Book 1 | Kansas City Griffins Series
SHE’S THE LAST THING HE NEEDS . . . TOO BAD SHE’S ALL HE WANTS.
Quarterback TALON “DASH” JANSSEN just had his big break threatened by the league scandal of the year. The last thing he needs is a relentless reporter digging through his life, especially one he used to date. She used him once to get a story. It wouldn’t happen twice, even if seeing her again does set his body on fire.
To save her job, sports reporter NAOMI PELLIER needs an exclusive on the truth behind the rumors surrounding professional football’s favorite bad boy. But facing Dash revives feelings she thought long buried. This time, saving her career might mean losing her heart
Dash Janssen wanted to hit someone. White-hot heat boiled through his veins and fired his blood way past angry to downright pissed. Beneath a sun-drenched September sky, he tamped down the itch to strike out and forced himself to put one foot in front of the other.
A black microphone flew towards him, halting mere centimeters from his face. He jerked to a stop. A plague of reporters—who swarmed like locusts outside the downtown headquarters of the Kansas City Report newspaper—pressed close. Instead of crops, the hungry throng devoured his peace of mind and nibbled at the edges of his professional future.
“Janssen, who’s the guy in the picture?” A balding newspaperman with an eager face shuffled forward.
A television broadcaster cut him off. “Janssen, how long have you two been an item?”
Dash reversed direction, turning away from the interrogators. More questions bombarded him from the other side. The commotion caused by the relentless bunch, their jockeying cameramen and shutter-happy photographers, grated against his eardrums and created bedlam on the otherwise calm city block.
No comment, Dash told himself. Just say no comment and keep moving.
His agent and publicist had briefed him thoroughly. He wasn’t to react or respond to the press, and he certainly couldn’t hit one. He’d made that mistake once, and it hadn’t gone over so well. If he ended up with another fine from the Kansas City Griffins organization or the NFL Commissioner, he’d be screwed.
Another black mic swooped towards him, nearly hitting him in the mouth. Pain radiated through the molars he clenched to refrain from swearing out loud. He believed in the First Amendment, but when journalists practically mauled you while shoving one microphone after another in your face, you should have the right to defend yourself.
“Janssen, how have your teammates reacted to finding out you’re gay?”
He didn’t think his teammates gave a crap whom he slept with, but that was beside the point. His sleeping habits—or, more accurately, what he did in bed while not sleeping—shouldn’t warrant this farce. It wasn’t anybody’s business.
“Janssen, why did you choose to hide your sexual orientation?”
Dash’s hands fisted at his sides. “I’m not gay,” he said in clipped tones. He hated that his pro athlete status turned this gossip into breaking news. He’d worked hard to keep a low profile after his last faux pas. Now, all his efforts to stay out of the headlines amounted to naught. Just his luck, the press couldn’t be content to twist the facts of real events any more. They had to start manufacturing their own.
“So, you’re saying you’re bisexual?”
Aw, hell. Not the direction he intended to take this media circus. “No. That’s not what I’m saying.” So much for no comment. His agent and publicist were going to kill him.
The Griffins owner hated scandal and negative publicity of any nature. The press had already branded Dash as a hot head and featured him in several R-rated headlines over the last season and a half. He couldn’t afford to be at the center of another gossip-rag-worthy story highlighting sexual behavior that would place him opposite the owner’s conservative values—again. The guy already didn’t like him.
He’d been warned: one more misstep and they’d bench him for so many games his season would in essence be over. He couldn’t have that. With the starting quarterback temporarily out due to injury, he finally had the opportunity to show what he could do as more than a backup and position himself to take the first string spot permanently. He had no intention of letting this fiasco derail his chances.
Tilting his wrist, he checked the time on the face of the analog watch centered on a well-worn brown leather band. Ten minutes. He had exactly ten minutes to get inside for the meeting his agent had scheduled. How he’d manage that and keep his cool he couldn’t fathom, but somehow he had to get through this mob so his personal representatives could handle business. Someone needed to start doing damage control, like yesterday. In his opinion, his people should have immediately sent out a press release and skipped this diplomatic powwow.
Screw diplomacy. He wanted the rag shut down and the job of the cretin who had phonied up that picture of him kissing another man.
He pushed through the buzzing paparazzi, whose fingers clicked furiously. Tension settled into Dash’s muscles. After hours of practice, he craved a soak in his hot tub, a full body massage, and a woman wouldn’t be bad. He’d showered away the sweat he’d worked up earlier on the field, but the heat from his frustration had his perspiration back on the rise. His jeans and athletic t-shirt clung to his damp skin, doing little to improve his disposition.
