The Perfect PlayJaci Burton
Author: Jaci Burton ONE
SWEAT DRIPPED DOWN MICK RILEY’S FACE AND ARMS. The field workout he’d just endured had kicked his ever-lovin’ ass. He leaned against the wall of the locker room, the cool brick and ice-cold water in his hands not helping at all to lower his temperature. He was hot and sweaty, and he’d been knocked on the ground so many times he’d probably eaten half the dirt on the field.
He was exhausted and not in the damn mood for a party tonight. What he’d really like to do is take a cold shower, go home, and order a pizza. Instead, he had to put on a tux and a smile, and hang out in a ballroom with the rest of his team, the San Francisco Sabers of the National Football League. There’d be photographers, television cameras, and probably a horde of women who wanted to hang on him.
Years ago that would have been the highlight of his night.
When had he gotten so tired of it all? Hell, when had he gotten old?
He stripped off his practice jersey and tossed it to the ground, pulled off his pads and breathed a sigh of relief, then grabbed a towel and wiped the sweat from his face. He unlaced his pants, drained the water from his jug, and went to the fountain to refill it.
That’s when he heard a voice outside the locker room. A woman’s voice.
What was a woman doing down here? He popped the door open and saw a gorgeous blonde standing a few feet down the hall, twirling around in circles and mumbling to herself. Man, she was a sight with her business skirt that skimmed her knees, her high heels showcasing her gorgeous legs, and her crisp white blouse and pulled-up hair. All prim and proper, and she made him think dirty thoughts about getting her crisp white shirt all mussed up.
“I should have taken a left. I know it was a left. You dummy, now you’re going to be lost in this cavern forever, and you’re going to get fired. ”
He leaned against the doorway as she stared down the long hall, tapped her high-heeled shoe, and mumbled some more.
“Where the hell is the office, anyway? It can’t be in the friggin’ basement of this place. ”
“No, it’s not down here. ”
She whirled, seemingly embarrassed to be caught talking to herself. Her eyes widened for a fraction of a second, then she headed in his direction. “Oh. Thank God. A living human being. Can you help me? I’m so lost. ”
“Sure. You need the office?”
She stopped in front of him, and she smelled so damn good—like spring and cookies or something—that he was embarrassed, because he sure as hell didn’t smell like anything appealing.
“Take a right turn, then at the first hallway go left. You’ll find the elevators. Punch the button for the top floor. When you get off, turn left again and go to the end of the hall. The main office is there. ”
She studied him, then gave him a wide smile. “You’re my hero. I was afraid I was going to be lost down here forever and I’d never get these contracts signed. I have to run. Thank you!”
She turned and practically sprinted down the hall, though how she could run on those shoes was something he’d never understand about women.
She sure was beautiful, but not in the way he was used to. She wasn’t overly made up, so her beauty was natural. She wasn’t the kind of woman he usually went for. Maybe that’s what he liked about her.
And he hadn’t even bothered to introduce himself. Or get her name.
Too bad, because he could have sworn there’d been a spark between them.
Then again, it might have just been his imagination. He could just need a slap of cold water to lower his body temperature. Too much heat today.
He went back inside, grabbed the towel, and headed for the shower.
AS KICK-ASS EVENTS WENT, TARA LINCOLN THOUGHT this one might be the best she’d ever put together. And it damn well better be, because it could generate more work for her, and The Right Touch needed all the business it could get.
Event planning the team summer party for the San Francisco Sabers had been a stroke of luck. The owner’s assistant had gotten her card from the usual team planner, who was booked solid on the date they wanted to have the party.
It had taken four months of nearly nonstop work, but as Tara took another turn around the ballroom, she nodded in satisfaction. They’d pulled it off. From the glittery yet understated NFL team decorations to the amazing food to the bar setup to the incredible band, it was perfect, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Tara mingled, earpiece tucked unobtrusively in her ear so she was only seconds away from hearing about a disaster, answering any questions, or getting help if someone needed it. So far, all the crises had been minor ones. She monitored bar stock, checked with catering to be sure the food was hot and plentiful, and meandered in and around the crowds. No one complained, and the smiling faces all around her told her everyone was focused on what they should be focused on—football and having a good time—which meant she could take a step back and simply observe.
The band was kicking, the crowd was thick on the dance floor, media was in attendance taking pictures of the star players, coaches were giving interviews, and for the first time that night, Tara exhaled as she leaned against the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that showcased the beautiful city.
“Why aren’t you out there dancing?”
She lifted her gaze to the six and a half foot hunk of gorgeous man in a tux who’d stepped up in front of her. Black hair, striking blue eyes: she knew exactly who he was—Mick Riley, San Francisco’s star quarterback, and her savior from earlier today. She’d been so rattled after having gotten lost in the basement of the team’s practice facility that it hadn’t even registered who he was until the elevator had taken her to the top floor. Okay, not just rattled, but a little tongue-tied. Who wouldn’t be when faced with a shirtless, sweaty, gorgeous hunk of muscle? God’s gift to women. Good Lord, he’d looked sexy. Unfortunately, all she could do at the time was ask for directions.
