Jaci Burton

Playing to Win September 4, 2012
Berkley Trade
ISBN-10: 042524783X
ISBN-13: 978-0425247839

Subgenre: Contemporary, Sports, Erotic Romance

Playing to Win
Book Four in the Play-by-Play Series

Someone's going to have to let down their guard...

Football star Cole Riley is notorious for doing as he pleases—on the field and off. He parties hard and fights harder, but if he doesn't clean up his act, his career is over—so Cole reluctantly agrees to work with image makeover consultant Savannah Brooks. He's not used to being told what to do, especially by some (admittedly hot) southern belle. As for Savannah, she's not convinced she can transform this cocky (and aggressively sexy) force of nature. But she's determined to give it her best shot.

When the sparks start to fly, Savannah lays down the ground rules: no personal complications. If she can turn off the tingle she feels every time Cole gives her a hot stare with his gorgeous baby blues, he can turn off his desire as well. But for two people determined to have it all, a hands-off policy can only last so long before one of them yields.

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Playing to Win

» Playing to Win was a finalist in the Erotic Romance category for Detroit RWA's 2013 Booksellers' Best Awards. (posted May 2013)

»
Playing to Win was a finalist for the Best Erotic Romance 2012 for National Readers' Choice Awards by Oklahoma Romance Writers of America. (posted May 2013)

» Playing to Win was nominated for a Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Erotic Romance by RT BookReviews (posted January 2013)

Reviews

"Burton knocks it out of the park with the latest installment of her super steamy Play-by-Play series. Cole and Savannah are two strong, complex characters who refuse to give an inch. With snappy back-and-forth dialogue as well as hot, sweaty and utterly engaging bedroom play, readers will not be able to race through this book fast enough!

— Reviewed by Dawn Crowne, RT BOOKReviews
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Top Pick!
"PLAYING TO WIN has all the characteristics that have put this series high on my must read list— strong and independent women, emotional depth, personal transformation, and let's not forget smoking hot athletes with rock-hard abs (this is definitely one time you can judge a book by its cover!). There is something I find very appealing about watching intelligent adults navigate their way through professional and romantic entanglements."

— Maria Munoz, Fresh Fiction
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"I … loved it because it was relevant. Timely, accurate, realistic, all those things that we, or rather I want from contemporary romance but so seldom get. It was perfect in its heros imperfections and it was lovely."

Romance Book Forum
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Playing to Win

Start Reading Chapter One

Cole Riley had built his reputation on being tough, especially on the football field. He didn’t yield, and when he had the ball in his hands, there was only one thing on his mind—the end zone. He was hardheaded and single-minded, and he liked to win.

Same thing with women—once he had a target it mind, he went for her until he scored.

So even though tonight’s team party was a target-rich environment, and more than a handful of the sexy women who’d come tonight were giving him the once-over, he hadn’t set his mind on anyone during the few hours he’d been here.

Which was unusual for him. He liked the ladies. The ladies liked him. No ego on his part; he just enjoyed women, and he loved being around them. They were sweet, fun to be with, smelled great, and made him feel good. There was nothing bad about that. In return, he showed them a good time, spent money on them, and never lied to them or tried to be anything other than who he was.

He’d learned a long time ago that women liked honest men. His mother would slap him sideways if he ever lied to a woman. He might be a little wild and reckless, but he wasn’t dishonest. He never promised a woman anything he wasn’t willing to deliver.

Which meant steering clear of women looking to hook a boyfriend, a husband, or any kind of commitment. He gravitated toward the party girls, like the hot redhead and the statuesque brunette who’d been hovering near his radar all night. Those were the women who wanted to have the same kind of no-strings-attached fun he did. It was only a matter of time before he went in for the kill. After all, the hunt was part of the fun. All the circling, eyeing, and flirting was a game. He did love the game—and he played the game to win.

Trying to figure out a woman’s angle was the fun part. They each had an angle, an ulterior motive. Some wanted nothing more than an autograph or a picture they could post on some social media site so they could show their friends they’d partied with football player Cole Riley. Others wanted to hook up for the night, hoping to share his bed so they’d have more permanent memories. If they wanted a good time, he was more than willing to show them one.

The redhead and the brunette were definitely good-time girls. He could tell by the body language and the looks they gave him. They wanted a lot more than an autograph or a picture.

Easy score, right?

Playing to Win

So why did his focus keep drifting to the cool blonde sitting by herself at a table in the corner? She wasn’t his type at all. She wasn’t wearing a skintight dress that showed ample amounts of tits and ass. She wore a simple, black short-sleeved dress that fell to her knees. Though she did have killer legs—legs he’d like to see a lot more of. She just wasn’t showing off her assets.