Dealing with this media nightmare, while trying to mind his Ps and Qs, felt like torture. He’d welcome needles under the fingernails before he’d willingly walk this gauntlet again. Luckily, the Report’s front entrance stood only twelve short feet ahead. Once he got inside those revolving glass doors, he’d be free. The vultures couldn’t follow him inside the building.
“Dash, come on. Give us something here,” someone begged.
Dash shook his head and kept walking.
“Dash, surely, you have to know your fans are curious about that photo?” a honeyed voice asked. “Especially with starting quarterback Shave Stephens out and you leading the team for the next few weeks.”
Naomi. He knew that smooth as molasses Southern cadence without having to see her face. He slowly turned to his left. Time suspended as his eyes tracked the crowd then locked on the sports journalist with whom he’d had an affair almost three years ago. She, out of anyone here, should know he was all heterosexual male. He shot her a look that telegraphed that thought, but she only smirked. He should have known. Hell hath no fury after all.
“Are you here because you’re planning to sue the Kansas City Report for the article it ran yesterday?” Naomi finessed her way to the front of the crowd and stopped about a foot away from him.
He swallowed the lump in his throat. She looked good. She always looked good. From the moment he’d first seen her at a league party, he’d been attracted to her like steel to a high-powered magnet. That night she’d worn only a simple black cocktail dress and clear stilettos, but she’d taken his breath away. The dress’s skinny straps had shown off her tempting shoulders and neckline. She’d tamed her mass of long, curly dark hair into some fancy up-do and worn no bling except a pair of diamond studs in her ears. The warm glow of her light brown skin and her luscious curves had been all the adornment she’d needed.
His gaze moved up and settled on her face. She still took his breath away.
Today, she’d gathered her thick mane into a scrunchie placed high on her head and let her wild curls cascade down behind her ears. The large drop earrings she wore nearly brushed her shoulders. Their five uneven strands of tiny, dangling beads matched the color of the coral blouse she’d paired with tailored black slacks.
His eyes roamed over her lower half. She had a great pair of legs. Her designer pants currently shielded them from view, but he remembered what those long, shapely legs had looked like. More significant, he remembered what they had felt like wrapped around him in the heat of passion.
For a moment, longing assaulted him, stealthy longing so deep it reached beneath the years of resentment he harbored and tightened his chest in the vicinity of his heart. The unexpected bout of sentimentality caused unease to trickle along his nerve endings.
Naomi’s jewel green eyes narrowed, hinting she suspected he’d taken a stroll down Memory Lane.
Dash mentally shook himself. He covered his emotional slip with a cold stare. “Ms. Pellier, you know the drill. Any official questions regarding legal matters should be forwarded to my lawyer.”
She frowned, not happy with his response or his proper form of address. Tough. Once upon a time, he’d given her special access to his life. Then she’d betrayed him and acted such a nuisance after their breakup he’d cut her off completely.
He’d never intended for their relationship to go the long haul, but her underhanded act had accelerated their inevitable breakup. The premature end to their interlude had blindsided him. He’d thoroughly enjoyed Naomi. He’d gelled with her in ways he’d never experienced with any other woman, and they’d proved extremely compatible sexually—in bed, in the kitchen, and anywhere else he could get her primed and willing. For her to take part in this misdirected homosexual outing struck him as not only absurd, but also disloyal. Leave it to her to betray him yet again.
“So, are you saying your lawyer is meeting you here now?” a masculine voice asked from behind him.
Dash ignored the follow-up question, nodded a dismissal at Naomi, and strong-armed his way towards Report headquarters. His brash movement knocked Naomi off balance. His hand shot out, landing on her hip. Pulling her to him, he placed his other hand on her opposite hip and steadied her. The familiar scent of her sweet perfume wafted up, eliciting an olfactory Pavlovian response in his nether region.
His fingers tensed against the rayon blend of her slacks. Their close proximity made it impossible for her to miss the hardness Mother Nature wouldn’t let him control. Twin emerald pools with the power to undo a man focused on his face. The look in those eyes had gone from haughty to questioning. The pulse at her neck beat erratically, and Noami’s lips parted to release light breaths, syncopated in time with her gently heaving bosom.
Dash’s mind drifted once again to the erotic before he caught himself. Leaning in, he whispered for her ears alone, “You know better than this, Naomi.”
With a glare, he moved her aside and entered the building. His long-time agent, Pete Daniels, paced a dull path onto the shiny black tile in front of the elevator bay.
