The final book in the Players to Men trilogy
A contemporary romance
When a careless wager lands you in trouble…
Sworn off men and their cheating ways, I focus on my new career as an illustrator. Then my path crosses with hotshot hockey star and notorious player, War. No matter his intense blue stares and sinful smiles, I’m not going down that road again.
But one forgotten bet made weeks ago, and my plans go up in flames. Manipulated into working for the gorgeous, vexing man—for free!—I refuse to be another notch on his hockey stick! I’m taking you down, #19
It’s time to up the stakes…
I live and breathe hockey, until Charlotte Jones with her short skirts and sexy legs sashays into my life. The maddening woman challenges me in ways I cannot deny. I’m used to getting what I want, but my former player rep presents a handicap. If calling in this bet to keep her close and prove to her she is whom I want, I’m all over it.
And damn the risks, whatever they may be.
Then she goes into battle mode on social media… Game on, @charlij
War and Charli are tortured souls with darkness in their pasts. It’s so satisfying to watch them both overcome their insecurities and achieve their Happily Ever After. Add in two snarky besties, a troublemaking cat, and sizzling love scenes, and #PlayerDown is a #MustRead for all romance fans. ~ Celia Breslin
“C’mon, kill him! Kill him, War!” The yells grew, resonating in the almost empty auditorium. Adrenaline spiking through my veins, I ignored the groupies, my attention nailed on the six ounces of vulcanized rubber whooshing over the ice. Yet my mind wasn’t on my practice but on the text message I’d gotten earlier.
I know who you are.
The fuck they did! My jaw hardened. I had my share of crazies, but this—
A body rammed into me, sending me crashing into the protective glass. Despite my helmet, my brain shuddered inside my skull. Anger, already brimming, unleashed. I spun around, grabbed the asshole, and slammed him headfirst into the pane. He stumbled back, skates sliding out from under him, and fell on his ass.
Rampant cheering erupted from the stands, hauling me back to the ice.
Breathing hard, I stared down at my fallen teammate, my mind slamming back online again. Fuck, fuck!
“Jesus Christ, War!” Cal spat out. “What the hell, man?” He swiped his bleeding mouth.
Hell. I helped him up from the ice. Growling, Cal removed his helmet, a bruise already forming on his jaw.
Good thing Coach, or Miles, my agent, wasn’t around. With enough of their warnings about reining in my temper hanging over my head to create a damn thunderstorm, even during off-season, I was literally skating on thin ice and in danger of being pulled out during the opening game come October.
Whoever sent the fucking text found a surefire way for me to lose my shit.
Tamping down my frustration, I picked up Cal’s hockey stick and handed it over. “Sorry, man. Reflex.”
“You’re never gonna make the team’s captain with that temper.” Cal’s pissed-off voice blasted me, reminding me of what else was at stake. Not just that and missing another game, but the endorsement deal Miles was in the middle of negotiating.
I pulled off my helmet, and swiped my sweaty brow on my bicep, then cocked an eyebrow. Didn’t bother to say it. Because I would make team captain, one way or the other.
He snorted. “You’re a fucking pain in my ass, Chaos,” he grumbled out my team nickname, and winced, gingerly rubbing his jaw. “But you keep me on my toes.”
“Cal, I love you!” a groupie shouted, drawing our attention. “Let me kiss your face better—I’ll kiss everything better.” More chants followed. “Cal, we love you!”
“War, smash his face in!” another yelled with glee. “And I’ll kiss you any place you want.”
Cal snorted. “Man, the disloyalty after I let them inside.”
“Yeah, transient like the breeze. You’re welcome to them.” I pivoted, looking for the puck.
“Whoa, hold it!” He skated around me, raking his fingers through his short, sweat-slick, light hair, eyebrows nearly hitting his hairline. “When did you start taking the high road when fucking is like breathing for you?”
I undid my glove, my attention shifting to a few guys gliding onto the ice for practice, and I scratched my unshaven jaw. “Bored.”
Cal, still swishing around me, stopped so suddenly, a good thing he had fucking excellent reflexes, or he’d be kissing glass again. Bored wasn’t even it. I felt…jaded.
“Seriously?” he demanded.
I shrugged. They wanted to fuck a notorious player like me. Bad both in the rink and out of it. The media usually embellished the truth, but mine was pretty close to reality, especially since it took certain words to trigger my temper.
My teeth ground down at the label.
It was said during the quarter finals, to derail my concentration and set me off. It had ended with me nailing the fucker in the ribs, slapped with a one-game suspension, and having to endure three similar lectures at different times from Coach, Cheetah’s PR, Amber, and Miles. If I wanted to continue playing hockey for the Cheetahs and keep my endorsements, I had to reel in my shit.