She was beautiful, sure, with a face that would stop traffic. And the way she was put together screamed money or high society. Her hair was twisted up behind her head, she wore a pearl necklace that didn’t look cheap or fake, and he’d been with enough women to know that little designer purse sitting on the table in front of her cost a lot of money.

Maybe she was related to the team owner. But he hadn’t seen anyone come within ten feet of the table in the past two hours. She was no wallflower, but she wasn’t giving off vibes that said, “Come talk to me.”

Wasn’t his problem. He didn’t know her and he intended to have fun tonight. Team parties were always a blast, and even better, this one was media free. He could down a few drinks, chill with the ladies, and have a good time.

There were plenty of women here to have the kind of fun he was looking for, and the blonde wasn’t the right type. He could tell from the rigid set of her shoulders and the stick-up-her-ass way she sat that she wasn’t a partier. She surveyed the room and gave off definite “keep the fuck away from me” signals, which was likely why no one approached her.

Still, his gaze kept gravitating back to her. He hated seeing anyone sitting alone. He went up to the bar and nudged Grant Cassidy, the Traders quarterback.

Grant turned, then nodded. “Hey, Riley. What’s up?”

“Do you have any idea who that blonde is sitting by herself over in the corner?”

Grant followed the motion of Cole’s head, then frowned. “No. Who is she?”

“No idea. I figured you know everyone on the team. Is she related to the owner?”

Grant shook his head. “Ted Miller’s daughter is a brunette. And she isn’t here tonight. I have no idea who the blonde is. She looks mean.”

Playing to Win

Cole laughed. “That’s what I thought, too.”

He should ignore her and concentrate on the two other women. But for some reason she kept grabbing his attention and wouldn’t let go.

Maybe it was because she kept staring at him. Not in the way other women looked at him—the take-me-home-with-you-tonight plea. Her gaze was cool and assessing. An occasional brief glance and then she’d look away, like she wasn’t at all interested in him.

Oh, she was interested all right. They all were.

So maybe she was a game player after all, and this was a new kind of game.

He pushed off the bar and headed her way. She could throw off all the stay-away signals she wanted, but he was curious now. Someone that beautiful was alone for a reason.

He stopped at her table and her gaze lifted, slowly assessing him. She didn’t smile, but she didn’t frown, either.

“You here alone?” he asked.

“As you can see, I am.”

Southern accent. It fit her. She was all peaches-and-cream complexion, full lips, and the prettiest eyes—the color of his favorite whiskey.

He slid his hand out. “I’m Cole Riley, wide receiver with the Traders.”

She slipped her hand in his and finally gave him a smile—the kind of smile that made a man glad to be a man.

“Hello, Cole. I’m Savannah Brooks. Won’t you sit down?”

Bingo.

Lord have mercy, but Cole Riley’s photos and videos did not do the man justice.

In person he made a woman go weak in the knees. Savannah was glad she was sitting down, because now she understood the mystique she’d read about in the tabloids and all the articles about him as a lady-killer.

Playing to Win

Sure, she’d seen all the photos, and he was certainly pretty. Great body, beautiful dark hair. She could see how some women might be attracted to him, but she hadn’t understood why he was such a hot commodity.

But in person? Oh, yes, definitely. He had charisma, a way of looking at a woman that would make her drop her panties faster than he could flash those unusual eyes in her direction.

She’d felt the heart palpitations when he slid his very large hand in hers and graced her with one look of his drop-dead—what color were his eyes anyway? They were gray, tinged with blue, like a sky coloring up for a storm.

Amazing. When he looked at her it was as if everyone else in the room fell away, and she was the only woman on earth. Which she knew wasn’t true, because she’d studied him all night long, and there were at least twenty women focused on him as if they were a starving pack of wolves and he was meat.

He wasn’t meaty at all. He was perfect and absolutely delicious. About six foot one and 215 pounds of sex on a stick would be her guess.

If she were out scouting for a man—which she wasn’t—she’d pick him out of a crowd. With his inky black hair and gorgeous, well-toned and muscular body, he stood out, even if he did wear his hair a little long and shaggy. There was a certain presence to him. Arrogance, maybe. She’d read his file, and so she was surprised when she hadn’t found him commanding the room or involved in a brawl or wrapped around two or three women in a dark corner.

Maybe the media had blown his off-the-field antics out of proportion. Maybe his reputation was more hype than anything.

But she’d reserve judgement until she got to know him better.

“So, Savannah Brooks. Why are you sitting here all alone?”

“I’m observing.”

He cocked a brow, his defenses obviously up, as he leaned forward on the edge of the chair like he was ready to take flight. “You’re not a reporter, are you?”

She smiled at him. “No. I’m not a reporter.”