Pete looked up. “It’s about time,” he fussed and steered Dash into a waiting elevator.
Right before the elevator doors closed, Dash glanced out the glass front of the building and caught Naomi’s vexed stare. She challenged him with a tilt of her head, letting him know he hadn’t shaken her bravado. His lips pressed into a thin line. He slid his hands into his pant pockets and wondered what her next move would be.
* * *
Naomi willed her pulse to a normal rate as she watched Dash enter the building. Part of her wanted to throw her digital recorder at his head. The other part wanted to follow him into the building, corner him in an elevator, and strip him naked.
Okay, maybe she needed to rethink that strip him naked part. She was investigating the legitimacy of a photo showing him in a liplock with another man.
Dash, homosexual? She’d never had even a hint of suspicion. She couldn’t claim to be an expert judge of a man’s sexual orientation, but she’d spent enough time with her gay friends that she’d picked up a bit of their gaydar. Had she missed the signs with Dash?
The Kansas City Report had released the kiss picture via its online news magazine so the item had gone viral. When she’d first seen the photo, she’d immediately dismissed it as a fake. She’d waited for a statement from Dash’s camp denouncing the picture as a phony or PhotoShop magic. When such a denouncement hadn’t come, the doubts had set in—doubts about what had been real between them and what may have been cover for a man on the down-low.
Only moments ago, Dash had publicly denied being gay . . . or bisexual. Her gut wanted to trust that, but for the first time, she found herself second-guessing her reporter’s intuition. The ex-girlfriend side of her, the part with a vested interest in the story being false, might be throwing her reporter sense out of whack.
Through the wall of glass fronting the newspaper building, she spied Dash greeting his agent. The footballer cut a sexy swag—tall, tan, lean, and built. When he’d glared at her with those light-brown, almost amber, eyes she loved so much, her heart had turned over in her chest despite the animosity that simmered in the chocolate-rimmed irises.
A silent curse reverberated through her mind at the injustice. He obviously didn’t have any residual feelings from their past. The look he’d first given her, like he could see through her slacks, had suggested a contrary tale, but his words made his position clear. The Ice Prince reigned supreme—despite the evidence of the unexpected, lingering physical attraction he hadn’t been able to hide.
A hormonal tingle jolted through her at the memory of his arousal. She reined in her awakening libido and sighed. No way would she go down that road again. Dash had a PhD in keeping his sex drive cordoned off from his emotions. She’d learned that the hard way.
Inside the building, Dash looked out at her. She gave a brusque nod of her head right before the elevator swallowed him and Pete. Once he’d disappeared from view, her elevated blood pressure leveled and her thoughts slid to her designated mission: get the scoop on the origin and meaning behind that picture of Dash seemingly kissing another man. She needed this story. More importantly, she needed an exclusive. Whatever it took, she had to find a way to get Dash to talk to her.
She looked around for his car. Nothing.
Shoving her recorder into her oversized tote, she walked across the four-lane street to the facing coffee bar. A tall white chocolate latte with a double shot of espresso called to her. She dug out her wallet and answered with enthusiasm. Nose hovering above the tiny oval in the travel lid, she let the sweet aroma of chocolate-laced caffeine settle over her agitated psyche. A few sips of the endorphin-producing liquid and the Dash-induced fog around her brain would be history.
She took a trey of long, deep drags from the coffee cup and moaned softly in appreciation as the warm decadence slid down her throat. Equilibrium restored, she grabbed a table in a quiet, windowed corner to puzzle out her dilemma. Her boss had given her a directive—laced with a threat—before she left the office. If she didn’t get first shot at this story, she could consider her career at The Sports Daily over.
A long, noisy breath escaped her. She dropped her head to the faux wood table, its surface warmed by the afternoon sun slanting through the windowpane, and rapped her forehead a few times against the toasty laminate. She should have seen this coming. Her editor had never liked having a female on his staff. Her relationship drama with Dash had only reinforced his opinion that women and professional sports don’t mix, and the leave of absence she’d taken shortly after the breakup hadn’t helped matters.
Her phone rang. She glanced at the screen. Great. Speak of the devil.
She picked up the phone and accepted the call. “This is Naomi.”
“So, what’d you find out?” Her boss got right to the point. No preamble. No hello. The man had the personality of a dead fish.
“Dash is inside Report headquarters at the moment. He gave no comment on the way in.”
“If you wait for him to give a comment, every paper in the nation will have the story. What’s the point? I figured you’d have a leg up. Use your influence with him.” He snickered. “Or maybe that’s not so easy now that you’re not sleeping with him.”
