If Matilda Kent had to write one more story about the latest nipple-baring bustier or test drive the newest crotchless thongs marketed to the “everyday woman” for the edification of her style column readers, she was going to strangle her boss with them.
Seriously, who paid a hundred bucks for a scrap of satin and lace that didn’t cover all the bits underwear was invented to cover? A tiny string of fake pearls slung across the divide just didn’t make up for the lack of fabric in a certain area. And why would someone wear them anyway? On a date maybe. But for work? Or binge watching Netflix? Or cooking a lamb roast?
Or any of those everyday woman things?
She clicked and unclicked her pen absently as she focused on keeping everything below the boardroom table very, very still in the hope those pearls would stay lax and not encroach on areas where it might result in an embarrassing urge to itch. Or possibly orgasm. In the middle of an editorial meeting.
This was not where she’d imagined four years studying English Lit at Stanford would land her.
“Matilda. Must you?”
She stopped clicking the pen and tuned in to the half dozen faces peering at her, including Imelda Herron, her hard-as-nails boss, who’d been in the newspaper business since God was a child.
“Sorry,” she muttered, placing her pen on the table as Imelda continued.
But it was seriously difficult to listen to celebrity names being thrown around for a feature series while concentrating on her almost nonexistent underwear. Normally, she could multi-task her ass off, but the threat of imminent invasion of her lady garden by a foreign object was distracting beyond all reason.
If she was going to be violated, she’d rather it be consensual.
“Him,” somebody toward the end of the table pronounced. “That’s who I’d like to know more about.”
Heads swivelled in the direction of the muted wall-mounted television displaying footage of a football team. The camera zeroed in on Tanner Stone—or Slick as the media called him—the captain of the Sydney Smoke rugby team.
Matilda’s pulse spiked. Tanner freaking Stone. A close-up of him shirtless, bending and stretching, his perfect, tight ass in the air, almost made her forget there were pearls in places they had no right to be.
And the fact he was a lying, cheating scumbag who’d stomped on her heart, turned her into a romantic cynic at the tender age of eighteen, and caused her to sabotage every relationship she’d ever had with a man.
He was the reason her grandmother kept bitching at her about the lack of great-grandbabies.
Matilda would have liked to think she was mature enough now to be over him. Sadly, she wasn’t that evolved. The wound may have healed, but it wasn’t all neat and perfect. It was jagged and messy and if you poked it, it still hurt from time to time.
“I wouldn’t mind being rucked by him,” someone muttered.
Matilda glanced around at the general murmur of agreement and tried not to remember how good the man rucked.
He had set a very high standard.
A surge of heat and oestrogen flooded her system at the avalanche of memories. Looking around at the lascivious gazes, she doubted she was the only one experiencing a hot flush.
“He doesn’t give interviews,” someone else lamented.
“He might now,” Imelda nodded as the screen split in two.
One side was still unhelpfully focused on a pair of glutes that would have made Michelangelo weep. The other showed Bonner Hayden, a recently disgraced rugby player from another team, dashing to his car through a mob of reporters. He’d gotten drunk and disorderly and exposed himself to a waitress in front of an entire restaurant and about forty camera phones.
It had been the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents for the sport.
The attention in the room switched back to Imelda.
“Rugby’s had a bit of an annus horribilis,” she explained. “Their image is pretty crap at the moment. Particularly with women. They might be amenable to a feature series on one of their best and brightest—the ‘man behind the myth’ kind of thing.”
The heat coiled and simmered in Matilda’s gut now. “He’s hardly squeaky clean,” she objected. Best and brightest? Screw that. “The man’s had more barely-dressed women on his arm than Hugh bloody Heffner.”
Matilda didn’t watch sport, and she avoided gossip magazines, but she did work on a newspaper—it was impossible to avoid stories and pictures of the one man it seemed everyone wanted a piece of.
“So? The man’s a bit of a playboy. He’s hot, single, and likes pretty girls.” Imelda shrugged. “But there’s never been a whiff of scandal surrounding him, and at the moment, that seems to be a bit of a rarity in the sport. I think the rugby board might be willing to offer up a sacrificial lamb, no matter how reluctant, to restore its image, if we pitched it just right.”
Imelda tapped a finger with a long scarlet nail against her lips for a beat or two before wandering over to the large windows, every eye in the room tracking her path. The offices of the Standard were high in the sky with a one-eighty degree view of central Sydney. Imelda stopped as if she was admiring the sparkling harbour and the white sails of the famous opera house, but Matilda had been around long enough to know that Imelda wasn’t seeing any of it. She could hear the cogs in her boss’s brain working overtime.
