Playing Hard

Playing Hard by Melanie Scott

Book 4 in the New York Saints series

Publication date: 2 February 2016
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 
978-1250077202

 

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  • Publisher’s Weekly

    Scott’s agile storytelling and engaging characters make this contemporary tale one to savor.

    RT Book Reviews

    Scott’s latest is hot and sweet with just enough baseball and family drama to keep the story flowing….creates the perfect balance of conflict.

    Joyfully Reviewed – Recommended read

    I’ve been a huge fan of The New York Saints series since the first book and Melanie Scott has delivered again. Readers who are looking for a sexy good time can’t go wrong with Playing Hard.

    Harlequin Junkie – Recommended read

    Playing Hard drew me in immediately and kept me drawn in all throughout the story. Oliver is an absolute, sexy sweetie pie who I can’t get enough of. I just want to read more and more of him. And Amelia is a doll. She’s cute, hot, and I love seeing her find her strength in her own desires….For any sports romance fans, I highly recommend Scott’s Playing Hard.

    Dear Author – Recommended read

    I don’t want to say much more about how the couple overcome the barriers to their happy ending. I will say that I was very pleased with the resolution. More than pleased. Delighted.

  • HIS GAME NEVER FAILS….

    Baseball star Oliver Shields has always lived for the game–and now the New York Saints have finally made the playoffs. The season isn’t over yet, but meeting gorgeous Amelia Graham seems like a bonus grand slam–until one night of partying threatens to take Oliver out of the game for good..

    UNTIL SHE PUTS HIS HEART IN PLAY…

    All work and no play has always been Amelia’s motto, earning her a coveted job on Wall Street and the freedom she’s always longed for. Oliver is a read player–in more ways than one–and a distraction she doesn’t need, especially when she’s trying to win a chance at her dream assignment at work. When flirtation turns to attraction so fierce neither one of them can say goodbye, will Oliver and Amelia step up to the plate-and give love a chance?

  • Prologue
    March

    Sunshine and baseball. Two of his favorite things. Oliver Shields shifted on the plastic seat and stared down at the field where the New York Saints were currently in the middle of a training session. All he really needed for perfection would be a cold beer in his hand.

    Sadly, he was going to have to make do with Gatorade. He took a swig, then put the bottle down and adjusted the ice pack on his right hand. He’d been too slow, had lunged for a ball early, and it had clipped the top of his fingers. Dan Ellis, their coach, taking no risks so early in spring training, had sent him off to ice the fingers for a few minutes.

    So now he got to sit in the Florida sunshine, relax, and just enjoy watching the guys do their thing. Nice.

    Things were coming together. They had a few new players as always, guys just picked up or being trialed— which sometimes made things interesting, but this year everything had gone relatively smoothly.

    Down on the field the new guy who’d just subbed into Oliver’s first-base spot while he was icing his hand completed a flawless double play. Finn Castro had good hands and a good arm.

    Unfortunately, from what Oliver had seen of him so far, he also had a cocky mouth. Some new guys came in all bluster and arrogance, but usually they settled in quick enough.

    Finn? Well, he hadn’t settled down yet. Oliver and Hector Moreno, their catcher, had fifty bucks riding on how long it would be before Dan stepped in and tore a few strips off the kid, but so far it hadn’t happened.

    As if he could hear Oliver’s thoughts, Dan Ellis turned and bellowed, “Shields, get your ass back down here.”

    Oliver grinned and put down his dripping ice pack. Time to get back in the game. As he walked onto the grass, Finn was coming off.

    “Nice play,” Oliver said.

    Finn smirked and brushed past him, his shoulder meeting Oliver’s just that little bit too forcefully.

    “Hey,” Oliver said, turning after him, but Dan bellowed his name again and he dismissed the kid from his mind as he slipped on his glove. No point letting a noob with a chip on his shoulder ruin his day.

