked to Alec, heels clicking on the linoleum floor. She rounded the table, finally coming face-to-face with her battered target. She opened her mouth to speak but froze when Alec’s eyes widened, raked over her, then widened again.
“Damn, woman. I know this means a lot to you, but you didn’t have to dress up for me.”
Her lips tightened. “I didn’t dress up for you, Mr. LeBrun. I just came from…somewhere else.” She avoided the truth, fearing it might prompt all sorts of intrusive questions, and frankly, her date was none of his concern.
“Was it a date?” He flashed that pretty smile, the one that rendered all the ladies useless. The one that had no effect on her tonight. Mostly. Partially. “Come on, you can tell me.”
She ignored the question. “Would you mind telling me why you got into a bit of fisticuffs with Connors? You have a press conference in ten minutes, and you need to say something.”
“You were on a date, weren’t you?” His smile dampened a bit. Was he mad about her being on a date? Because he had no right to be after he’d had the chance with her then blew it!
“If I answer your question, will you answer mine?”
His brown eyes disappeared into a narrow-eyed smile. “Always loved your deal-making ways, Red. Yes, I will.”
“Fine. Yes, I was on a date. Was being the operative word. But now, I’m here. Dealing with a big baby who can’t seem to stop getting in trouble.”
“I don’t know about baby,” he said, jumping off the table, hovering near her at his full six-four height. “But you got the big part right.” There was that smile again.
Ruby looked away, biting her bottom lip. She couldn’t look straight at him, especially while he was half-naked, lower half wrapped in only a towel. She fished through her briefcase for a pad of paper and pencil, mostly to keep her eyes busy. “It’s your turn, LeBrun. Spill. Why did you get into a fight? Can’t make love to the woman you want so you’ve decided to make war—even with your own teammates now?”
He flashed her a dark look.
Ouch. That might’ve hit below the belt, but if he could give her a hard time about her date, then she could do the same about his breakup.
“Look, Red, I know things have been…weird. I know I’ve done a few wild things here and there. But I’m not sorry I hit Connors. Fucker deserved it.”
“For what? What did he do?” Ruby asked.
“What did you eat at dinner? Was it lobster? Filet mignon?”
“Why are you being difficult?”
“Why are you interrogating me?” Alec countered, leaning on the desk right across from her.
She felt uncomfortable with him so close, and moved away and into a chair, pretending like it’d been her plan all along. “Because it’s my job to find out why you’re having tantrums in public, Alec. Now answer my question,” she demanded.
He ran his hands through his hair before they fell at his sides. “Look, I’m sorry.”
“You don’t seem sorry. You seem to want to make my job as difficult as possible. I know you’re upset about…things…about Colleen. But this isn’t the way to handle it.”
At the mention of Colleen’s name, Alec’s expression immediately went blank. They stared at one another. And as the moments ticked by, she wondered if she’d suffered some kind of seizure and imagined the pure lust and near-uncontrollable desire that flashed in his eyes just then.
Was he mourning his broken engagement or not?
When it became apparent he wasn’t going to say anything, Ruby took a breath and finally wheeled her chair closer to him. He smelled of fresh shower, soap, shampoo, and pure yumminess. God help me. “Alec, everyone has ups and downs, but broken heart aside, the public spectacles need to stop.”
Alec’s jaw clenched. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She cocked a brow. “I don’t?”
“No. You think you do, but you know nothing.”
“Well, talk to me then. So you didn’t get into a fight because Connors was mouthing off about Colleen? Because that’s the rumor that got back to me.”
Alec closed his eyes in frustration. “Ruby…”
Her spine snapped straight, and she clapped her hands. “Okay, listen. The real reason doesn’t matter. Despite whatever you’re going through right now—and I’m sorry you’re going through it, Alec, I really am—we need to focus on how to keep your career from imploding. That’s priority numero uno. Got it?”
Alec stared at her, as if struggling not to say something, then he slowly transformed, as tension leaked from his body. The charming smile reappeared. That big, wide smile and those perfect white teeth. Damn him. Damn him to heck. He looked out from dark lashes, the ones he knew how to wield like a wizard’s wand.
“Look, Red, I got into a little fight. That’s all. Don’t make it a bigger deal than what it is. Fans love that shit, too, you know.”
“Maybe in the World Wrestling Federation, but not the NFL.”
That shit-eating grin crossed his face again. He bit into it, then shook his head, repressing silent laughter. “Oh, man.”
Her blood began to boil. “So, is that it? You think you can just solve everything with charm? Bring out the ol’ smile, and everything is forgiven?”
Alec rubbed the back of his neck. “A little charm never hurt no one, ma’am.”
Ruby frowned. “Don’t ma’am me, LeBrun.”
“Then don’t LeBrun me.” The chastising look he shot her may as well have been a hard slap to her ass. A rough clenching together of both her hands and a turning of her body to face a wall while he felt every contour of her body with those massive, athletic hands of his.
Ruby wiped a bead of sweat off her forehead.
She tore her gaze away from his and clicked her pen open. “Enough of this. We need to get you ready for the press. We need to find a way to spin why you were fighting with your own teammate.”
“Do you want to get dinner afterward?”
Really? Asking her out while there was a crisis at hand? He had to be biding for attention. Ignore him. “Already ate.” She brushed him off, determined to get through this process. “We know the fight with Connors is going to be the first thing they’re going to ask you. There’s no point in dancing around it, because that will just drag it out.”
“Where’d you eat?”
