|Chapter One -- The Kickoff
Hiring the one woman he could never forget was a dumb-assed idea and the wrong play to run, but Derek Ramsey took the ball and ran with it anyway. Five years ago, his one-weekend affair with Rachel McCormick had tackled him for an emotional loss. She'd been his best female buddy, and he'd fucked up a good thing by following his dick instead of his brain. After battling a half decade of guilt and coulda-shouldas, he dreaded and anticipated this reunion.
She'd been employed as his caretaker and living in the little house next to his barn for a few days. He'd managed to avoid contact by taking an impromptu weekend visit to his dad and stepmom a few hundred miles away. But he couldn't stay away forever.
Weary of postponing the inevitable, Derek walked down the driveway from his ranch house to the barn and small caretaker's house. Pausing halfway down the hill, he whistled for backup. Consider him a coward, but his chocolate Lab would serve as a diversion if this reunion didn't go well. Oddly, Simon didn't come running. Derek shrugged. He must be chasing rabbits in the woods or something.
He'd have to go it alone. As he rounded the last bend in his driveway, Rachel McCormick stomped up the hill toward him.
Oh fuck. He knew females. He'd endured growing up with an older sister. Rachel had that close-fisted, furious carriage to her stride that meant only one thing: someone was going to die. Please, God, don't let it be him.
Even as he planned possible escape routes, his male head perused her body and responded with a resounding thumbs-up, though it wasn't really his thumb that was up.
The woman marching toward him with murder in her eyes barely resembled his tomboy buddy from his high school and college days. This Rachel wore a navy blue blazer with matching skirt and shoes, complete with manicured nails and makeup. The suit hugged her tall, lean body and accentuated her curves and straight-to-heaven legs. Long reddish brown hair was pulled back into a tidy ponytail. While he preferred the blue jeans and T-shirt version, this one was just as gorgeous and way more unapproachable. Don't mess with me radiated from every pore in her body. Not a glimpse of the shy, sweet Rachel he had once known.
"Rachel, good to see you again." Derek spoke calmly -- hoping to defuse the bomb -- and halted a few steps from her.
She didn't return his small talk. Green eyes blazing, she scowled, as dangerous as a hand grenade with the pin pulled in the hands of a chimpanzee.
"Problem?" he asked conversationally and forced a pleasant smile on his face.
"Do you own a demon chocolate Lab?"
Derek barked a laugh and sealed his death sentence. Her expression went beyond homicidal. "I have a Lab named Simon. He's opinionated and untrainable. It sounds like you've met him."
"How long has he engaged in a life of crime?"
"Oh shit. What did he steal now?"
"My truck keys. My only set."
"Where is the little delinquent?" She glanced up and down the driveway.
"I called for him earlier. He didn't come. I suspect he's busy burying the evidence."
"I missed a job interview because of that hoodlum." Her laser-tight glare sliced through his defenses.
"I'm sorry. I could get you a cab."
"It's too late now." She spoke through gritted teeth and visibly drew in a long, calming breath. A split second of uncertainty flashed across her face, peppered with a vulnerability that brought memories flooding back to him of the girl he had once known. Sweet Rachel with a passion for football and a kind word for even the most unworthy person.
He watched as she gathered her composure and hid behind an emotionless mask. "I still need my keys."
"I doubt we'll find them. He's very good. A serial digger."
"What do you expect when you name a dog Simon? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy." She stared up the dirt road. "My keys could be anywhere."
Derek didn't hold out much hope. Dense woods surrounded the driveway on both sides. At the end of the woods was a large field, cross-fenced into several smaller grassy paddocks. It'd take an act of God to find her keys. He truly doubted the Big Guy considered such a trivial matter worthy of his attention.
"So Simon's on your hit list along with me."
"Right up there at the top." No denial of his place on the list.
"Are you a member of AAA?"
She pointed down the driveway. "That's my truck. What do you think?"
He knew what he thought. He thought her lips looked pretty kissable, even without lipstick or gloss. He thought she was the sexiest thing he'd seen in a long time. And he thought -- oh damn, every thought bordered on dangerous and impossible and stupid.
"Derek." She stared at him as if she expected an answer, but he'd be damned if he could remember the question.