    An hour later, when Dan decided to stop being a sadist and called a halt to the session, Oliver was feeling good. His hand was fine, the day was still beautiful, and he might even get in a few laps in the hotel pool before dinner. He lingered for a couple of minutes to talk with Dan and Hector and Brett Tuckerson, the starting pitcher. The three of them were the senior players on the Saints and Dan liked to check in and see what they thought of the new guys. Opinions given, he headed for the locker room.

    As he reached the door, he heard Castro’s voice, laughing. Then, “Shields. Fucking wimp. Did you see him, icing his hand like a seventy-year-old? He better watch out. That first-base spot is going to be mine before the season is out. Dude should give it up and retire before he starts embarrassing himself.”

    Little shit. Oliver felt the burn in his gut. He was used to the odd rivalry on the team. Healthy competition. There was always someone younger coming along who thought he deserved a shot. But Oliver had fucking earned his first-base position through fourteen—soon to be fifteen— years of hard work. And good arm or not, no cocky bastard like Castro was going to take it from him.

    He pushed the door all the way open, maybe a bit too hard. It crashed against the wall and Finn and the guys he was talking to—most of them rookies—turned as one.

    “You know, Castro,” Oliver said as he walked into the room and dropped his glove onto the nearest bench. “You’d think a guy who’d been traded dirt-cheap by his old team might have the sense to shut up and try to get along with his new teammates rather than mouthing off.”

    Finn’s mouth went flat, green eyes cooling as he rose from the bench he was sitting on. “You got a problem, old man?”

    “Yeah,” Oliver said, meeting Finn’s glare evenly. “You. Let me give you a tip. The guys who run the Saints don’t like egotistical, wannabe little boys. They like guys who can fit into the team and do the damned job they’re given. So why don’t you focus on that instead of talking yourself up.” He stepped forward. The two of them were close enough in height, but Oliver had a few pounds on Finn.

    “Who says it’s talk?” Finn said. His chin came up, shoulders squared.

    Little fucker really didn’t know when to give in. Stupid. Or stubborn. Which amounted to the same thing. Oliver grinned at him. If Finn wasn’t going to back down, then Oliver would be happy to show him how things were done at the Saints. “Castro, better players than you have tried to take my spot. And I’m still here. Not going anywhere until I’m good and ready. So I suggest you shut up and get used to the outfield. Because that’s where you’ll be spending your time this year.” He bit off the “if you stay” that belonged on the end of that sentence. Finn’s expression was 100 percent pissed off. The kid really didn’t know when to quit.

    Finn took a step toward Oliver. “Why don’t you go—”

    “Castro,” Brett said from the doorway. “Shut the hell up and sit the hell down.”

    To Oliver’s surprise, Finn did. So maybe the kid wasn’t completely stupid. At least he was smart enough not to get on the wrong side of the team captain. Oliver tipped his chin at Brett, who rolled his eyes in reply, and then walked past Finn to his locker. He didn’t miss the glare and the muttered “douche” that Finn directed at him. But he ignored it. Hopefully the kid would get the message about his current position in the team hierarchy and lose the attitude. But if he didn’t, it was going to be a very long season.

    Chapter One
    October

    Wall-to-wall hot men and all Amelia Graham really wanted was more comfortable shoes. It was official. Her life was sad. If there was a list of people who had lost their mojo, it would clearly say “Amelia Graham” at the top. In bold. Underlined. She winced at the mental image and tried to find her party spirit. But her feet hurt—stupid new shoes—and the wall-to-wall hot men seemed far more interested in the hordes of superhumanly glamorous women filling the room than in her. She looked good but these women were New-York-model-level gorgeous. And if the sky-high stilettos most of them wore were hurting their feet, they were far better at ignoring that fact than Amelia was.