“Sydney Smoke’s Playboy Saint,” she said, turning to face them abruptly, looking into the distance as if she could see the headline up in lights somewhere.
Matilda snorted before she could stop herself. “You wouldn’t think that if you knew him.”
A saint? Tanner Stone was the anti-Christ.
The rapt focus of the group switched instantly to Matilda, zeroing in on her as if she were roadkill and they were birds of prey. The atmosphere in the room grew predatory.
“Oh, really?” Imelda purred, pushing away from the windows and prowling toward her with all the grace and menace of a jungle cat about to pounce. “Do tell.”
Matilda swallowed. She hated being put on the spot, and sucked at lying. Her ears were hot and no doubt an attractive shade of red, which her pixie haircut would fail to mask. “We…sort of dated.”
A collective gasp rang around the room. “It was a long time ago,” she hastened to add. “In high school. But I’m here to tell you that Tanner Stone is a world class jerk.”
That seemed to be of little concern to her colleagues, who bombarded her with questions. “What was he like in high school?”
“Was he romantic?”
“How long were you together?”
“Oh my God,” one of the marketing women whispered, “please tell me he’s a good kisser. He has to be with that mouth.”
“Oh, screw kissing,” the ruck girl said dismissively. “I want to know if his legendary ball control extends to the bedroom.”
Matilda blinked at the barrage of questions. There was no way in hell she was telling anybody about Tanner’s ball control. She wanted this day to be over already, and it was only ten a.m. She wanted to go home, take off the ridiculous scrap of fabric and pearls masquerading as underwear, put on her favourite hipsters, and drown herself in a vat of wine.
Imelda held up her hand and everyone magically shushed. Matilda wished that would be an end to it, but she knew her boss too well. Her narrowed, speculative gaze felt like it was probing Matilda’s brain with about as much finesse as a cavity search.
“Good.” Imelda nodded and smiled to herself as if she’d come to a decision. “Matilda, you’ve been wanting to move out of fashion and onto features for some time now. Here’s your chance. I want a six-part series on Tanner Stone. The man behind the myth.”
Matilda gaped at her boss. For almost five years now she’d been slogging away at the newspaper. Her impressive academic qualifications hadn’t meant squat once she’d gotten her foot in the door, and she’d worked hard to move up the ladder. Landing the style column two years ago had been a bit of a coup for someone of only twenty-four, but it was just a stepping-stone. Feature writer was where she wanted to be.
The jewel in the crown.
Now, it seemed, it was being handed to her—with a giant freaking string attached. Suddenly, bustiers and crotchless knickers looked pretty damn good.
“No. No. Hell no.” She shook her head vehemently. She wasn’t putting herself in the way of that train wreck again. “You want me to do a feature story? I’ve got plenty ideas. I’ve pitched a dozen to you over the last year alone.”
Her colleagues looked at her askance. Nobody ever said no to Imelda. Matilda’s pulse hammered madly at her own audacity. But everyone had a line in the sand, and Tanner was hers.
Imelda didn’t do or say anything for long moments, her gaze firmly fixed on Matilda. The lifting of one elegantly arched eyebrow broke the screaming tension. “We could, of course, transfer you to obituaries. Hank is always complaining he’s understaffed.”
Fuckity, fuckity fuck. Matilda didn’t doubt for a moment that Imelda would carry through on the not so subtle warning. She wasn’t someone who made idle threats.
So she was screwed, either way.
At least if she submitted to Imelda’s manipulations and delivered a stunning series, she could leapfrog right into the features team. Use it to her advantage.
If she played her cards right. But…
Tanner freaking Stone?
She shifted in the chair, desperately trying to think of an escape route, the damn pearls reminding her how far away she was from where she wanted to be.
“He won’t agree to it,” she said, prepared to grab hold of any lifeline.
“You let me worry about that.”
Matilda’s sigh was loud and mournful as her shoulders sagged. There was no way out of this but to quit or write about dead people for the rest of her natural life. Neither option was viable with a mortgage the size of hers.
Imelda smiled triumphantly, knowing she had Matilda right where she wanted her. “I’ll set it up.”
Fuckity, fuckity fuck.
“You know what this poker game needs?”
Tanner Stone looked up from dealing the last card just as Ryder Davis said, “A better dealer?” and threw his hand down in disgust.
