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Hard and Fast
Lisa Renee Jones

“Jack lashes out when he feels threatened.”

“He didn’t act threatened.”

“Oh, he’s threatened. Kevin finally got smart about who he hired to replace star Jack. You have an advantage over the two guys before you, and Jack knows it.”

“And what exactly would that advantage be? Because I have to tell you, I didn’t feel any advantages back there in that locker room.”

Reggie cast her a sideways look. “A woman has an edge when it comes to men. You can get guys to admit to and talk about stuff they won’t with other guys. What you do with that edge is what counts. And right now, Jack knows you are getting attention he wants as his own.”

Amanda digested that information in silence. She’d never considered being female as one of the reasons she was good at her job. But then, it wasn’t until after her makeover that she’d started to see her feminine assets.

Still, her gender couldn’t completely explain Jack’s reaction to her. “Jack seems pretty tight with the Rays. Don’t get me wrong, they gave him a hard time. But it was in a you’re-one-of-the-guys kind of way. When we were in the other team’s locker room, not so much. But with the Rays, he was the one who seemed to have the edge.”

“He’s been around a long time.” They pulled up to a stoplight and Reggie gave her his full attention. “When he first started with the paper, he seemed real down-to-earth. A good guy. He was eager to earn the players’ trust—always printing their side of the story while still being objective. And the team takes care of their own. Jack ended up with all kinds of exclusives.” His lips thinned. “And that’s when the real Jack showed his colors. He changed in a big way. One minute, a nice guy. The next, cocky and demanding. The bigger his readership, the bigger his head.”

“And the players?” Amanda prodded. “Did they notice?”

“Oh, yeah, they noticed. But he was inside their circle. He’d looked the other way on some things, didn’t oversensationalize some career-damaging incidents, so the team hung tight. Until Jack does someone dirty, the guys won’t kick him out. But let me tell you, he will. Jack’s new job is a stepping stone to bigger things. He’s going to do what it takes to get to the next level.”

From the conviction in Reggie’s words, she knew he had experienced the bad side of Jack firsthand. “Jack did you dirty.”

The light turned green and Reggie focused on the road. “When we worked together he talked a lot about the two musketeers. All for one and one for all.” Pause. “In the end, Jack was out for Jack.”

“He burned you pretty bad, huh?”

Reggie didn’t look at her. “I let it happen,” he said and didn’t elaborate.

Amanda wanted to push him for details but decided it was best she leave it alone. They’d only just met, and Reggie had no reason to trust her. But in time, maybe he’d feel he could tell her the entire story.

“After being burned by Jack, I’m surprised you’re so willing to be my wingman.”

He laughed, but not with humor. In fact, the sound rang with a hint of bitterness. “Because of Jack, I’m willing to be your wingman.” He cast her a sideways glance and winked. “I want to see him go down, and I’ve a good feeling you can kick some Jack Ass. In fact, I’m counting on it.”

“You and me both,” she murmured, feeling the pressure of success more than ever.

She’d known her predecessor would be tough competition. Now, she knew Jack was more than that. If he would stoop to such low levels to achieve success, even burn those closest to him, he’d certainly bury her, given the chance.

But Jack Krass wasn’t standing between her and success—and she refused to let him. He reminded her of her ex, who’d been willing to do anything to get ahead, even marry her. Though she’d put her marriage behind her, she had learned to be wary of people like her ex, like Jack.

She wouldn’t play dirty the way Jack did. She’d play smart. And she would prove good reporting and good ethics could defeat big egos and dirty deeds every time.

BY MONDAY NIGHT, Amanda had written and rewritten her first feature story so many times, she wanted to rip her hair out. Now as she stared at the blank screen of her notebook computer, the pressure of that short time frame she had to capture an audience had her second-guessing herself.

One angle played over and over in her mind. If being a woman gave her an edge, why not use that edge in her column? How could she translate that advantage to the page in a way that connected with readers? She toyed with the hem of her oversize T-shirt while she considered and discarded potential story threads. As seemed typical since meeting him, her thoughts strayed to images of Brad wearing that skimpy towel. In her fantasies, a bolder version of herself tugged off that towel and indulged her every sensual impulse in the perfection of his body. Maybe she should make him the focus of her feature, write this crazy urge out of her system.

Her cell started to shake on the bedside table, disrupting her thoughts. Eying the caller ID, Amanda wasn’t surprised to see her sister’s number. She put the receiver to her ear, and before she could even speak, the verbal barrage started.

“You didn’t call me,” Kelli reprimanded. “It’s been days and not one phone call. How am I supposed to know what’s going on if you don’t phone?”

Amanda leaned against the headboard, preparing for a long chat. “Hello to you, too.”

“Screw hello. I’ve used great restraint not calling before now. I want the gossip. Tell me everything. How did the first night go?”

“I didn’t trip and fall, and my skirt did not get stuck in my panty hose. I’d say it was a success.”

“Falling isn’t so bad. Nothing wrong with creating opportunity for chivalry.”

Amanda remembered all too well her tumbling act, smack in the middle of the food court at the mall, when she’d switched from flats to heels. “Preferably not when landing facedown, looking like a fool, I would assume.”

“You didn’t look like a fool.” Kelli gave an unladylike snort. “Okay, a little, but it was your first day in heels.”

“I still can’t believe I fell,” Amanda said. “I never do stuff like that.”

“Walking like a goddess in heels is an art.”

“So I found out,” Amanda agreed. “I’m just waiting for the toe-pinching to subside.”

“You get used to that, too.”

“One day I might grow up and be a diva doctor like you,” Amanda teased.

“You could never be a doctor. You turn blue at the sight of blood. Besides, my dear little sis, why would you want to develop a God complex? Doctors, pilots and athletes all have gargantuan egos and you are much too sweet to either acquire one or date one.”

“Diva doctors are much better than God complex doctors,” Amanda replied dryly. Her sister had reason to be a bit cocky, since she was one of the best sport medicine doctors in Dallas, possibly in Texas.

“You don’t see me running off getting married,” Kelli said, not disputing her diva status one bit.

“No, you certainly are not. No marriage for you. I’ve heard it a million times.” Amanda mimicked her sister, “All play and no stay.”

Kelli wasn’t fazed. “Speaking of play, how ’bout them ballplayers?”

A smile lifted Amanda’s lips as she thought again of Brad’s towel. “I don’t remember the locker rooms being so—”

“Hot?” Kelli asked. “Heck, yes. There is enough beefcake in the locker room to keep a girl drooling for hours. You were so freaked out by the blood, you stopped hanging out with the guys before you were old enough to enjoy the scenery.” She made an unladylike sound. “Well, that and the fact you were talking like a sailor. It was quite comical. Cute little thing until you opened your mouth.”

“Well, I’m enjoying it now and, believe it or not, my sailor talking past comes in handy these days.”

“Just don’t go falling for one of those beefcakes.”

“Daddy’s a doctor.” Surely their father proved the exception to Kelli’s God complex rule.

“And Mom is a saint.” Apparently not. “Which reminds me. Call Mom and Dad. They are freaking out worrying that their little baby is okay.”

Amanda rolled her eyes. “Good grief. I’ve only been gone a few days. I’m twenty-eight and divorced, not eighteen and headed off to college.”

“That’s Mom and Dad. You know how they worry.”

“I’ll call,” Amanda promised. “But I have to make my deadline first.”
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