    Which only proved that her name belonged on the sad list. If Em could see her now, she’d be rolling her eyes in disgust. Of course, it was Em’s fault that Amelia was stuck at this party in the first place. Her best friend had steadfastly refused to move to New York, remaining at home in Chicago. Which meant that when Em’s brother Finn—Amelia’s de facto brother by way of lifelong best friend-hood with Em—had been transferred from the Chicago Cubs to the New York Saints, Amelia had reinherited first-line Finn Support status. All the other Castros were still back in Chicago, so it was Amelia who got to play cheer squad and sounding board and whatever else he needed. Back on Team Finn. Not that she’d ever really been off it. And it was a role she was happy to play. After all, she owed the Castros a lot, and Finn especially. She could never repay that debt. Being there if he needed her was the least she could do. Still, she’d been in New York for seven years now and they hadn’t been as close as before she’d moved here. Until he’d moved here, too. She’d helped him find his apartment and showed him around when he’d first arrived in New York and somehow they’d fallen back into old patterns.

    Not quite as it used to be, though. Sometimes weeks went by without him calling. After all, he traveled a lot for games and he’d found a crowd to run with quickly enough—Finn was blessed with the same dark good looks as his sister and a bucketload of charm as well and never had trouble making friends—but he still called her when he was at loose ends and wanting to be entertained. Or wanted a familiar face at his games. And Amelia couldn’t help being there to answer. Plus there was Em, who wanted reports on how Finn was doing. Something Amelia had been used to when Finn was in high school and he’d told her things he wouldn’t necessarily tell his sister. Now, at twenty-nine, it was kind of weird to be asked to keep an eye on a twenty-five-year-old guy who was a professional baseball player.

    But she couldn’t say no to Em any more than she could to Finn.

    So she’d said yes when Finn had invited her out tonight, even though it was the first Sunday she hadn’t worked in a month and all she really wanted to do was sleep. But the Saints were celebrating the fact that they’d made it to the American League Division Series for the first time in a long time and she was feeling guilty that she hadn’t actually made it to that many of their home games this season due to work craziness. Amelia liked baseball, having kind of absorbed her knowledge and affection for it through Finn, so a baseball party should have been fun. So she’d come. And now, somewhat predictably, she was bored, watching Finn dance with random women.

    She sighed and rattled the two rapidly melting ice cubes that were all that was left of her drink. There really had to be something wrong with her. All these gorgeous men and no one had caught her eye. Which was troubling. She had something of a thing, to her chagrin, for guys who oozed confidence, and professional athletes oozed it more than anybody. But all too often it seemed that über-confidence had a downside. Too many of the guys who had it were a little too fond of themselves and a little too sure of their place in the universe. It had been that way with the jocks she’d steadfastly avoided dating in high school and college, and it was the same with the men she’d met on Wall Street since she’d graduated. Both groups leaned toward master-of-the-universe worldviews. The Wall Street guys just did it in expensive suits rather than baseball uniforms.

    She’d resolved the last time, after another crash and burn with an investment banker who’d been exactly that type, to stick to nice guys in the future. Maybe the fact that she was bored tonight—surrounded as she was with men who should be Amelia catnip—meant she had a chance of succeeding in keeping that resolution.

    Though, if she was going to stick to her guns, tonight was probably not the best night to put her plan into action. She was guessing that ordinary nice-guy types were an endangered species at this party. Finn had let slip enough team gossip about how the single guys tended to blow off steam that she could be fairly certain of that. So maybe she should just give it another hour and then make her excuses to Finn and leave. Go home to comfy slippers and watching whatever seemed good on Netflix while she baked some late-night muffins. Maybe the pistachio chocolate ones she’d spotted on one of her favorite food blogs the other day. Finn wouldn’t care if she left now that he was surrounded by beautiful women, so she was off the hook there.

    Time to be sensible.

    Like the guy she wanted. She sighed and put the empty glass down on the small, high table near her elbow. If she was going to stay, she needed another drink. Though maybe a soda first. Whoever had made the cocktail she’d just finished definitely hadn’t skimped on the alcohol. The buzz of it was warming her veins just a little too well. Not good if she wanted to be sensible, smart Amelia. One soda, one more cocktail, and then one swift getaway.