"I said I've scaled back on material goods and choose to live life simply."
He raised one eyebrow, not buying that one. "Judging by the dents in the thing, you might want to part with a few bucks…for your own safety."
"Harvey has character." Her anger still simmered below the surface, and a stranger stared back at him with frosty green eyes. Still beautiful, but formal and cold. He liked her better mad.
Derek snorted. "Harvey looks like he escaped a life sentence in a wrecking yard."
"He runs great." Rachel squared her shoulders and stood up straighter. She gave him her most charming smile, as if she didn't have a care in the world. "Look, champ, I'd love to stand out here and shoot the breeze with you, but I'm a busy woman. Your agent already discussed the particulars of the position with me."
He imagined all sorts of particular positions he'd prefer to do with her. She'd feel pretty good in his arms right about now, all soft and warm. And then he'd take her to bed and bury his cock deep inside her. She'd scream and beg for more, just like one weekend so long ago. Derek shook his head. This line of thinking headed nowhere but trouble and stopped now.
"I'll get you a locksmith."
"Don't bother. I'll call one."
Derek wiped sweat off his brow and shoved his hair off his forehead. Damn. Was she so oblivious to him that she wasn't picking up on his thoughts? He hoped so. As far as money, he knew better than to offer any. She had her pride. He'd let her keep it. He knew how valuable pride was. Since college, his none too lustrous pro career had severely dented his.
A joyous bark caught his attention. Simon trotted down the road toward them. A stick hung from his mouth, and his tail wagged with enthusiasm. No sign of stolen goods. On his best doggy behavior, the felonious Lab sat down next to Derek, grinning for all he was worth and incredibly pleased with himself.
"Simon, meet Rachel. Rachel, meet Simon." Simon thumped his tail on the ground and gazed up at her.
"We've met." Rachel glared at the dog. Undaunted, Simon took it as a compliment and drooled on her foot.
"Rae, I'm sorry. He's my dog. I'll take care of this."
"A dog-skin rug in front of my fireplace would be payment enough."
"You don't have a fireplace."
"One small detail. I'll build a campfire on the porch."
"You're a heartless woman."
"Don't you forget it."
There were lots of things Rachel McCormick couldn't forget. Topping the list was Derek Ramsey, her former longtime best friend and one-weekend-stand lover. And not just any weekend lover, but the shatter-your-heart-never-slept-with-anyone-else-before-or-after type of lover.
He still had that rugged profile, gorgeous butt, and long legs. An oh-so-familiar scar zigzagged down the length of one upper arm and ended at his elbow, a souvenir from a pissed-off defensive back during his college football days. A Rose Bowl tattoo graced the other arm, a new addition since she'd last seen him naked over five years ago.
She'd rather fight ten linebackers for the last piece of double chocolate fudge cake than face this man, but she was committed to her mission. Everything hinged on her handling the next few months in his presence. Seeing him brought back a painful onslaught of emotions. Her head pounded. Her stomach ached. Her hands shook. Her heart beat a little harder in her chest. Rachel thought she'd gotten over him long ago. It appeared she'd been fooling herself.
Half a decade may not have changed her physical reaction, but a melancholy layer of mistrust coated her emotional reaction, a painful reminder of good times never to be recovered. Worst of all, an emptiness engulfed her like a morning fog in downtown Seattle, more unsettling than the physical pain.
Aware of every inch of his six-feet-five frame, Rachel turned to make a graceful exit. Big mistake. Her ankle twisted. Her clumsy feet wrapped around each other, and down she went, only to be suspended in midfall and hauled against his strong chest. He smelled of pure male with an underlying scent uniquely his. Their gazes met and locked. Sadness flickered in his eyes, then extinguished like a candle in a hurricane.
She gripped his shoulders. Her attempt to right herself rubbed her chest against his. Her body thrummed with excitement and anticipation, refusing to listen to warnings from her head. Those familiar brown eyes, kind and concerned, stared down at her like warm fudge brownies straight from her mother's oven. A few wrinkles in the corners testified to the miles he'd put on since their college days. Yet they only added to his overall killer appearance -- an appearance of which he'd always been relatively oblivious. She, however, wasn't.