“Bertoni’s,” she said quickly. “Okay, we can’t go with the ‘It won’t happen again, it was just a one-time hot, stupid moment,’ because this is the third moment in just as many weeks.”
“With the breadsticks and the salad? Who’d you go with?”
Ruby tried to focus on her pen moving across the page, on the words that would appear, not only in print, but in audio clips across morning radio shows tomorrow. She resisted the temptation to meet his eyes. “My date. Can you please focus? Like, for two minutes, can you focus? Your public image is at stake here, Alec.”
“Who was he?”
“Who’d you go out with? I’m curious about the kind of man you’d date, considering how hard I had to work to get you to say yes to me.”
She slapped down the pen and glared at him. “Ah, but the fact is I did say yes to you. You’re the one who cancelled. Why was it again? Oh, yes, because you got engaged the very next day.” You dropped me like a hot potato for the bitchiest cheerleader of them all. Nice, Alec, nice. “Can we drop the subject now?”
Damn it, she’d let him get to her. Her bitterness was showing, and now he could easily see how much it had pissed her off.
He stood and reached out to her. “Ruby—”
“No!” She backed up.
“I can explain.”
The time for that was a long time ago, she almost said. “There’s nothing to explain. It should’ve never happened. You’re my client. I’m your publicist. One who’s currently in danger of losing her job because my father doesn’t think I can handle a hotshot like you.”
“Is that what he said?” Something in Alec’s face seemed, for a second, to show remorse. Like, actual remorse for his chain of stupidities. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been fucking up, I know. But all this shit will get sorted out, I promise.”
“It has to.” She stared at him, letting that sink in. “Because if it doesn’t, I’m out of a job, you could lose next year’s contract, and my father’s firm could lose theirs, too. This isn’t a joke. It’s time to cut the shit. Are we clear…Mr. LeBrun?”
If that didn’t get through to him, nothing would.
“Yeah. We’re clear.” He folded his arms over his chest, boosting the thickness of his muscles, and holy hell, even his veins had veins on them.
“Good.” She forced herself to look down at her notes, though everything on the paper was a blur. “So, about the press conference…you and Connor need to present a united front. Show remorse but shake hands and all that. It’ll tell the reporters it was a minor scuffle. I just need to find Connors’ publicist and confirm Connors will cooperate.”
She made a big show about collecting her things, packing up, and pretending she didn’t care he was staring at her with that inscrutable look on his face. But he was, and her chest fluttered with something she couldn’t explain. Why—if ultimately, Ruby knew Alec was bad for her—did her body react so opposite from her brain?
Alec leaned into her. She smelled his goodness from a mile away. Her brain conjured up images of his arms around her, her hands running along that streamlined, gorgeous back, fingertips bouncing over those eighteen-pack abs. His scent made her head spin and thighs squeeze closer in aching need.
He picked up her hand, the one busy trying to zip up her case before the big bad wolf snatched her treats out of her basket. “Did you laugh a lot?”
She pulled her hand out of his. “What do you mean?”
“During your date. Did you laugh, smile, make him feel on top of the world, or did you put him through the ringer like you just put me?”
“I’ve had enough of this.” Ruby stood, sending the chair spinning away behind her to clatter noisily against the wall.
“Because I kind of liked it, Ruby. I gotta admit. That was hot.”
“You’re impossible.” She ripped her talking points from the notepad and shoved them against his chest. She didn’t let herself feel his pec under her palm. Instead, she walked away. “Stick to the script. And please wear the suit I ordered you. The one that makes you look like a responsible man, not a child prone to playground fights.”
At the look on his face, she almost felt bad for what she said. But then she remembered her date. Despite the fact she’d been bored out of her mind and half-glad her father had called her with an excuse to cut the date short, it was still Alec’s fault she’d had to cancel personal time to deal with this. As such, he was the one who should be apologizing.
But those muscular thighs, defined abs, and wide shoulders had no intention of apologizing. “Watch it, Red. I’ve had a hard day. Call me a child one more time…”
“And you don’t want to find out,” he replied. “I know you have to bust my balls a bit, because of what I did, but I’m warning you, you’re pushing it with the whole mommy scolding thing. I told you I’ll sort all this out. And a promise is a promise.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right. I might seem like I don’t care, but when I promise something, I stick to it.” In his eyes, she saw he was dead serious. Still, she’d heard this one too many times.
Ruby scoffed. “That’s what you said last time, Alec. You’re all words and no action. See you out there.” She turned at the door, happy about the way she’d handled the confrontation. Firm, not too weak, resolute. Good job, she congratulated herself.
But something she said must’ve set him off.
“Oh, Ruby…” he drawled, the warning in his voice crystal clear.
She slowed down to look back and check his face for clues.
“I’m all action, Ruby. Even after all this time together, I guess you don’t have the faintest clue about who I am. We have to change that, don’t we?” Then, he did the unthinkable. He dropped his towel, exposing the full Alec LeBrun, and headed straight for her.
Appendages saluting. And swelling.
A child he wasn’t. HOLY. HELL.
He paused, hands on his hips, willing her to look her fill, before he brushed past her and strolled out of the medic room.
Ruby swallowed the lump in her throat and tried to breathe. Just one breath would be good. Oxygen was her friend. But she couldn’t speak, couldn’t have the last word. Damn Alec. He knew the effect his stunt was having on her, too, because he turned around and caught her staring at his ass down the hallway.
His grin was no longer smartass as much as wolfish.
The game was now 6-0, and Alec LeBrun was in the lead.