    ***

    Maggie Jameson and Raina Easton definitely knew how to throw a party. Oliver Shields took his tequila from the bartender and turned to survey the room, taking in the heaving mass of partying New York Saints players, wives, girlfriends, and whoever else had been invited. The play- offs. The Saints had made the fucking American League Division Series for the first time in God only knew how many years. Of course, he should know, having spent the last fifteen years playing for the Saints, but after his first two tequilas had gone down fast, the statistic, one that most of the time he had to try hard to ignore, refused come to mind easily.

    He was finally going to the play-offs. Halle-fucking-lujah. He had to hand it to Alex Winters. He hadn’t liked the man when Alex had first bought the club with his two best friends, Lucas Angelo and Malachi Coulter—not only because Alex had succeeded in getting Oliver’s onetime girlfriend Maggie Jameson to become Maggie Winters—but the terrible trio knew what they were doing. This was the third season since they’d purchased the Saints from Maggie’s dad, and the team had made the goddamned play-offs.

    Which was why every man and woman even remotely connected to the Saints was currently blowing off steam for one night of insane partying before it was back to the grindstone. After tonight it would be tunnel-vision focus and a lot of sweat. Eyes on the prize twenty-four seven if they were going to achieve the next seemingly impossible goal—making it to the League Championship Series and then, if the stars aligned, to the World Series.

    Ollie sipped his tequila—one of the other things Raina Easton knew how to do was stock a damned good tequila in her burlesque club—and watched the crowd. Across the room he saw Maggie’s dark head next to Alex’s blond one and found himself smiling. They were good together. They worked. In the way that he and Maggie, as much as he’d never wanted to admit it, never quite had.

    Damn, that was way too serious a thought for tonight. Tonight, he’d decided, was for celebrating. He’d been pretty damned dedicated this season. Practically a monk. But even monks needed to give in to temptation occasionally, and this room was just chock-full of temptation, though no one had actually caught his eye yet. Which was why he was still drinking tequila alone at the bar instead of busting a move down on the tiny dance floor with some gorgeous woman. Like Raina was with her fiancé, soon to be husband, Mal Coulter. Raina was a former Broadway dancer, among other things, so she was making Malachi work hard to keep up, but the two of them were grinning at each other like fools. Next to them, Finn Castro was dancing with a short blonde Oliver didn’t recognize.

    The sight soured his mood slightly. Castro had been a pain in the butt all season. A smart-ass whenever he thought he could get away with it. Temperamental. Too fond of partying. And always pushing for a chance to step into Oliver’s position. The only thing that had saved him from being traded again was the fact he’d been playing very well. Not good enough to take Oliver’s slot, but Alex had gotten more than his money’s worth. Pity Castro was such a dick. A dick who was just going to have to keep making his peace with life in the outfield. Oliver wasn’t going anywhere.

    He drained his tequila, savoring the smooth burn for a minute, then decided that maybe it was time to slow down. He’d driven tonight, not wanting to break training completely. Also, if he did find some temptation to yield to, he preferred to drive them back to his place himself rather than use a driver.
    Turning back to the bar, he waved at the skinny bald guy tending it and said, “Club soda,” at the exact same moment a woman slid through the crowd at the bar and ordered the same thing.

    She turned to look at him and said, “Snap,” with a smile in big blue eyes almost the exact deep shade of the Saints logo. He found himself smiling back automatically. She had a pretty face, curving lips, and dimples to go with the eyes. Her hair was pulled up into some sort of messy bun arrangement at the back of her head, wisps of it coming loose around her face. In the low lighting of the bar, he couldn’t really tell what color it was . . . maybe blond, maybe red, maybe something in between.

