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The Penalty: The End Game Series by Piper Westbrook (1)

CHAPTER ONE

“Gorgeous gutter slut. I hate you.”

It wasn’t the most awesome comment Waverly Greer had ever received, but it definitely wasn’t the worst. “Thanks. Hate you, too, beautiful bitch,” she shouted across the curb to Meg Reyes who stood waiting near the Rio’s entrance. Only in Sin City—and only coming from her best friend—could gutter slut be taken as a compliment.

Not giving the chauffeur a chance to circle the vehicle and open her door, Waverly had stepped out and paused at the BMW sedan’s lowered front passenger window to tip the man and thank him for politely ignoring that she was the subject of hot breaking-news debate on every fucking sports radio station he’d attempted to listen to during the drive. Now, as he bid her a good evening with a touch to his cap, he not-so-politely slid his eyes to the pale cleavage displayed by the deep V-neckline of her dress.

She’d almost chosen a more modest outfit, almost forced her wild blond curls into submission. She’d come this close to ditching tonight’s Las Vegas Villains team party. In the back of her mind she’d been a little fearful that a woman intruding on a boys’ club—which the National Football League undoubtedly was—shouldn’t waltz into it dressed as sin in stilettos. But the getup was an invitation to a high-stakes dare: I dare you to take what you want…what you’ve earned.

There were few things Waverly enjoyed more than a good dare.

Hurrying to join Meg for preparty drinks at VooDoo, she was glad she’d covered her insecurity with the brand of confidence that only a gauzy scarlet dress and chocolate diamonds could provide. After all, a newly hired NFL assistant athletic trainer shouldn’t skip meet-ups.

The reality that she had landed a shot at bringing her sports medicine experience to a professional arena still hadn’t fully registered. Pushing for aggressive reorganization—from administrative cleanup to fresh acquisitions—the new owners had preached to the media about wanting change.

But Waverly, who’d paid her dues interning in college sports programs and training players for two NCAA teams, had still been rejected—twice. Then at the close of the Villains’ minicamp, just when she was ready to give up her pursuit of the job, she was offered a position. No wooing, no frills, just a take-it-or-leave-it open door to the gig of her dreams. And she was expected to be better than perfect.

According to the fresh headlines of major sports networks, she had three strikes against her: she was a woman, she was a young woman, and the fact that the team’s new owners were her parents, which screamed nepotism.

Thank God this wasn’t baseball, because three strikes didn’t count her out.

Meg didn’t wait for Waverly to meet her on the curb before she jabbed her cane on the ground and limped with impressive speed toward the entrance, calling over her shoulder, “Vamanos! Gotta hustle before all the good tables, drinks, and men are gone!”

Waverly laughed, quickening her step and letting the oversize sheer bell sleeves of her dress flutter in the light wind. The red-and-purple glory of the Rio glowed against the dark sky that was illuminated with the lights of the Strip. She enjoyed what this city had to offer, but next week, right at the height of summer, training camp in Mount Charleston would be her home away from home.

Hot on Meg’s red-bottom heels, Waverly said, “Let’s divide and then we’ll conquer our objectives. You snag a table, I’ll order the drinks—rum and Diet Coke’s still your drink of the month, right?—and we’ll both scope out men.”

“Could it be you’re looking for a hookup, too?”

“I’m only looking, not touching. Camp’s coming up and I really don’t need the trouble.”

“Oh, Waverly. If done right, a hookup is anything but trouble.” Meg led her to the entrance of VooDoo Lounge. “Where should we stake out? Indoors, outdoors, upstairs, downstairs?”

“Indoors downstairs for starters. I want to relax and savor my beer.” Body heat, the mingling of spicy cologne and musky perfume, and the deep pulse of music confronted Waverly as she followed her friend inside the dimly lit nightclub and began weaving through the crush of people. “By the way, I know what a hookup is.”

“Then you know it doesn’t come with expectations and strings attached and everything else that falls under the trouble category. Dios, you sure play it safe when it comes to guys. I blame Alex. All I’m saying is if the same ol’, same ol’ disappoints over and over again, try something new. Think of the world as a bar. Why commit yourself to plain beer when you can have a shot of something new? Oh, found a table!” Meg took off in a blur of teal-colored chiffon with her cane tap-tap-tapping on the floor, leaving Waverly no choice but to chase after her.

“The fuck? I thought you were getting the drinks,” Meg said when Waverly claimed the chair opposite her and dropped her handbag onto the table. “Fine, I’ll go.”

Waverly swiftly swiped Meg’s cane from its perch on the seat of the chair between them. “No, you don’t. I’ll get the booze, but not until you hear this.”