“More for me, then.” Cal grinned when I didn’t answer. “Ow, fuck, man!” He grimaced, gingerly pressing his jaw again. “Those damn fists of yours should be banned. I’m outta here.” He glided for the exit, then yelled, “Catch you Thursday, same time?”
“Yeah.” I glanced back at the middle row seats in the Cheetah’s facilities, where my two best friends, Max and Jack, sat with their wives. Surprisingly they hadn’t left yet after delivering the astounding news earlier.
Hell, the concept still scrambled my brains.
Our friendship spanned over a decade. Both Max and Jack worked for their respective family’s conglomerate businesses. Max in the banking world and Jack in hotels. They watched me with resigned expressions. Because I slammed Cal into the glass?
I shrugged and picked up the puck. Though my friends knew some of the shit that had occurred in my past, they didn’t know the darkest part—one I was forever trapped in with no way of crawling out of it. And now those fucking texts dragged up everything again.
About to skate off, movement in my peripheral view snagged my attention.
A girl with golden brown skin and waist-length spiral hair sprinted up the steps, her short, pleated skirt revealing a sexy expanse of toned legs as she joined Ila and Ray.
Or Charli, as she preferred to be called. Best friends with Max’s wife and totally off-limits to me. She dropped onto the seat next to Ray, plunging into a rapid conversation. I hadn’t seen her since the wedding weeks ago.
Women hit on me all the time, but Charli? She would put the Golden Gate Bridge between us if she could. However, during the rehearsals and wedding, she’d lowered those mountain-high shields she wore like armor just enough to reveal the funny girl with a sarcastic sense of humor. And it wasn’t because of my devastating charm. I had none.
She didn’t treat me like some mega hockey star, and she didn’t seem to care about my bad boy rep, or me at all.
I frowned, watching her.
Sure, she had killer legs and a smile that could make me forget my name, but something beyond that sparkling surface stuck with me—
“Hey, Warrick?” Cal slid back to me again, his skates spraying ice everywhere. “There’s a party tonight, and those chicks,” he nodded to the now vacant back row where the clutch of groupies had gathered during practice, “want you to join us.”
He stared like he’d never seen me before. “You gotta be kiddin’ me.”
“Why?” Hell, I felt burned out and needed a break from everything. Even though it was already the middle of off-season, I still couldn’t seem to focus on anything. And why I’d hauled Cal in for practice, needing to work off the funk.
Snorting, he shook his head.
Charli’s light laughter had me glancing back. I don’t know what it was, but once again, she pulled me out of my own murky thoughts.
“What’s got you so riveted?” Cal drawled. “Ah, the Logan girls are here.”
“The Logan girls are now those hotheads’ wives,” I retorted.
“Man, I sure missed out on Ray.”
“It seems you do want your face rearranged. Go ahead, tell Jack what you just said.”
“Nah. I’m good.” Cal grinned, then he stilled. “Who’s the chick with them?” His stare fixed on Charli like some horny fucking rooster. “She’s hot.”
“We man-hos don’t feature on her to-do list.” I skated off the rink, needing to get out of here and back to my apartment to change and meet up with the guys at the bar. And just maybe my little nemesis would be there, too.
“She hasn’t met me yet.” He glided after me.
“Cal, go find another groupie to screw. Leave her the fuck alone.” Or I’d probably end up breaking his jaw and losing everything I worked so hard for.
As I trudged into the locker room, a thought had me slowing down. Hell, I’d forgotten about that convo Charli and I had during the rehearsal dinner.
We had a little wager to settle.
Suddenly, my day looked so much brighter.
“What has you smiling? Which is a damn scary sight, by the way,” Cal muttered as I undressed.
Anticipation stirring, I grabbed a towel and headed for the showers.
“Girl, you’re glowing!” I hugged Ila, my bestie since we first met at the arts university as freshmen many years ago.
Tanned and radiant, wedded bliss suited her, and it made me happy. She finally managed to move on with a great guy who saw only her, and who healed her broken heart after her two-timing rat-ass of a dick ex had hurt her so badly.
“Honeymoon baby on the way?” I grinned.
She laughed, amber eyes bright with happiness. “No. When the time’s right, then who knows?”
“Hey, you.” I hugged Ray, Ila’s younger sister. We’d become good friends, too, since we all usually ended up hanging together.
“So, what’s up?” I slipped off my mini leather backpack and sat next to Ray. “Why are we meeting here at the Cheetah’s training facilities?”
Ila shrugged. “Don’t ask me. Max and I only got back last night from our honeymoon. It’s all on her.” Ila nodded at her smirking sister. “You know Ray, she’ll tell us when she’s ready.”
Ray snorted, the secret still buttoned behind her dimpled smile. “Jack wanted to see War about something, and I decided here was a good place to talk. Besides, I couldn’t wait any longer.” Her hazel eyes shone like the stars had settled in there.