    The bartender slid two glasses across the bar toward them. Ollie nodded at her. “Lady’s choice.”

    “Thanks,” she said and leaned forward to take the nearest glass. Her dress was sleek and black and finished north of her knees, showing off a very nice pair of legs and equally sleek black high heels, but it wasn’t the usual plunging, painted-on thing that girls who came to trawl Saints parties for talent wore. Who was she exactly?

    He reached for the other glass, using the movement as an excuse to move slightly closer. “So, what has you hitting the hard stuff tonight?”

    She stirred the soda with the straw. There were no rings on the slim fingers. “I could ask you the same question.”

    He started to say I’m in training, then stopped. For once he didn’t feel like being Oliver Shields, first baseman. And his mystery companion hadn’t shown any sign of recognizing who he was. “What if I said I’m on duty?”

    Her eyebrows arched slightly. “On duty? Are you security? One of the guys’ bodyguards?”

    She didn’t know who he was. This could be fun. “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you. And that would just cause problems.” He hit her with a smile. “Now I’ve told you, your turn.”

    “Me? I’m an economist at Pullman Waters,” she said. “Wanna hear about the outlook for Southeast Asian currencies in the next few months?”

    He nearly choked on his soda, and she burst into laughter. Deep throaty laughter that sank into his gut and spread outward and downward. Damn. His vague curiosity about her kicked itself up to very interested.

    “Sounds fascinating.” He didn’t really know what an economist did but he was willing to find out.

    “Really?” Amusement lurked in her eyes.

    “’Round here the conversation revolves around baseball, so it’s something new.”

    She laughed again, and his body reacted in the same way to the sound. He curled his fingers a little tighter around the glass.

    “You get points for not falling asleep immediately,” she said, smiling.

    “I find it hard to believe that anyone could fall asleep on you.”

    She tilted her head but her smile didn’t fade. And there was a glow of mischief in those big eyes he liked.

    “If you’re going to flirt with me, you should tell me your name,” she said.

    Damn. He didn’t feel like giving up his anonymity just yet. “Ladies first.”

    “Oh no, you started this, you go first.”

    There was a sudden loud cheer from the direction of the dance floor. He turned to see one of Raina’s performers balancing on Sam Basara’s shoulders. The kid—who was shaping up into a very nice pitcher—was grinning like all his Christmases had arrived at once as the girl on his shoulders did a pretty good bump and grind given her position.

    “Interesting,” said his mystery woman from beside him. He turned back to her. “These guys get a little crazy when there’s something to celebrate.”

    “Oh?” She closed her lips around the straw and sipped, and he suddenly found his attention riveted by the deep pink of her mouth. He leaned slightly forward, and a hint of her perfume—something heady and rich—reached him. His gut tightened again, and his attention zeroed in on her.

    Who was this girl?

    “Not too crazy,” he said. Though right now he felt like a getting a lot crazy. If crazy involved her.

    “Everyone has to blow off steam sometime,” she said.

    “So what are you celebrating?” Her eyes were laughing again.

    She had to be teasing him. “You don’t know? Did you crash the party or something?”

    “I’m here with a friend.”

    A friend. That could mean a lot of things. A flash of disappointment hit. Of course she was here with someone. But she definitely wasn’t dating any of the guys on the team. He knew all their wives and girlfriends. There were a few guys who were single. Like him. But none of them had mentioned bringing a date. Maybe she was here with a girlfriend?

    “A friend—” he started to say then stopped as Finn Castro muscled his way up next to them and grinned at the mystery woman. Oliver felt his jaw tighten, a sensation far less pleasant than his reaction to her.
    “Milly. There you are. I was looking for you.” Finn turned his focus to Oliver, and his smile died. “This guy bugging you?”

    She shook her head. “No, we were just talking while I got my drink.” She looked from Finn to Oliver and back again, the pleasure in her eyes fading a little.

