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Hard and Fast
Lisa Renee Jones

Brad told himself to bite his tongue but it bit his ass that the rookie had landed him in hot water. “Becker needs to be dealt with, Coach. If you don’t get him in line, someone will. The kid’s gonna get his balls busted if he doesn’t show some respect to the veterans.” And it was the truth. Rookies who came into The Show disrespecting the seasoned players eventually got what was coming to them.

“I know the kid is a royal pain, but right now we’re talking about you. Keep your nose clean.” Coach leaned back in his chair, rocking a minute. “You looked good tonight. How’s that arm feeling?”

“Good,” Brad lied. He’d followed that bar fight with surgery and the ensuing recovery time kept him off the mound and unable to show his value to the team. He needed to be on that field now, throwing strikes, and he knew it. Playing good ball would get him a contract renewal. “My arm feels good.”

“Give me more of that heat you had on the mound tonight. Leave the rest at home.”

Brad pushed to his feet. “I hear you, Coach.”

Coach looked up at him, eyes narrowed in a scrutinizing stare. “I hope you do.”

A FEW HOURS AFTER his meeting with Coach, and a long, rough talk with his agent later, Brad stood in the middle of the tiny Texas-style pool hall, beer in hand, music and smoke filtering through the air. A blue neon sign blinked on the wall behind him, and bottle caps lined the trim at the top of the walls. If he closed his ears to the Californian accents, he could almost believe he was back home. In front of him a game of pool was underway, several of his closest buddies competing.

Elbow resting on a round bar table, Brad wished like hell the pain inching from his wrist to his shoulder would go away. It throbbed and ached, a constant reminder he couldn’t escape.

Just like his thoughts of Amanda. All that long auburn hair and those sultry curves served to distract him from his issues. But that was only part of it. She occupied prime space in his head because she knew his secret. She’d taken him from burning hot, ready to find a way to get her naked, to having a freaking heart attack with her caution to ice his arm. Man, if she—a journalist, for chrissake—figured it out, how long would it take his trainers and his coach to discover his secret?

A secret that was killing him.

After an hour of icing his arm and a double dose of ibuprofen, Brad had managed to drag himself to the traditional postgame festivities, also known as the postgame get-shit-faced gathering. Of course, Brad didn’t do the shit-faced thing anymore. Not even on a night such as this one—the final night of a series followed by a few days off. The last time he’d had a few too many, he’d gotten in that damn bar fight and landed in a world of hurt with the press and the team. Of course, hitting a rich college kid whose father just happened to be a senator had certainly invited their wrath.

A beer bottle settled on the table with a loud thud, jolting Brad out of his reverie. The offender was Kurt Caverns, the team catcher.

“I’m empty,” Kurt announced and eyed Brad’s bottle. “What’s your status? Need a refill?”

Brad shook his head. “Nope. Not yet. Give me a few minutes, though, and I should be ready for another one.”

“Saw you in Coach’s office after the game,” Kurt said, talking low, focused on Brad so no one else could hear. “Any word?”

Kurt referred to his contract. As Brad’s closest friend, Kurt was the only one who knew how much he wanted to stay with the Rays and why. They’d both gone to University of Texas, though at different times. It had given them a bond that had opened the door to friendship. But even Kurt didn’t know Brad’s arm was hurting.

“The Ohio press got a shot of me and Becker arguing. Coach didn’t like how it made me look.”

“Damn, man, you can’t live that fight down, can you?” He shook his head. “That freaking sucks.”

“Yeah, it does,” Brad said. “So does the timing.”

“I’ve told Coach that Becker doesn’t listen to jack,” Kurt said. “I hate catching him. I give him a sign and he ignores it. And Coach is doing squat about it. He needs a hard lesson.”

Brad had to agree. He had a damn good record on the mound, and the kid didn’t have one at all. Yeah, Becker had talent but he was undisciplined and jeopardized as many games as he saved. He needed a lot of training, but he wasn’t interested in receiving help. All that, and Brad was the one getting his ass chewed. Brad was the one with his career on the line. Because of a fight with a loudmouth University of Texas pitcher who reminded him a hell of a lot of Becker.