“Man, you’re both blooming like an ad for a health spa,” I grumbled. “Was something added to the water while I was gone, and I missed out?”
Ila grinned, and Ray burst out laughing, a flush deepening her striking features. “Well, not in the water, maybe in the air…so, Jack and me? We got married!” She flashed out her hand.
“What?” Ila grabbed her sister’s hand. “Do Mom and Dad know?”
Damn, I laughed. Only Ray could pull the rug out from under us and toss us on our asses. Heck, the rock she sported could be seen from space—
My smile slid off my face. I sat there, frozen to the seat.
“Yeah, the parental unit knows.” Ray grinned at her sister. “And Jack’s family, too. We didn’t want to tell anyone else until you got back, but you just had to take a few extra days to do so.”
She calmly laid the fault at Ila’s feet, while all I could think of was, I am sooo freakin’ fuuuuucked.
“It’s why I asked you both to meet me here today.” Ray continued. “We’re going to Mulligan’s later to celebrate. After all, the bar was where Jack and I started.”
Ila glanced back to Max who sat behind us with Jack, the latter thoroughly amused. Max’s bisected left eyebrow lifted, green eyes questioning.
“Did you know about this?” she demanded.
“No.” He shook his head. His overgrown hair streaked a lighter blond from the summer sun, gleamed under the indoor lights. “After you and Ray came up here to wait for Charli, Jack told War and me. Anyway, Ray wanted to reveal her news to you both.”
Ila glared at her sister, then she hugged her again. “Oh, I’m so happy, I could cry! I called it!”
“Yes.” Ray beamed, dimples popping free again. “But Jack’s grandfather did waaay before Jack and I even knew. He simply moved us game players on his chessboard and watched us fumble into love.” Her belly-rolling laughter spilled free.
Maybe I was still doing my statue impersonation, or maybe I was groaning, I didn’t know, because Ray reached out and rubbed my arm. “Hey, I know you’re not upset about Jack and me, so what gives, Char?”
I cast a furtive sideways glance to the rink. Thank God, War had left. He’d made a dramatic exit, too, after ramming a teammate’s head into the glass. I don’t know what had gotten into him for this violent behavior. Luckily for his sexy ass, it wasn’t a match but practice, or he would be in serious shit, according to Max and Jack.
“Nothing,” I evaded. “I’m so happy for you!” I embraced Ray again. Heck, she was like my little sister. But tell them what I’d done in a moment of sheer recklessness, during Ila and Max’s rehearsal dinner? That I’d made a bet with the last, notorious player left from the trio?
War, from what I’d heard, didn’t just have a one-night stand with one woman, but one-night, too-many-orgies with several—hell, that alone had me wanting to run far away from the hardcore player.
My friends might have done the marriage deed. And at one point, I’d wanted that, too. But after three knocks too many, nope, marriage wasn’t on the horizon for me. Men were nothing but dirtbags. Well, the ones I fell for, anyway. Because I always, always ended up with the same template.
Good-looking, lying, cheating jerkwads.
“So?” Ray arched an eyebrow at me. “You’re all done on the East Coast?”
A pang of tears caught in my throat. My beloved Nan, my late dad’s mom, had passed several months ago. After the wedding, I’d to gone to New York and finally put the brownstone she’d left me on the market.
“Yes, hopefully, the house will sell soon.”
“Settled in your new job yet?” Ila asked.
Two years ago, running away from my broken heart, I’d ended working in an art gallery in Germany, thanks to my stepbrother’s connections. Back then, I hadn’t cared. I just wanted to get away from everything, but I missed home and my friends, so I quit and came back.
But another job as personal assistant to a gallery owner? God, no. I wanted something more, something different, where I could actually apply my own art skills.
“No, I turned it down.” I sighed, my shoulders slumping. “I’m not sure what I want to do anymore, but I know it’s not working in a gallery as a PA, managing correspondence, seeing to the safety of works, and putting together other artist’s exhibits. However…” I perked a little. “I do have a Zoom meeting later this evening with a writer who wants an illustrator for a book he’s working on. Could be interesting.”
But doubts settled, causing my stomach to knot. Would a writer want to take a chance working with an unknown artist and illustrator? In this fast-growing field I waded through, I wasn’t sure. Hopefully, my portfolio would speak for itself.
“That’s wonderful!” Ila reached past Ray and patted my knee. “You’ll get it.”
“He mentioned he had two other interviews, so I’m not holding my breath.” I retrieved my cell from my little backpack to call Lyft, but at the missed call on the display, my heart knocked warily against my ribcage.