He relaxed and leaned back against the chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “Okay, then.”

“I take it you don’t like reporters.”

“Nope.”

Playing to Win

“And why is that?”

“They lie.”

“About you.”

“All the damn time.”

“What kind of lies have they told about you?”

“I don’t want to talk about me. Let’s talk about you. You have a beautiful Southern accent, Savannah. Where are you from?”

Not at all what she’d read about him. That he was an egomaniac, that every conversation centered on him, his stats, his prowess in the bedroom, that he hit on women as a second career, pressuring them to go home with him.

Maybe the media did have it wrong.

“I’m originally from Atlanta.”

“But you don’t live there now.”

“No.”

He smiled when she didn’t offer any more information. He had an amazing, off-kilter smile that made her stomach flutter. She had to stop being such a girl about him. He might be flirting but she was here on business.

“Do you want me to guess?” he asked.

“Not at all. I live in St. Louis right now.”

“Right now. Are you moving soon?”

“No. My job’s keeping me here for the moment.”

“A lady of mystery. I like that. But this hardly seems the city for a Georgia peach like you.”

“Really. And what kind of city should I be living in?”

“You seem perfectly bred for the south, obviously. All Southern-refined, laid-back beauty. Not here.”

He was certainly a smooth talker. “St. Louis is charming.”

“Agreed. It definitely has its charms. Does your job move you around a lot?”

He listened. A good quality. “It does.”

“And what do you do for a living, Savannah?”

“I’m a consultant.”

Playing to Win

“Broad concept. What kind of consultant?”

“An image consultant.”

He frowned. “What does an image consultant do?”

“I assist clients who need help either boosting their image or changing it.”

“That must be an interesting job.”

“I love my work. To have a positive impact on people’s lives is very rewarding.”

He grinned. “Good for you.”

“And what about your job, Cole?”

“I’ve played football since I was a kid. To be able to do this for a living is a dream come true. I’m very grateful.”

He was poised, confident, and polite. Why didn’t he come across like this in interviews? Why was he portrayed in such a negative light? There was more to Cole Riley than what she’d read about in his file.

“Would you like a drink, Savannah?”

“No, I’m fine with the sparkling water, thank you.”

“Okay. You still haven’t told me what you’re doing at this shindig.”

“I’m meeting a new client.”

“You work in sports?”

“I work in all fields, but lately I’ve been concentrating a lot on sports figures.”

He cocked his head to the side and studied her. “Yeah? About to redo someone’s image?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.”

“Huh. I wonder who screwed up and needs a makeover.” He looked around the room, studying all the players in attendance. “Couldn’t be our star quarterback. Cassidy eats, drinks, and pisses charm.”

She resisted the laugh. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

Playing to Win

He looked at her, then around again, zeroing in on a group of players clustered in the middle of the room. “It’s Moose Clements, isn’t it? That guy couldn’t give a decent interview if you gave him a personality implant. Or maybe Jim Highland, the Traders defensive end. You want to talk attitude issues? That guy has serious problems. He’s your new client, isn’t he?”

She stood, smoothed out her dress. “Unfortunately, it’s time for me to go. It was very nice meeting you, Cole.”

“You’re leaving?”

“I’m afraid so.”

He grabbed her hand. “Wait.”

She paused.

“I want to see you again.”

“Oh, you will.” She smiled as she walked out of the room. This was going to be very interesting.

Cole watched Savannah walk away, struck by her elegant beauty.

He was wrong. Definitely no stick up her ass. She walked with a slight sway to her hips—nothing obvious or attention grabbing about her, but she was all woman.

And dammit, he’d just stood there like a tongue-tied teenager and let her get away.

He should have gotten her number, or asked her out. Instead, he’d acted brain-dead.

That wasn’t his style. Probably because he never had to go after a woman. They always came to him.

He moved to go after her, but a hand on his arm stopped him. He turned to see his agent, Elizabeth Darnell, looking up at him.

He frowned. “Liz. What are you doing here?”

“We need to talk, remember?”

He frowned, recalling somewhere in the back of his mind he’d agreed to have a quick sit-down with her tonight. But right now his attention was on the door, where Savannah had disappeared. “Not now.”

“Definitely now. Did you forget the meeting we agreed to?”

He more likely ignored Liz’s edict that they had some important business to talk about tonight. Since he’d signed with her a few months ago, there’d been a lot of orders. He didn’t like being given orders.

Playing to Win

He tried for one of his patient, charming smiles. “Come on, Liz. We’re at a party.”

She raised her gaze to his in a look of disbelief. “Really? You’re going to try that smokin’-hot charm on me? I’m immune, you know.” She flashed her engagement ring at him.