“Chicks,” Lincoln Quinn continued as he picked up his hand.
Dexter Blake laughed. “Linc,” he said, “if you had any more chicks, you could start your own egg farm. You need to slow down, man, or you’re going to wear that thing out.”
Linc grinned. “Better worn out then neglected, Dex.”
The good-natured insult rolled off Dex’s shoulders. “It’s called discerning, dickhead. You ought to try it some time.”
Donovan Bane whistled. “Discerning. Look at you go with your big words, Dex.”
“Not all football players are young, dumb, and full of come,” Dex said.
“Just the ones called Linc,” Ryder chimed in, and everyone, including Linc, laughed.
“What exactly do you think these chicks you’re always running off at the mouth about would do if they were here, Linc?” Bodie Webb asked as he scrutinised the cards in his hand.
“I don’t know.” Linc shrugged. “Look good, smell good. Get our beers. Stroke our egos?”
Dex snorted. “Man, you are young, dumb, and full of come.”
“As if your ego needs any more stroking,” Ryder added. “If it took form and shape right now in front of us, it’d be a giant hard-on.”
Tanner laughed. He loved poker night. Cold beer, hot pizza, and talking smack. Nothing like relaxing with his fellow team members, far away from the field and the scrutiny of coaches, team officials, the public, and the bloody media. It was usually just the single guys that made it, but it was team building at its best, and as captain, Tanner took team solidarity seriously.
The Sydney Smoke were tight, both on and off the field. It was what made them so damn formidable.
“Poker night’s dudes only,” he said, staring at three aces and two kings. “Now are we going to play or not?”
Tanner’s mobile rang, and the whole table groaned.
“Hey,” Donovan bitched. “You make us switch ours off.”
Tanner grinned as he picked up the phone. “It’s good to be king.” The name display flashed Griffin. The other King in his life. “Crap,” he said. “It’s the coach.”
He picked it up instantly. It had to be something reasonably important. Poker nights were sacred, and the coach knew it.
“Griff?” Tanner said, sliding the phone to his ear, rocking back on the chair’s hind legs. “Everything okay?”
“No, everything is not okay,” he growled. “Apparently now I’m your publicist as well.”
Griffin King was not known for his tolerance. He was known for being one of the best rugby players the country had ever seen, and then for the being the best damn rugby coach in existence. He was known for being a hard taskmaster. He was known for his singular focus on his team and the game, and he hated anything that distracted or detracted from it.
Fripperies he called them. Griffin King hated the fripperies.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re to make yourself available for a newspaper reporter who’s been granted an all-access pass to training, the locker room, and the games, both here and on the road. It’s a six-part series on you—the man behind the myth bullshit.”
Tanner’s chair thunked onto all fours. “The hell I am.”
Looks were exchanged across the table at Tanner’s vehement response. Not many people spoke back to Griff. Not even his captain.
“You think I give one single fuck about any of this crap?” Griff bitched in his ear. “You think it’s my fault that some players go out on the town full of piss and wind and think their shit doesn’t stink? You think I like getting phone calls from a CEO too chickenshit to do his own dirty work and tell you this himself?”
It was also well known that Griff had no tolerance for the suits at the top. There’d been a few over the last ten years that would have gleefully thrown him out of union. But no sports team gets rid of its most successful coach.
“So, because of Bonner Hayden and a bunch of other fuckwits who can’t keep their dicks in their pants and their egos on the leash, I have to kiss up to some journo?”
Tanner knew that rugby needed the media, and he and the team did all that was contractually required of them. But he didn’t believe in singling one player out from the others. One man did not make a rugby team. And he’d seen too many words twisted in the media over the years to want anything to do with a six-part feature.
“Yep. Suits have decided you’re their man. So go do what you have to do, play nice with the journo, and don’t fuck it up, for Chrissakes.”
Tanner shook his head. They couldn’t be serious. “Look Griff—”
“I’m not asking,” the coach interrupted, with a voice that could have frozen a bubbling cauldron. “I’m telling you. This is one of those pain-in-the-ass, non-negotiable things you do for the love of the sport and because I fucking asked you to.”
Tanner pulled the phone away slightly as Griff spewed fire and brimstone into his ear. He looked around at five sets of eyes, the owners of which weren’t even pretending not to listen.
Fucking perfect. Just what he needed. A journo hanging around asking inane questions about shit that did not matter while he was trying to win rugby matches.