Meg muttered a creative expletive and Waverly fought a smile. “FYI, I was over Alex the second he forbade—oh, yeah, forbade—me to take the Villains’ offer.” Alex Krasinski had used her to network in the NFL, promote his luxury hotel chain, and schmooze his suit-and-tie acquaintances with box-seat tickets before the Villains franchise had even officially changed hands. The moment she’d shared with him the big news that hadn’t been leaked to the media until tonight, he’d given her an ultimatum: give up her spot on the training staff or give him up.

That ultimatum had infuriated her, and so did Meg’s accusation that Waverly was incapable of taking a personal risk. She and Meg had been friends for three years, since the day Meg had caused a ruckus at the stadium’s Villains Club Lounge, complaining about her prime-rib sandwich and saying she deserved to fill her belly with a good meal and see some football to forget how crappy it was that she’d been transferred to federal desk duty in Las Vegas after being pulled from a field job on Capitol Hill.

Waverly, sick of being stood up, had taken satisfaction in giving away her no-show boyfriend’s ticket and Pinot Noir to a stranger, and she and Meg had been friends ever since. It was time to find out if her bestie could take what she dished out.

Waverly folded her arms across her chest. “Have you had a hookup this summer?”

“Uh, it’s a bit more difficult for someone like me. What man wants a romp with a three-legged woman?”

“Don’t say that, Meg.” Truth be told, Meg was fortunate that the burden of a cane was the only lasting damage from the bullet lodged in her hip, and Waverly didn’t think it healthy for her friend to use her injury as an excuse to miss out on life—even something as fleeting as a good, sweaty screw.

Lightening the mood, and not one to let Meg get down on herself, she quipped, “Bet you a crisp hundred there’s a guy out there who gets harder than granite for three-legged women.”

Meg laughed, then, sobering, said, “Well, he may be ‘out there,’ but if he doesn’t walk into this nightclub, it’s going to be just me and my vibrator tonight. The big one.”

“The Impaler?” Which was about as thick as her wrist and when switched on it seemed angrier than a gladiator’s fist. “Are you still trying to make that sci-fi cock fit?”

“It’s going to happen. I’m on a new stretch regimen in physical therapy.”

“Um…okay, then.”

“Now please move your ass and get those drinks. I’m thirsty.”

“Yeah, for dick.” Waverly leaped up, grabbed her bag, and dashed into the crowd before her friend could whack her with her cane.

At the crowded bar, Waverly waited for a space to open up. She glanced back to her table and saw a man was already proffering Meg a drink. Clearly there was no shortage of men in Vegas interested in petite Mexican dirty-talkers.

A woman vacated a barstool and Waverly slid onto it, only to find no one manning the bar. A couple of young men with bottles of Dos Equis in tow bumped into her as they jostled each other for a spot at her elbow. At her firm headshake they grunted It’s all good and moved on to a pair of women.

Waverly inspected the front of her dress for damage. One pic of her looking disheveled would no doubt give her meme notoriety and the chew-up-spit-out sports media would be hungry for more—as if a beer-stained dress or even imperfect lipstick carried more urgency and importance than the fact that the Villains had acquired three of last season’s first-round draft picks and had snatched up a championship-winning quarterback just one day after his free agency had been announced. Not to mention that the injured safety the league had written off as a fallen star was in better health, in mental control, and come September would be in a silver-and-blood-red Villains uniform—and Waverly couldn’t wait.

She took a moment to retrieve her compact and check her makeup. Beyond her own reflection in the small circle mirror was a pair of intense eyes…watching her. Snapping the compact shut, she whirled on her stool and silently confronted the man who lingered at the edge of the bar like a tall sculpture of muscle and lust and instant temptation.

At his quick wink, heat rushed between her thighs. An unsteady breath escaped her lips before she could manage to string together a coherent sentence. “Need a mirror?” she uttered lamely, holding up the compact.

The corner of his perfectly kissable mouth tipped up in the suggestion of a smirk. Her muscles tightened against the pleasured tingling of her clit. Confounded at such an involuntary reaction to a stranger, she fell into an old nervous habit, wiggling her right foot back and forth.

“No, thanks,” he said, moving behind the bar.

Of course, he would be the bartender. Tanned skin, a burr haircut, and what looked like a few days’ growth of beard—he probably made an incredible income on what he took home in tips every night from women who weren’t immune to his in-your-face appeal.

The things this man was doing to her rationality were dangerous. And for once she didn’t even think about whether or not he would be welcomed into her family circle. The only men her parents had approved of were the ones they’d set her up with. A long line of plain, generic-labeled beer bottles. Already this guy, a shot of dark and addictive, was something refreshingly different.