Her hand tightened on the phone. Prick. “I’ve got this, Bill. I’ll meet with Dash when he comes out.”
“See that you do. It’s been awhile since you’ve turned in anything of substance.”
And whose fault was that? she wanted to say. He’d intentionally kept her busy since her return with assignments that amounted to nothing but fluff pieces. “I’ll get the story. You can count on it.”
“Good. If you can’t get me an exclusive on this story, you’re really of no use to me.”
Yeah. Yeah. As if she hadn’t heard him the first time he’d dropped that hint. She closed her eyes, willing her voice to a tone that would disguise her budding temper. “I need to go. Dash will be out any minute.” She clicked off without saying goodbye. She knew how to ferret out a story, and she didn’t need the threat of unemployment to do it.
Fuming, she reached into the portfolio folder peeking out of her tote and pulled out a color printout of the infamous photo. She was torn. She knew how much Dash hated being in the spotlight for this type of nonsense. Despite the way they’d ended things, the last thing she wanted was to cause him any additional turmoil, but she couldn’t afford to lose her only source of income with no other job prospects on the horizon.
This story was news. It wasn’t going away anytime soon. If she didn’t report on it, someone else would. Someone elses already were. They just hadn’t delved beneath the surface. Didn’t she owe it to Dash to get the story right? It would be in both their interests. Surely, he’d understand that and give her the chance to play it upfront this time.
She studied the photo closely. Everyone had accepted what it showed at face value. She didn’t buy it. Something wasn’t right about the picture. Dash’s image was off somehow. She couldn’t quite put her finger on the discrepancy, but her gut gnawed at her. Trusting her instincts this time, she pushed away the uncharacteristic self-doubt that had spawned her prior wishy-washy thoughts.
Dash Janssen gay? Like he said, she knew better. A bigger story lurked behind what everyone else had accepted as obvious. She’d stake her career on it.
“And you’re about to,” she muttered under her breath before checking the time.
Nearly fifty minutes had passed since Dash entered the building. Time to get moving and figure out a plan to get him alone. She planned to find out the truth behind that photo, and she had no intention of letting a pigheaded jock of an ex-boyfriend stand in her way.
* * *
Dash glanced over his shoulder as he approached the corner two blocks down the street from the back of Kansas City Report headquarters. He couldn’t believe that crowd of journalism piranhas had waited a full two hours for his meeting to finish.
He didn’t see anyone following him so he darted around the corner and set off at a jog across the middle of the street. He weaved through the parked vehicles in the public parking lot situated on the opposite corner then crossed another street and darted into the alley between two red brick buildings at least eighteen stories high.
He looked both ways to confirm no one followed him. Reassured, he slowed his pace and strode towards the nondescript white Hyundai SUV he’d tucked behind a large, hunter green trash dumpster. He kept the Hyundai for outings such as these, outings during which he preferred to remain invisible. No one looked for a QB of a top-tier team to drive around town in one of these. Plus, the heavy, smoky-black tint dressing the windshield and windows kept him shielded from peeping eyes.
He shoved a hand in his pants pocket for his car keys. The jangle echoed in the shaded silence of the alley. When he stepped around the dumpster, he froze. His fingers pricked against the sharp angles of the keys he choked with an annoyed fist and his jaw tensed.
He studied the surprise propped against the hood of his car. “Naomi.” His voice came out like crushed gravel beneath the wheels of an angry eighteen wheeler. “Just as resourceful as ever I see.”
She crossed her arms against her chest and her stylish boot pumps ankle over ankle. “Hello again, Dash. How about you answer a few questions for me now?”
“No.” He stepped behind the dumpster, passed her perch against the hood of his car, and slid between the brick of the east building and his driver’s side door. He unlocked the car remotely with his key fob. “You’ll have to find another way to get your story, just like the rest of the vultures.”
When he moved to get in his car, Naomi darted to the opposite side and hopped in, too.
Dash dropped his head against the tan leather headrest and gripped his nose with his thumb and index finger. He released a sigh. “Not now, Naomi. This isn’t a good time.”
“When will be a good time, Dash? You give me a firm commitment to talk to me any time in the next twenty-four hours, and I’m out of here.”
He stared at her silently.
“That’s what I thought.” She placed her tote on the floor. “I’m not getting out until you talk to me.”
“Fine.” He grabbed his mirrored sunglasses from the flip-down cubby above the rearview mirror and positioned them on his face. “Have it your way.” He started the car and looked out the back window as he zipped in reverse away from the dumpster.