    Oliver smiled at her and then narrowed his eyes at Finn, trying not to let his annoyance show on his face. Castro. Of course, she had to be here with Castro. Because life apparently had it in for him. “Finn,” he said, trying to sound polite.

    “Shields,” Finn replied, and beside him Milly’s eyes widened slightly, her expression turning wary as she glanced at Oliver. Oliver felt his gut tighten, wondering just what shit Finn had been talking about him. Plenty, he was sure. Their relationship hadn’t improved any since that first incident in the locker room, and Castro didn’t bother to hide it. He was barely polite to Oliver at work, so Oliver couldn’t imagine Finn had anything good to say about him away from it.

    Finn jerked his head toward the dance floor. “Come on, Milly, let’s dance.”

    Milly—what that was short for?—held up her glass. “I haven’t finished my drink.” Her expression was still wary as she looked between the two of them.

    “You can finish it with me.”

    “Finn, you’re being rude.” Her expression turned exasperated. Her tone wasn’t annoyed girlfriend, more sisterly irritation. Interesting. Oliver felt a flash of hope that she might actually stay and talk to him.

    “I’m just looking out for you,” Finn retorted. “Shields here likes to sleep around. He’s not the kind of guy you want to get involved with.”

    Oliver stiffened. “Excuse me?”

    Beside him, Milly said, “We were just talking. Besides, I’m a big girl, Finn. I’ve been choosing my own dates for a long time now.”

    Finn scowled. “Yeah, well, don’t pick Shields. He has a different girl every week.”

    Oliver bit back the urge to tell Finn exactly where he could shove his bullshit. That wasn’t going to help the situation or impress Milly if she was really a friend of Castro’s. Besides which, Finn was clearly on his way to drunk. Glassy-eyed and looking for trouble. And he was full of just enough youthful arrogance and stupidity to pick a fight. Which was the last thing anybody needed.

    “I believe that’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black,” Milly said. She glanced up at Ollie, her expression somewhat assessing she focused on Finn again. “What happened to the blonde?”

    “I came to find you. You said you’d dance with me.” She studied him for a long moment. Sighed. “Okay,
    I’ll dance with you. But how about we get you a cup of coffee first?”

    Damn it, she was going to go with Castro. Time to step back from the plate. “Good idea,” Ollie said. He smiled at Milly. “It was nice to meet you, Milly the economist.”

    And then he turned and walked away.

    ***

    Amelia watched Finn dancing with the same short blonde he’d been flirting with earlier and tried not to think about Oliver Shields. Or give in to the desire to smack Finn for ruining things. She’d managed to pour one cup of coffee into him and they’d danced for a song or two but then the blonde had returned bearing beer and Finn had abandoned Amelia in about five seconds flat.

    Leaving her with nothing better to do except think about Oliver. She knew about Oliver Shields—damn it, she should have recognized him and refused the drink. Finn had told her plenty about the guy. How he did his best to keep Finn from getting any time at first base and how he was tight with the Saints’ owners and was using his position to make sure Finn didn’t get the credit he deserved. Amelia had taken most of this with a grain of salt—she’d known Finn long enough to know he liked getting his own way and tended to have zero tolerance for anyone who stood between him and a goal. Oliver wasn’t the only Saints player whom Finn had talked about in a less-than-positive way, but he seemed to be the one Finn really had a beef with.

    Which was a pity, because the one thing Finn never mentioned about Oliver was that the man was stupidly hot. Night-dark eyes, tanned skin, and a wicked smile in a tall, lean body. Broad-shouldered, dark-haired, and smoky-voiced. Damn. Pretty much all the things she liked in a guy.

    The universe was taunting her. Because hot or not, the man was a baseball player. And apparently Finn’s worst rival. Maybe it was just as well Finn had interrupted them. A few more minutes of Oliver Shields flirting at her and she was fairly sure she might have thrown common sense to the wind and thrown herself at him. Which would have been all kinds of awkward once she’d found out who he was.