Maybe Meg had a point. Still, Waverly wasn’t a spontaneous girl and wouldn’t go for the first attractive…okay, lip-bitingly hot…man who tossed her a crumb of attention. Everything—including flirting with a guy who had trouble written on every sexy square inch of him—required precision. She’d had her fill of heartache. Control mattered above anything else. “So. How well do you know your way around a cocktail?”

Intrigue and appreciation danced in green eyes that reminded her of everything that was forbidden but too delicious to resist. “I do all right.”

Was that a hint of arrogance she detected in his tone? Or was this a challenge? The natural-born competitor in her took the bait. “Got skills?”

“Mad skills.” Arrogant humor. One point in his favor. He strode toward her, the sleek bar between them. “What’s your pleasure?” His deep voice traveled over her like a flutter on her skin.

“Beer, actually. It may be basic but I like it.” It was the truth. She appreciated anything from dry martinis to whiskey sours to brandy cocktails, but she knew what to expect from no-frills beer.

“No matter what, you go for what you want.”

Waverly tipped her head and felt her blond tendrils tumble heavily over one shoulder, exposing the side of her neck to the room’s heat. “Is that what beer says about the person drinking it?”

“It’s what I say about you.”

To hell with beer. She took pride in being tough to predict and define—something that people like Alex and her own family weren’t comfortable with. “I want something…new.”

“When did you decide that?”

“Just now.”

Waverly’s eyes played over the broad span of his shoulders straining against his pristine white button-down shirt as he reached for a glass. For one dangerously weak moment she considered leaning across the bar to run her hands over his head and feel the spiky ends of his aggressively cut hair against her fingers.

Before she could do more than ogle him, he handed her a martini glass. That almost-smirk remained in place. “Maybe this will take you out of your ordinary.”

Waverly lifted the glass to her lips but didn’t drink. “What is this?”

“A Sexy Devil martini. If you like cranberry, you’ll love this. If not…try it anyway.”

She sampled the strawberry garnish before sipping the drink. The flavor of cranberry vodka with an undertone of tart lemon tingled her taste buds. “Hmm. I like it.” She flicked her tongue over her bottom lip to catch a droplet of the liquid, and his mouth turned serious in response.

Suddenly her thoughts were at war. Order Meg’s rum and Coke already. Give him your phone number. Concentrate on tonight’s team party. Go book a room and bang him stupid—you’re at the Rio for God’s sake!

A text message from Meg was the nudge she needed.

Sit on that guy’s face or I will.

Waverly glanced back at the table, caught her friend’s sly, sexual gesture before Meg leaned toward the man now sitting with her. Waverly’s voice was huskier than she’d ever heard it as she slipped her phone into her bag, dropped a twenty on the counter, and said to the bartender, “Thanks for my Sexy Devil martini.” She hopped off the stool, and someone immediately took it. “Free to take a break?”

The grin he’d been wrestling with finally broke, lighting up a face that she had mistakenly doubted could get any more attractive. He leisurely made his way to her, then pointed at a man behind the bar in a dark shirt and pants who was prepping to wow a group of women with a round of VooDoo’s famous Witch Doctors. “I’m not a bartender. My friend Clay is. And as you can see, he’s got talent, but I prefer mixing my own drinks.”

Her heartbeat kicked up at the realization. The unspoken challenge egged her on, urged her to do what everyone, it seemed, thought she couldn’t. Ultimately, though, she was in control and wasn’t about to do anything—or anyone—she didn’t want to do.

“Good.” With a crook of her finger she beckoned him to follow her.

◆◆◆

 

This was going to go too far. Jeremiah Tarantino knew it but still didn’t miss a step as he let her lead him up the stairwell to the nightclub’s upper outdoor balcony. The goal had seemed simple enough earlier that evening when he’d gotten behind the wheel of his Benz and shot down the road, leaving in his wake the Lake Las Vegas mansion that his family had turned into a battleground. Make himself inaccessible to his family, stay at the Rio for the night, hit up VooDoo for an hour, tops, just for a drink in the midst of a few hundred people who, thankfully, were strangers—not family. A casual fuck wasn’t what he’d come here for, but it was a fantastic alternative to playing peacemaker.

Selfishly, he wanted to find some peace for himself. At the close of the Villains’ last minicamp, he’d taken a few weeks of personal time—much of which was spent refereeing his brother and their father, whose fiancée, Izzie, was a twenty-nine-year-old bug buzzing in his ear nonstop about her future and how the Tarantino family losing control of the Las Vegas Villains was affecting her life. The new owners hadn’t yet flicked him from the training staff and he was the last of the Tarantinos affiliated with the team. So naturally her focus had turned to him and what he intended to do to fix the situation.