His agent had lectured him with more of the play-it-cool instructions tonight, but Brad wasn’t feeling cool at all. He was feeling pretty damn hot, as a matter of fact. “Oh, I’d be happy to teach the kid a few lessons,” he commented. “Doubt Coach would be happy, though.”

“Probably not,” Kurt agreed, “but Becker needs a reality check. Count me in on that play.”

Determined to shake off his mood, Brad caught a glimpse of the pool table as Tony aimed his stick then made a horrific shot.

“Holy shit,” Brad called out. “If I watch much more of this, I’ll need two more beers and I’ll need them fast.” As if on cue, Tony scratched. Again. His third time that night. Brad tipped back his beer to hide a smile. Though Tony had been with the Rays only a year, he’d become part of the team almost instantly, not to mention fast friends with him and Kurt.

Brad watched in amazement as Tony proceeded to place the cue ball on the table as if he hadn’t scratched. When Tony bent down to take another shot, Brad said, “Damn, Tony, if you’re gonna cheat, do it well.”

“Have you made even one shot tonight?” Kurt asked, adding insult to Tony’s already wounded pride.

“Shut the hell up, Kurt,” Tony snapped.

Kurt accepted a beer from a waitress who’d spotted his empty bottle. He gave her a wink and a tip before sauntering over to the table where he picked up the eight ball. “Good thing you swing the bat better than you play pool.” He raised his beer. “I know. Maybe you need some luck. Why don’t you get some of that peppermint oil Walker uses and rub it on your balls.”

Brad laughed, almost spewing a mouthful of Bud.

“Shut up, Caverns.” Tony’s use of Kurt’s last name indicated he was getting a serious attitude. “Before I shut you up.”

“I’m scared, man. Truly shaking.” Kurt nudged his ever present cowboy hat with his knuckle and fixed Tony with a speculative look. “You know what your problem is?”

Tony straightened, pool stick in his hand, irritation in his voice. “I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

It was Brad’s shot, but Tony’s expression had him so amused he couldn’t focus. Not only did Tony hate to lose, he was a sucker for a good verbal teardown over it. Kurt was always happy to oblige.

“You can’t find the hole, man,” Kurt said. “Guess that’s why we haven’t seen you with a woman in so long.”

Tony rattled off a string of unpleasant words. “I get laid when I want to get laid.”

Kurt laughed. “Right. The Italian Stallion you ain’t.”

“All you get are groupies. That doesn’t make you the man.” Tony bit the words out. “Anyone can score with them.”

“Okay. Put your money where your mouth is.” Kurt rubbed his palms together. “Let’s make a bet. Pick a woman. Any woman. And let’s see who can score first.”

Tony leaned on his pool stick, a smile lifting the corner of his lips. “Okay.” He motioned at Brad. “I see you laughing there, man. You aren’t out of this. We bet. All three of us. And I know just the woman. The new reporter.”

An instant no ripped through Brad’s mind, and he barely kept it from sliding from his lips. Amanda was off-limits. Sure, she was hot. She damn sure got him hot. But it didn’t matter. She, or more accurately her job, was trouble with a capital T. The kind that could screw up the career he was desperately trying to hang on to. The wrong thing said across the pillows and he could wave a contract renewal goodbye.

“Don’t mess with the press,” he said. “Pick another woman.”

Tony waved off the warning. “She won’t report her own indiscretions.”

“But she can twist them in her favor,” Brad countered. “She has the pen and the audience.” He paused, his lips thinning as he remembered his own personal media bashing. “We all know what happened to me.”

Kurt chimed in. “You know what they say about female reporters?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Once she gets you to drop your pants, she’ll bend you over.”

Tony grinned. “I’ll do her so right she’ll want to brag to the world.”

“I hear that,” Kurt said, as he flagged a waitress and pointed to Brad’s empty bottle, taking the liberty to order for him. “But she’s still trouble, man.”

Grabbing the opening Kurt had given him, Brad eyed the blond hottie tending bar. “Forget the reporter,” he said and used his chin to motion toward the suggested target. “How about her?”

Tony broke out in a smile, pointing at Brad. “I know what’s up. I figured you out. You already tried with the reporter and got shut down. You know you can’t win this bet.”

“She busted your chops, didn’t she?”
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