But then her synapses had fired, and she’d realized who she’d been talking to.
Mick Riley. The Mick Riley. Everyone who lived here knew who he was. Everyone who watched football knew him, too, no matter where they lived. His endorsement contracts put him on every television in America, and probably overseas, too, hawking a variety of products from deodorant to power tools. He was an icon, the all-American success story. And damn fine looking, too.
“We met earlier today,” he said.
“Yes, we did. And thank you again for the directions to the office. ”
“You’re welcome. So, you’re a guest here tonight?”
She offered up a smile. “No. I’m not a guest. ”
He arched a brow. “Party crasher, huh?”
She laughed. “No, I’m the event planner. ”
“Is that right? You did a good job. ”
Oh, man, she was getting warm all over. “Thank you. I’m glad you think so. ”
“Not that I know a damn thing about throwing a fancy party, but I like to eat, and the food was good. There’s plenty of name-brand booze behind the bar, and the band is kick-ass. ”
Okay, her cheeks hurt from smiling so much. “Thank you again. ”
Now if he would only say all those things to Irvin Stokes, the owner of the team. That would go a long way toward cementing her future.
“How late do you have to work?”
She tilted her head back and frowned. Was he hitting on her? She scanned the crowd, going blind from all the stunning female beauty in the room, many of whom had their gazes trained on Mick. Surely Tara was just misjudging his politeness for something else.
; “I stay until the last person goes home. ”
He laughed, and the dark husky tone skittered down her spine. “Honey, you could be up all night, then. These guys know how to close down a party. ”
That’s what she expected, why she’d told the hotel they’d want the room for the entire night and guaranteed overtime for the band and extra staff for catering and the bar. “I do what needs to be done. ”
“And you look fine doing it. How come you’re not wearing one of those butler outfits or a white apron?”
“I’m just the event planner. Everyone else does the real work. ”
“So you get to dress up, supervise, make sure every play goes off without a fumble. ”
“Something like that. ”
“And look good in case someone wants to talk to you about booking a party. ”
“Perceptive, aren’t you. ”
“And they say football players are dumb. ”
She liked this guy. He was funny and smart, but she still didn’t understand why he was talking to the help when the cream of the crop was here.
“I should probably move on,” she said.
“Someone beeping you in your earpiece or screaming for help?”
“Well . . . no. ”
He scanned the ballroom. “Something on fire somewhere or some high-strung chef in need of a Valium?”
Her lips quirked. “No. ”
He moved toward her and took her hand, then slipped her arm in his. “Then you don’t really have to move on, do you?”
“I guess not. ”
“Good. I’m Mick Riley. ”
“Tara Lincoln. ”
“Nice to meet you, Tara Lincoln. ” He walked her away from the crowd, outside the ballroom.
“I really should . . . ”
“You have communication central in your ear. If something comes up, someone will holler. And your job is to make sure your guests are happy, right?”
“I’m a guest, and I’d like to get the hell out of this ballroom and talk to you. Which means you’re doing your job in making sure I’m happy. ”
True enough, though for some reason she felt like she’d just been blindsided by a lineman.
And now who was thinking in football terms?
He sat her down on one of the cushioned benches in the outer lobby area beyond the ballroom. She had to admit it was blissfully quiet away from the noise of the party. And oh, what she wouldn’t give to be able to slip out of her heels for just a few minutes. But looking fashionable was required, even if it hurt. “Why aren’t you inside partying it up with your teammates?”
He shrugged. “Needed a break. ”
“You needed a break from that awesome party I put together?”
“Your party is fine,” he said, leaning back and resting his arm over the back of the bench. “I’m just not a party kind of guy. Standing around making small talk just isn’t my thing. ”
“And yet I see you in magazines at nearly every big event in New York and Los Angeles and here in San Francisco. Right in the center of it all, usually with some gorgeous woman right next to you. ”
His lips quirked in a devastatingly sexy smile that made her belly quiver. “That’s just PR, honey. ”
“Uh-huh. That’s not what the tabloids say. ”
She felt his arm brush against her back. Very disconcerting.
“Don’t tell me you buy into those rags. ”
“Don’t tell me all those women you’ve been hanging out with for the past ten years have been just arm candy and nothing more. ”
“Okay, you’ve got me there. But I’ve never been seriously involved with any of them. ”
“So you’re saying you’re a man whore?”
He choked out a laugh. “Wow. You don’t hold back, do you?”
She smiled at him. “Just call them as I see them. ”
“Don’t believe everything you see on TV and read in the magazines. That’s not who I am. ”
“Really. And who are you?”
“Hang out with me after this is over, and you can find out. ”
He was definitely hitting on her. No doubt about it. And she had no clue why. But admittedly, it felt good. Star quarterback, fine-looking, and it had been a long time since a man paid attention to her. Plus there were some stunning women inside that ballroom, and for some reason he’d chosen her. Her ego had just climbed a few rungs up the ladder. Okay, maybe it had climbed to the top of the ladder.