He’d only managed to hold off the crazy by channeling his anxiety into what he most enjoyed: the company of a beautiful woman. A weekend in Key West with a tiki bar waitress had taken off some of the edge, but stress weighed him down.

Contrary to what many believed, there was no “off-season” in professional football. Several days from now it would be back to the training facility that he knew better than his own luxury condo in the city, back to rehabilitation and practice, back to going toe to toe with coaches and players. Back to work.

He hadn’t been canned yet, but how long would it last? His older brother, Milo, hadn’t bowed out gracefully when their father had sold the Villains franchise. Jeremiah couldn’t blame the injured-into-retirement tight end for taking the loss of his birthright personally. The heir apparent had gotten screwed. Both he and Jeremiah had watched their legacy get signed away, along with all the possibilities that came with it, and the new owners, who his father claimed had aggressively convinced him to sell the team to them, were trigger-happy when it came to hiring and, especially, firing.

Right now Jeremiah had a fragile position of power as an outsider who was inside the gates. No question the Greers, the intimidating husband-and-wife duo who’d purchased the Villains, would be watching him closely—so he would proceed carefully, earn a rapport, figure out where loyalties lay and who to trust.

For Jeremiah, proving that the Greers had practically stolen a multimillion-dollar ball club from the Tarantinos was personal.

But who better to distract him than the woman in front of him? Damn, had he ever seen a sexier pair of legs?

“Now, this—” the distraction in red sent him a nod over her shoulder “—is hot.”

The club’s balcony was jammed with dancing patrons carrying drinks—and cameras. Subtly, he shifted to the right and circled a hand around her wrist, drawing her to a less crowded spot. He resembled his brother closely enough to have been mistakenly asked for his autograph more than once and didn’t want what short time he had to spare with this woman to be invaded by family complications.

In a couple of hours, he’d be at one of the city’s most exclusive VIP rooms celebrating the start of another season—this one free of lockout uncertainties but still not without Villains-style drama. At the minicamps, he’d seen more new faces than familiar ones, and over a third of all the players who would survive the hell on grass that was training camp would see their fantasies of bringing it to a pro game go up in goddamn smoke.

On some level he could commiserate. If he didn’t strike the right balance between laying low enough and taking enough social initiative he’d be cut, too. The owners were still adjusting the coaching and training staff. A new assistant trainer had been announced today. He’d have to be sure to introduce himself. But his father’s fiancée’s latest tantrum had drained his patience to the point where he’d resolved to unplug himself from work and family and had mindlessly gambled away over two hundred dollars in the casino after checking into the hotel’s Cariocas Suite.

“Why’d you invite me out here?” he asked, leaning close to the woman’s ear.

Her shrug rewarded him with a hint of fruity perfume. “Just trying something new,” she said in a point-blank way that made him believe, when it came to her, what he saw was what he’d get. And he liked what he saw. She had hair the color of spun gold dipped in honey—hair he wanted to twist in his hands. Her eyes, a cold shade of silvery gray, held a spark of defiance.

A passing couple bumped her but she made sure not to brush against him. This was a woman determined to remain in control. “Why don’t we take the path less traveled here,” she said. “Did you come to this club to meet the person you’re going to marry?”

“Fuck, no,” he said without a hitch.

“Neither did I.” The relief shone on her face. “Consider this a fantasy, with no real expectations. So what if you and I drop the formalities and the whole list of Dating 101 get-to-know-you questions?”

His brain was apparently slow to catch up. “I’m a part of your fantasy?”

“Only if you want to be.” She waved an arm, indicating the Vegas cityscape. “It all starts with perfecting the moment. Great vibe, amazing background, music with bass you can feel here.” She laid her hand against his chest. “Feel it?”

The club’s intense techno music carried a beat that practically thudded where she’d placed her hand in the center of his chest. He was feeling more than that, though, and it had a lot to do with her lips. How soft would they feel wrapped around his hard—

“What makes it better is a guy who can understand me.”

Jeremiah nodded. “Damned if anyone gets in your way.”

“Hope that’s okay with you—that I like to be in control.” Though she sounded confident, there was a hint of hesitation in her eyes before she brought her face closer…almost touching his but not quite. “I don’t kiss strangers in clubs.”

“We’re outside.” A technicality, but he had to try.

“Funny.” She paused again, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and her right high-heeled shoe began scraping back and forth on the platform. Lifting her head, she trapped his gaze with an intense look that was flavored with amusement. “I didn’t say that I don’t kiss strangers in dark corners…or quiet halls with no one around.”

“Do you?”

“In reality? Only when the situation calls for it,” she said slowly, cautiously, as she turned and led him toward a deep, private shadow on the balcony.

“And in fantasy?”

“Fuck, yes.”

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