Six frickin’ parts.
“Fine,” he snapped, knowing he was up shit creek without a paddle. “Which paper? Who’s the reporter?”
He knew most of the ones that covered the sports desks already. They were okay, by and large. Chuck Nugent was a monumental wanker who knew shit about the intricacies of the game, but he was television-based on account of his apparently pretty face, so at least he’d likely be spared that dipshit.
“It’s the Standard. Someone called Matilda Kent.”
Tanner was pleased he was sitting as Griff tossed that particular grenade at him.
No. No frickin’ way. His Tilly? His high school sweetheart, the woman he’d lost his virginity to? The only woman he’d ever had a real relationship with?
The woman he’d hurt with possibly the most dickish thing he’d ever done in his life?
He knew she was at the Standard. He’d been following her career from afar since she landed back in Sydney straight from Stanford. But she was doing a style column—he knew that because he read it every day. How was she suddenly doing a six-part feature series? On him?
Tanner realised he was listening to the dial tone with no idea when Griff had hung up. He didn’t like the way his lungs felt too big for his chest, or the taut bunch of his muscles in his abdomen.
“Fuck.” He threw the phone on the table, picked up his three-quarter full, long-necked beer, and drained it in a half dozen swallows.
Nobody said anything while he drank. But Linc liked the sound of his voice too much to let the silence continue once the bottle hit the table.
“You get caught on camera with your dick out, too?” he asked.
Bodie cuffed Linc across the back of the head as he said, “You okay, cap? You look kind of pale?”
Dex glanced at him. He was calm and collected as usual—off field. On field, the big guy had perfected a menacing look specifically designed to make his opponents piss their pants. “Problem?”
Oh, yeah. Big problem.
“Suits want me to co-operate with a journo for a six-part feature series. The man behind the myth kinda thing.”
Dex whistled. “Fun. Not.”
About as much fun as a root canal.
“Who’s the journo?” Ryder asked.
Tanner picked at the label on his beer bottle. “Matilda Kent.”
It took less than five seconds for realisation to dawn around the table. “Hey,” Linc said. “Isn’t she that chick you read in the paper every day? The fashion chick?”
Fuck. It had to be Linc. “She’s a style columnist.”
Linc laughed and everyone else grinned. “Sorry there, Slick. I’m not up on all the jargon.”
Tanner had tried to convince his teammates, when they’d sprung him last year with the fashion pages, that he only did it because he liked to dress slick. They hadn’t been convinced but had thought it was hilarious enough to start calling him Slick.
Unfortunately, it had stuck and been adopted by the public and media alike. Something about the alliteration of Slick and Stone had obviously appealed.
Lucky for him, people outside the team assumed it was because of how slippery he was on the field or how slick he was with the ladies. But, no, it was from following his high school sweetheart’s writing career.
He sure as hell didn’t want that one going public.
“That’s because you’re a walking fashion disaster,” Tanner quipped.
“So what’s the problem?” Ryder asked. “She’s a chick who writes a style column. Make up some shit, bamboozle her with your famous charm, and send her on her way.”
“The problem is…” Tanner figured it was best to come clean with the guys about his relationship with Matilda. It was bound to come out, and he’d never hear the bloody end of it. “We used to go out. In high school.”
“Ah,” Dex grinned. “Now it all makes sense.”
“Oh, come on, cap. It was high school,” Ryder said dismissively. “How bad can it be? I swear you’re the only person I know who can dump a chick and still have them talk about how sweet you are all over social media.”
Tanner shook his head. “Not this one. I cheated on this one.” Or at least she’d thought he had, anyway.
Donovan winced. “Ouch.”
Bodie also winced. “Sucks to be you.”
“Dead meat.” Linc grinned. “I call shotgun on your apartment, though. This is one cool setup.”
Tanner’s apartment was situated on Finger Wharf, right on the harbour at Woolloomooloo. A century ago, wool was exported from the timber-pile wharf. A lot had changed.
“Shotgun his four wheel drive,” Donovan said.
“Shotgun his locker,” Bodie jumped in.
“Bullshit, that’s mine,” Dex said.
“I called shotgun first,” Bodie protested.
“You can’t handle his locker,” Dex countered.
If he’d been in a better mood, Tanner would have laughed at them squabbling over his stuff like a pack of seagulls. But right now, all he could think about was a cute ponytail and a pair of adorable horn-rimmed glasses.
Why’d it have to be Tilly?