    But luckily Finn had come along and been Finn. Which he was all too good at. She sighed. She loved
    Finn like the brother she didn’t have, but being Team Finn was hard work sometimes. She could hardly resign from the job, but maybe she needed to ease back a little. Finn was an adult. He was going to have to figure out how to be one. Which included getting along with his teammates.

    She glanced back across the bar but couldn’t spot Oliver. And couldn’t help the pang of regret that he hadn’t been someone else.

    Oliver Shields was mighty pretty. And mighty appealing. Even if he wasn’t Mr. Right, it had been too long since the last Mr. Wrong. A man as gorgeous as Oliver would make a pretty good Mr. Wrong.
    But now she’d never know. The last thing Amelia wanted to do was cause a problem between Finn and one of his teammates. If Finn couldn’t make it work at the Saints then he could be in trouble. The kind of trouble that had led to the Cubs trading him at the end of his first season with them. The kind of trouble that Finn had gotten into on and off over the years. A little too much partying to blow off steam at times. Though to date he’d been lucky and managed to avoid any serious consequences. Up until he’d been traded, anyway.

    Amelia had hoped that being ditched by the Cubs would lead to him turning over a new leaf, but if tonight was an example of what he’d been doing all year, then apparently not.

    Crap. Easing off on Team Finn might have to wait until the end of the season. And she definitely didn’t want to do anything that would set him off. Like having a fling with a guy he hated.

    So she, Amelia Graham, would take one for the team and not break her rule and not try to seduce Oliver Shields. Though of course, there was always the possibility that he might have turned her down. She thought of that smile again. And the dark warmth in his eyes. Nope. She didn’t think she’d been calling that play wrong.

    Bloody Finn. He was a flaming hypocrite.

    Sucking now warm club soda through a straw, she watched Finn dancing with the blonde. Close dancing. In a way that made it clear that he was planning on introducing her to some extracurricular activities later that night. She suppressed an eye-roll. Finn had always been surrounded by willing women. One day he was going to meet the woman who would tell him no and Amelia very much looked forward to standing on the sidelines when that happened and cheering her on. But it didn’t seem like tonight was going to be that night.

    So she might as well call it quits. She didn’t really know anyone else at the party, and if Finn had abandoned her for the blonde then he wasn’t there to introduce her to anyone new. It was getting late and her feet were hurting more than ever. It was time to just go home. Back to Manhattan. Where she would curl up in bed alone and try not to think of Oliver Shields and what might have been

    ***

    Somewhere around one a.m., Maggie Jameson ambushed Oliver as he made his way across the club looking for distraction. It was well over an hour since Finn had pulled his bullshit and Oliver had struggled to shake the nasty mood that had settled over him in the aftermath. Castro. Still, Maggie didn’t deserve to get caught in the crossfire of his lingering irritation, so he forced a smile when she stepped in front of him.

    “What’s up, Mrs. Winters?” he asked. “Come to your senses and decided to leave Alex for me?”

    She grinned at him, looking beautiful as always, her long frame wrapped in a very short, very red dress that matched the red gems gleaming in her ears. “In your dreams, Ollie.”

    He grinned back. Once upon a time, Maggie had been his dream. But that was a long time ago. “Are you out of official party-wrangling mode yet?”

    Maggie and Raina and Sara—the third of the trio of women who ruled the owners of the Saints—usually worked like a well-oiled machine to ensure that Saints’ functions ran like clockwork. Which Ollie thought was rather unfair. It meant they didn’t always get to relax and enjoy the parties as much as they deserved to.

    “Just about,” Maggie said. “Things will wind down soon.” She studied him for a moment. “Meet anyone nice tonight?” she asked.

    That was Maggie speak for “Are you hooking up?” Or maybe “When are you going to settle down, Oliver?” Which was a subject that he considered to be none of her business since she’d long ago declined to be a candidate for said settling.