Her heart lay down at his feet and begged for any crumb he chose to throw her way. Her pride gave it a swift kick in the pants and forced it back to reality. This man was not her friend. Not anymore. Not after what he'd done to her father.
"You're still fighting a losing battle with gravity." His mouth quirked and his eyes sparkled as he slipped into his old teasing banter.
"What makes you think that?" She'd mastered stilted conversation, but her voice shook like an unbalanced washing machine.
"I'm still holding you up." His voice vibrated with that too-familiar deep, rich tone, making her want to jump into the nearest bed and drag him with her. Fortunately it was edged with pity and regret, which poured water on her fire.
She jerked out of his arms, backed up, and stumbled. He saved her again, this time around her waist. His big hands steadied her before he let go. Standing upright, Rachel pulled down her skirt and smoothed the wrinkles in her suit.
The corner of his mouth twitched as he held back a grin. "You're a danger to yourself. How you've survived this long I'll never know."
"I'm nursing a bum ankle."
"Bullshit." He squinted into the sun at her. Leave it to Derek to call it as he saw it.
"Gravity is not my friend." Her jaw clenched. She didn't need him to point out her lack of coordination. It'd been the butt of her family's jokes since birth.
"Gravity is your nemesis." He raised one eyebrow for emphasis, still battling that smile. His gaze traveled the length of her body and lit up with appreciation.
Rachel took a step back, but a few feet couldn't squelch the sexual chemistry crackling between them. "Thank you." Let him think she always dressed like this, not just for an aborted job interview, thanks to a key-pilfering dog.
"You don't look like you." His brow furrowed as he continued to assess this new look of hers.
"Actually I do. I've outgrown my college image." A bald-faced lie, but what did he know? He hadn't seen her in five years. Despite feeling like an imposter, her power suit acted like Kevlar body armor, effectively disguising the chickenshit female bent on justice underneath.
His gaze settled on her face. "I always liked the way you looked. Natural. No pretenses. Real." His voice came out soft and low.
Rachel had always liked how he looked too -- and still did. She stood up straighter and faked a confidence she didn't feel, thanks to the suit. "It's been a long time."
The man looked at the ground and kicked at a small rock with the toe of his shoe. His head lifted, and he met her gaze. "Lots of changes. I suppose you know I haven't taken professional football by storm."
"I heard." She'd heard plenty, such as washed-up, a disappointment, lost his nerve, finished. The list went on and on. Sympathy for his situation warred with cynicism regarding his character.
He forced a smile. "And you?"
"In between jobs right now. Just waiting for the right thing to come along."
"You got a bum rap."
"Who told you?"
"Cass talks too much." Rachel averted her eyes, unable to face his sympathetic gaze. She shrugged like her employment status was nothing when it was everything.
"I'm sorry to hear about your dad. I considered him a mentor, a role model. I still don't believe it." His discomfort obvious, he concentrated on petting Simon. The dog's tail thumped energetically on the ground.
"Neither do I." A lump lodged in her throat. The pain inside squeezed the breath from her lungs. She studied Derek's body language, searching for a revealing chink in his armor, but found nothing but sincere concern.
Derek threw the stick and jumped back as Simon barreled past. "I'm sure things will work out in the end."
She was counting on it. "I hope so. In my line of work, jobs are a rare commodity."
Derek started to open his mouth and seemed to think better of it. Most likely he didn't have a clue what her line of work was. Heck, she wasn't even sure what it was anymore.
Their small talk dried up, and an awkward silence followed. His jaw worked like it always did when he was trying to find the right words. "I want to thank you for agreeing to watch my animals and my place on such short notice."
"It's convenient for both of us." He had no idea how convenient, nor would he be grateful to her if he knew her real reason for being here.
"Thanks just the same. There is one tiny catch."
"What?" Rachel caught the twinkle in his eyes.
"Him." Derek indicated the dog.
"Yup, Simon." At the sound of his name, Simon dropped the slobber-coated stick at her feet and whined.
She grimaced and ignored the stick. "Are you sure he'll be out on parole?"
"I'm pretty sure." His mouth twitched upward in a smile.
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