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Hard and Fast
Lisa Renee Jones


“You’ve done more than prove yourself since.” She didn’t mean her words as a compliment. They were simply a fact. During his twelve years in the majors, he’d become a near legend. Amanda didn’t give him time to respond, her mind racing ahead with her story idea. “Have you worn the necklace all this time?”

He reached up and touched the charm again. “Every single day.”

“So is it lucky?” Amanda asked. “Kind of like Michael Jordan’s college shorts he wore beneath his game shorts?”

He shook his head and shut the locker, leaning against it as he crossed his arms in front of his nice, broad chest. “Oh, no,” he said. “Don’t go making me superstitious. You want superstitious, you want our center fielder.”

Her mind scanned the roster she’d studied so intently before her job interview. “You mean Riley Walker?”

“Very impressive,” Brad said. “I like a girl who does her homework.”

She gave him a warning look, refusing to get pulled back into his flirtation. “Tell me about Riley.”

He ran a hand over his stubble-darkened jaw. “He rubs some kind of oil on his glove before every game. One night he couldn’t find it, and he had the entire team emptying their lockers searching for the damn stuff. It was pure craziness.”

“What kind of oil? Like a leather lubricant?”

Brad shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t know what the hell it is. Some peppermint-scented stuff. A Gypsy chick he dated in college fed him some junk about it creating a shield against bad omens. He really thinks he can’t play without it.”

Amanda could imagine the frayed tempers that must have been flying around the night of the missing magic oil. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll print this and make Riley mad?”

“I’m hoping you will.” Brad grinned. “Bastard owes me two hundred bucks.”

“I see,” Amanda said, leaning against the closed locker beside his, wondering if the outstanding debt meant Riley had a gambling problem. “Surely, he has the money.”

“Oh, he has the money,” he said. “He just doesn’t want to pay up.”

Amanda accepted that answer…for now. Still, she scribbled a note about Riley. Couldn’t hurt to see what his history looked like. She then needled Brad for a quote on the next week’s game.

“Can you pitch a third shutout in a row?” she asked. “That would be your first.”

“Only game day will answer that question, but I feel good. My arm is healthy. The team is strong.” He lowered his voice. “Have drinks with me after the game, and I’ll give you an exclusive.”

Drinks. An exclusive. A hot kiss. Sounded good to her.

What didn’t sound good, however, was risking her reputation. As good as he no doubt was, Brad Rogers was not worth compromising a career that had scarcely begun. Besides, there was his comment on his arm being healthy. It wasn’t. She’d recognized the little signs of injury while he was on the field. The way he flexed his fingers. The way he discreetly rotated his shoulder. He had a weakness and he was hiding it. Why?

Sticking the pencil behind her ear, she managed to smile. “A tempting offer, but no.” With true regret, she added, “I can’t, and you know it.”

His eyes narrowed on her face, his expression guarded but intense. “Too bad. Would have been fun.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but some things just can’t be.”

She paused, debating what to say to him, even as she told herself to walk away. But the truth was, his secret injury bothered her because she’d done the same thing. She’d pretended her knee was okay to pursue a shot at swimming in the Olympics. That choice had cost her her career.

Amanda waited until one of the players passed, then made sure her voice was low. “Ice that arm.”

His eyes flashed with surprise. Surprise that told her she was right. When he said nothing, Amanda didn’t know what to do. She started to leave, not sure she should have said anything.

His hand snaked out and shackled her wrist. She rotated to face him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said through gritted teeth.

She shrugged, not wanting to make him any tenser than he already was. “My father is an NFL team doctor and my sister is—”

“My arm is fine,” he insisted, an edge to his tone this time.

“Okay,” she said, but added in a whisper, “Ice it, Brad.” She thought of all the things she’d heard her father say to players. The sooner he got his muscles nice and cold, the better. “Don’t wait.” Realizing where his thoughts must be going, she said, “This isn’t about a story. I won’t report it. You have my word.”

He stared at her a moment, those blue eyes probing, looking for the truth, for proof he could trust her. Without another word, he let go of her and gave her a nod.

She left him then, but she felt his eyes on her. And, lord help her, it took every ounce of willpower to keep her attention from drifting to him. He’d earned a spot in her column for being so hot on the field.

He’d earned a spot in her fantasies for getting her so hot in the locker room.

2

AN HOUR AFTER meeting Amanda, Brad stood in the cleared-out locker room. He slammed his locker shut, ready to get the hell out of Dodge and find some ice for his aching arm. He was still reeling from the knowledge that Amanda had guessed he was injured. Amanda. A damn reporter, for God’s sake. He was so screwed if word got out.

There was hope to cling to. Jack was cautious about what he printed, careful to keep his home team happy. With any luck, Amanda would use the same strategy.

“Got a minute, Rogers?”

Brad looked up to see Coach Locke standing in one of the trainer’s doorways a few feet away. A fifty-something man with thick gray hair and a hard-as-nails exterior, he was tough but fair with his players and Brad respected him for that.

“Sure, Coach,” Brad said, feeling tense when he normally wouldn’t. With his contract up for renewal and his agent telling him to play it cool, Brad was more than a little on edge.

He wanted to stay in L.A. for what might very well be his last run around the bases. He’d moved his mother here last year when she’d had some health issues. She was doing well now, settled and happy, which meant relocation wasn’t on his agenda. He wanted to bag five more years, hard and fast. Baseball was all he knew, and he wasn’t ready to give it up yet.

Brad left his duffel bag on the bench and followed Coach into the tiny office. Coach sat behind the scuffed up wooden desk and Brad claimed the chair in front of him.

Coach tossed a newspaper at Brad. “Care to explain that?”

Brad cringed. The Ohio press had caught a picture of Brad and the rookie reliever Casey Becker in a heated debate at the airport. Damn it, this was so not what he needed right now. His agent had been preaching about Brad keeping a low profile. So much for that.

“I don’t need to tell you this isn’t the press you need.”

“I know, Coach. I know.” Thanks to a stupid bar fight almost a year ago, Brad had landed in the spotlight and in court. Unfortunately, the team owner had been dragged into the legal battle, as well.

“Do you know?” Coach challenged and jabbed at the paper. “It doesn’t look like you know, to me.”

“Becker is trouble and you know it. The kid has rocks in his head. He respects no one and doesn’t listen to shit.”

“I’m aware of the kid’s attitude, but frankly, the owners are screaming about you, not Becker. I don’t know if you’re hoping to stay in L.A. or move on, but if you want to stay, this isn’t the way to do it.”

Brad’s agent had cautioned him about seeming too eager. Mike thought that making the Rays believe Brad could walk away was critical to offset the prior year’s fiasco. They’d argued the issue and Mike had won. After all, Mike Miller had been with him since day one of his career, and he’d never steered Brad wrong. He knew better than to second-guess Mike now, but damn it, he hated this. He wanted to sit down with the Rays and negotiate a new contract so he could focus on playing ball.

“I certainly want to keep my options open, Coach.”

Coach narrowed his gaze on Brad, clearly not happy with that answer. “Well, this isn’t the way to do it.”
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