Naomi snapped on her seatbelt. “Where are we going?”
“I’m going home. You—” He looked her up and down. “You can go wherever the hell you like when I stop, but you’re not coming in with me.”
She stiffened beside him. “Don’t do that, Dash,” she said quietly.
“Do what?” He put the car in Drive, but didn’t pull off.
“Play the asshole.” She didn’t look at him. “I don’t deserve it. Whatever you think about what happened between us in the past, let it go. It’s over. Right now, you’re a professional football player in the middle of a breaking story, and I’m a reporter who wants the scoop. No more, no less.” She finally turned her head his way. “How about we both act like grownups and take it from there?”
Her eyes darkened to a deep jade, a color experience had taught him to associate with her rising ire. Naomi turned fierce, and sexy as hell, when her Louisiana Creole blood got riled. That familiar tingle that started in his chest and settled in his groin whenever he got near her reasserted itself, unsettling him.
Naomi squinted when he didn’t respond. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the shades. She’d always made him take off his sunglasses when they talked so she could see his eyes. She’d said his eyes told her so much more than his words. Knowing this, he kept them on to spite her.
Eyes back on the road, he drove out of the alley. Through the quiet left by the off radio, he felt her continued stare. Flicking his attention back to her face, he caught something soft and vulnerable in her eyes before she looked away quickly.
Thrown by the havoc her expression wreaked on all the cells that made him male, his hand flexed on the steering wheel. He stopped himself from audibly hauling in a breath over the punch of desire that hit him like a demolition ball to the gut. He still wanted her.
After Naomi, he’d had no steady woman. No matter with whom or how long he had sex, he couldn’t get satisfied. Naomi had always satisfied him. In fact, sometimes being with her had made him feel too . . . everything. It had scared him a bit. A loner by nature, the thought that he might need her in his life had put him on edge in their last days together. When she’d shown her true colors, he’d almost felt relief at the knowledge that—like everyone else—she couldn’t be trusted.
After he broke things off with her, he’d gone back to being alone. His meaningless, periodic sexual hookups didn’t count. Naomi’s presence in his car, the heady fragrance of her perfume, the thought of what lie beneath the fabric of her slacks, combined to make him want something other than his usual empty interludes. They didn’t need a love match. The biology of it, he had no doubt, would still be explosive. His manhood perked at the thought.
Damn. How could he not be over this, over her, after all this time?
His gaze swung to her legs. He reached over and slid his palm down her panted thigh to her knee. She flinched. He grinned. He still got to her as well. Good.
Without looking at him, she removed his hand and dropped it on the leather-wrapped gearshift. Her warm touch made him remember the strength and seductive power in those long fingers of hers. He wanted to feel them all over his body again if only for a brief rendezvous.
He pulled up to the two-story, black wrought iron gate that guarded the driveway to his Johnson County show home. He hit the automatic gate opener and watched as the gates groaned open. Anticipation rippled over him at the thought of entering his home with Naomi in tow. He should make the most of this opportunity. He could get the reporter in her off his back and take the edge off this oppressive sexual need in one fell swoop.
Could she feel this unresolved . . . something . . . between them?
He glanced her way before he put the SUV back in motion. “This is your last chance to make a gracious get away. If you come in, you’re not leaving until you get naked, horizontal, and wrapped around me for at least three hours.”
She gave him a look that said yeah right.
He drove up the stone circle drive and parked opposite his front door. His mouth slid sideways in a crooked grin. “Okay. The horizontal part is optional. I always did love taking you standing up.”
She shivered, but lifted her chin. He secretly enjoyed knowing he’d gotten her dander up. Naomi never could back away from a challenge. He waited to see what she would do, curious as to how bad she wanted this story.
“Naked, huh?” She got out of the car and looked across the top as he unfolded himself from the driver’s seat. “It’ll take a better bluff than that to scare me off, Dash.”
“Bluff?” He fingered his sunglasses to the edge of his nose, tilting his head down to look over the frames at her. His eyebrow peaked. “You think I’m bluffing?”
“Yeah, I do.” She turned and headed for the front door.
Dash watched the sweet outline of her butt in those high-end slacks she wore. The sway of her hips mesmerized him. His body’s enthusiastic response to the sight filled the space behind his zipper until the painful press of his jeans made him want to groan out loud.
He shut the car door. Bluffing? Like hell he was.
* * * End Excerpt * * *
© Copyright 2016, Lisa Rayne. All Rights Reserved.