“I wasn’t flirting with you, honest. Gavin would kick my ass.”

“You’re damn right he would.”

“I was just trying to get back to the party. There’s this woman...”

Liz rolled her eyes. “You have plenty of time to party. And I’m sure about twenty women to choose from, if not more. I just need a few minutes of your time. And we had an agreement when I signed you,” she said, giving him that steely-eyed gaze. “Remember?”

“Yeah, yeah. I remember.”

“Good. Then let’s go.”

“We’re leaving?”

“Just across the hall. There’s someone we need to meet with. When we’re finished you can get back to the party. And your women. And whatever it is that you want to do with them.”

Hopefully it wouldn’t take long. Maybe Savannah was still around somewhere and he could hook up with her again.

Elizabeth led him to a room across the hall. It was a small meeting room with rows of tables.

“Have a seat.”

“I’d rather stand.”

She gave him the look, the one that meant she was going to argue until she won. He was just as stubborn, but time was important right now, so he grabbed a chair, spun it around, and straddled it.

“What did I do now?”

Playing to Win

“Tonight? Nothing so far. But I want to remind you about your attitude.”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s what you wanted to meet about tonight? We’ve already had this discussion.”

“I know. And we’re going to talk about it again. The hometown crowd likes a winner. They also like someone who isn’t constantly in the tabloids for an overindulgence of partying, for treading on his fellow players like they’re the shit beneath his Nikes, for accumulating more speeding tickets than the national debt, and for throwing the very expensive cameras of the paparazzi into a fountain. And if that wasn’t bad enough, following it up with a punch to the guy’s jaw.”

“Hey, he shoved the fucking camera in my face. Not just close to my face, but in my face. What was I supposed to do—say cheese and smile for him?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what you were supposed to do. Or turn around and walk away. You need to learn to control your temper and be taught how to behave in public. You need some lessons on how to interact with the media.”

Cole snorted. “I think I know how to handle myself just fine.”

Liz tapped her foot, though how she managed to stand upright on those five-inch heels was beyond him.

“And if you recall, when I agreed to sign you on as a client—mainly because no other agent wanted to be within five miles of you—and I managed to somehow get you signed with St. Louis, you agreed to do anything I asked of you.”

He thought that meant the slightly painful salary cut he’d had to take. At least Liz was savvy enough to put performance bonuses in the contract. He’d show them he wasn’t washed up. He was still an ass-kicker and this season would prove it. “I did what you asked, didn’t I?”

“Oh, the salary cut was just the beginning, Cole. Your image is toast. You know it, I know it, and Coach Tallarino knows it. If the coach wasn’t such a good friend of your cousin Mick—and if he didn’t owe me a few dozen favors, I guarantee you wouldn’t have this job.”

Cole wasn’t buying it. The Traders signed him because he had the talent and plenty of it. Agents liked to make threats to keep their players in line. He knew how this game was played. All he had to do was sit here and listen to Liz’s spiel for a few minutes, then he’d be outta here.

Playing to Win

“The clock is ticking. It’s only a matter of time before no one will touch you, no matter how good you are on the field. You’re a PR nightmare.”

He stood and faced Liz, doing exactly what she said he wasn’t capable of. He took a deep breath and tried to keep his temper under control. “I’m a damn good wide receiver.”

“That might be true, but until you stop the nonsense off the field and prove to the coach, your team, the media, and the general public that you’ve grown up and your bad-boy days are over, it doesn’t matter if you score ten touchdowns a game. Reputation is everything in football.”

He blew out a sigh. Why couldn’t his stats be enough? What difference did it make what he did during his off hours? So he liked to party a little. So what? His bad rep was the media’s fault anyway. He was at the top of his game. After six years in the NFL, he’d damn well earned the right to relax and enjoy life.

But yeah. PR. He understood. And if he had to toe the line for a while until he got in the good graces of the fans and the coach, that’s what he’d do.

“What do you want me to do?”

“I’m bringing in someone to help you.”

He frowned. “Who?”

“Just hang on a second.” She sent a text message, and a minute later the door opened.

He was shocked when Savannah walked in.

Relieved to see her, Cole grinned, glad he hadn’t lost the opportunity to spend more time with her.

Playing to Win

“Hey. I was wondering where you’d wandered off to,” he said.

“You two know each other?” Liz asked.

“Yeah. We met earlier.” Cole turned to Liz. “You know Savannah?”

Liz’s lips lifted. “As a matter of fact I do. And you’re going to get to know her a lot better. Savannah is your new image consultant.”

He pivoted and looked at Savannah, who gave him a serene smile.

The pieces fell into place. He’d been screwed by the pretty blonde. The game player had been played.

My image consultant? What the fuck?”

 

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