    “Still looking,” he said, trying not to think of Milly the economist and her perfume and her pretty eyes.

    Maggie smiled. “Oh good, then you won’t mind doing me a favor.”

    Crap. He’d walked into that one. “Define favor,” he said cautiously.

    “Helping out one of your teammates,” she said. “With a ride. You drove, right?”

    “Maybe.”

    “I saw your car parked outside the club.”

    Busted. “All right, yes, I drove. Who needs a lift?” She hesitated. Just for a second. Then, “Finn.”

    “Castro?” Ollie said disbelievingly. He did his best to get along with Castro at the club, but he’d made his opinion of the guy clear to Maggie on several occasions. Finn’s actions earlier hadn’t improved that opinion one bit.

    “Yes. He’s had one or two too many. Alex and Mal and Lucas think it’s time for him to go home.”
    Translation, the guy was wasted and Maggie was in damage control mode. “So put him in a cab.”

    “He’s not that drunk. He’d probably just get the driver to take him to another club as soon as they got out of sight.”

    True. The last thing they needed was Finn doing some dumb-ass thing while under the influence and getting the Saints’ name plastered in the papers or all over the morning news shows.

    “He was here with someone earlier. Milly or something.” His jaw tightened at the thought of her. And of Finn chasing her off. Though she’d let herself be chased off. Sort of. So maybe she hadn’t been interested in the first place. Or maybe she was just being a good friend. Damn it. He needed to stop thinking about her.

    “If I’m understanding Finn correctly, then she went home,” Maggie said.

    “So send him home with someone else.” He understood Maggie’s reasoning for not wanting to trust Castro with a cab or one of Alex or Mal or Lucas’s drivers, but he really wasn’t in any mood to help out.
    “He lives about two blocks from you,” Maggie said. “You’re the best candidate.”

    He’d been vaguely aware that Castro lived somewhere near him. He should have paid more attention. Then Maggie would be trying this with some other sucker. “How do you know I won’t succumb to the temptation to kick him out of the car halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge?”

    “You won’t do that,” Maggie said. “Why not?”

    “Because you think I’m awesome,” she said with another brilliant smile and he resigned himself to having a very unwelcome passenger for his trip home.

    ***

    They drove in near silence. Castro hadn’t said a word since Mal and Dan Ellis had practically escorted him from the building and into Oliver’s car. He’d pulled out his phone and started texting someone as soon as Oliver had started the engine. Which suited Ollie just fine. He really wasn’t interested in talking. He focused on the road, suddenly tired. The adrenaline of the win and the party was fading, and he felt every one of the twenty or so hours he’d been awake.

    As they hit the end of the Brooklyn Bridge and eased into Manhattan traffic, he yawned.

    Finn looked up. “Tired, old man?”

    Jesus. The guy didn’t let up. No wonder the Cubs had sold him cheap. He was a decent batter and a very good fielder, but he was trouble. He shook his head. “No, just bored by the company.”

    “Yeah, well, you can just let me out at SubZero and I’ll be out of your hair and you can go home to bed.”

    Un-fucking-believable. “Not gonna happen. I’m stopping nowhere but your apartment building.”

    “Shit. You sucking up to the bigwigs or something? Just take me to the damned club.”

    “Look, Castro, I don’t know who gave you the bug up your butt, but let me clear something up for you.”

    Oliver let the car glide to halt as the lights ahead turned red. “When the owner of your club and your coach evict you from a party for being wasted, the smart thing to do for your career is to go home, sleep it off, and apologize in the morning.”

    “If I wanted advice, I’d ask for it,” Finn snapped. “As if you’ve never partied.”

    Apparently the kid was determined to dig his own grave. The light flashed green and he stepped on the gas. “Fine. But I’m still taking you to your apartment. You can do what the hell you want after that. It’s your damned funeral.”

    The SUV that hit them halfway across the intersection came out of nowhere.