She’d gone by Camile Dupont since my teens and not Jones any longer after multiple marriages. Currently, she was somewhere in the Mediterranean, on a cruise, recovering from her fifth marriage. It could only mean she was coming home or already on her way there. I didn’t return her call. The last thing on earth I wanted to do right now was deal with my high-maintenance mother.
My gaze lit on the time. Shoot! I jumped up. “I gotta go. I have to get ready for my Zoom interview.”
“We’re leaving, too,” Ila said, rising. “We only stayed to hear Ray’s news. But we’re all meeting up at Mulligan’s later. You coming?”
I frowned as I picked up my backpack. “I’m not sure if I can make it. I’ll try.” I hugged my friends and then skedaddled out of there. More so, to avoid a certain player before he appeared and gloated over his easy victory at the stupid bet. Not that War gloated or some such inane crap. The guy could say volumes with just a look from those magnetic, deep blue eyes.
Maybe I should own up, give him the ten dollars, and suffer the gloating. War had every right to do so. And I needed to learn to zip my quick mouth.
As I headed down the steps and out the main entrance of the building, my mind slipped back to the rehearsal dinner…
“They’re more involved than they’re letting on,” War murmured from his seat by my side.
“What? Who?” My gaze lifted from my decadent dessert, clashing with War’s, and those indigo blues almost had me forgetting why he paid me any attention, making me feel as if I truly was his date and not just a bridesmaid to his best man. Darn, I had to stop letting my romance novels’ ideas bleed into real life. Only in fiction did a girl find a guy so solely committed to her that all others ceased to exist.
“Ray and Jack?” I dismissed it with a wave of my spoon. “No way. Ray’s only interested in getting her degree.”
He made a noncommittal sound.
“You don’t believe me?” I demanded. War’s quietness irked me at times. I was damn sure when he had his groupies around, it wasn’t that way. It probably turned into a whole other ball—er, find-the-hidden-puck game.
He shrugged. “While that might be true, I think Jack changed her mind about him. Their dynamics have altered.”
“Yeah, right.” I snort-laughed, my attention back on them. Ray sat with her parents, and Jack on their other side. They barely said a word to each other during rehearsals. Heck, they didn’t even look at the other. It was as if they both existed on different ends of the country.
“You don’t know her like I do.” I dug up a spoonful of my sinful citrus cheesecake, topped with fresh cream and raspberry coulis, and ate the yummy confection. “I’ve known Ray a long time.”
When that annoying eyebrow quirked, my mouth ran off. “Ten bucks say they aren’t.”
“And I say they are.”
Yep, I’d lost that bet spectacularly.
As I walked alongside the building, debating where to wait for Lyft, the blond hockey player War had rammed into the protective glass strolled out of an exit door marked “Staff and Players Only”. The few girls hanging around darted over and clung to him like extra limbs.
The security guy stationed there simply shook his head and turned away to speak into his walkie-talkie.
I slowed my pace and hung back several feet away, not wanting to be mistaken for one of the adoring fans. The exit door opened again and War stepped out, hooking his massive hockey bag over one shoulder, stick in hand.
The guy was tall, easily around six-four, and muscled. My stupid heart clipped like it was on a fast-track to—to nowhere, dammit! We weren’t even friends, just partners at a wedding now long over. That was all.
His cell beeped. He retrieved the device from his jeans pocket and glanced at it, the waning sunlight highlighting the lighter streaks in his overgrown brown hair and his lean, unshaven jaw.
Before I could call out his name, a whirlwind of flying blonde hair rushed past, leaped onto him, and jammed her lips to his. He stumbled back a step, hockey stick falling as he grabbed her waist. She giggled as he set her down, then she shoved something in his hand.
My fingers tightened around my cell. Hell, I could deal with our bet another time. Why intrude on his hook-up plans for the evening? Ignoring the dip in my belly, I remained where I was, near a parked gray SUV, hoping they’d leave and find some other place to do their canoodling.
Heck, this discomfort was all on me. I knew his rep, and he was true to form.
I really needed to find a new template. Someone a little more like me.
You mean dorky?
Yes, probably safer! I mentally snapped back at my annoying conscience.
So, what if I liked hanging at home, reading, sketching, or watching rom-coms?
It made me happy. I didn’t need a man for that.
Mostly, I no longer trusted my foolish heart. It always made crappy choices.
The sun lowered behind the hills, casting looming shadows. I called for a share ride. My app indicated seven minutes.
“War!” The shrieks deafened me, and I winced, looking up.
Three of the groupies left his friend and scurried after him like he was the best thing to happen since the internet took life. He stood with his back to me, his hands fisted at his sides, one of them probably still clutching the bit of groupie paper like the map to the holy grail.
For him, it undoubtedly was.
Wanting to get away from this Player Show and wait for my ride elsewhere, I stole past him…
Continue reading chapters 2 & 3 HERE