After a divorce from her cheating football player ex, PR whiz Kim Matlock would rather drive a pine tree through her walled-off heart than work at the Seattle Wedding Expo. And the last thing she expects is to be grabbed and kissed breathless by a hot giant of a man looking to fend off a stalker. She doesn't want emotional entanglements, but she can't say no to one scorching night with the sexy stranger.
To her shock, she finds out afterward that a) he's a pro football player, aka her kryptonite, and b) she's pregnant.
But nothing could have prepared her for his response...
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Jesus Harry Christ. Kill me now.
Ronin Palamo winced as his sister slapped him in the stomach. Two things occurred to him at once: he'd uttered his slightly blasphemous prayer out loud, and Hana packed a punch. Since he'd been the one to teach her how to throw a smack, he couldn't prevent the thump of pride from pounding in his chest.
"Oh, stop being such a drama queen," Hana grumbled. "You keep mumbling under your breath, and you won't have to ask God to take you out. I'll do the job myself."
In spite of the threat she delivered with convincing menace, he grinned, wisely deciding to keep the "bridezilla" comment to himself. It still shocked him a little when he thought of their family's tomboy with the Napoleon complex getting married. Hence this dreaded, mind-numbing, soul- snatching afternoon at the Seattle Wedding Expo.
He shuddered. Just the word "wedding" sent fingernails scraping down his back. And not in the good, hot-and-sweaty-mid-sex way either. It was a wonder he hadn't broken out in hives. Yet.
Still, Ronin was the big brother — the only brother — of his loud, crazy, but loving brood of four sisters. And when Hana had come to him, asking if he'd attend this idea of hell with her, well, he couldn't refuse. He loved her and would do anything for her. Including subject himself to boutonniere-induced seizures.
"You would threaten the man who gave up his Saturday — his last free Saturday before preseason starts, I might add? Talk about ungrateful." Ronin tsked. "Who raised you? Wolves?"
"No, your mother."
They glanced at each other and started snickering. Truth be told, their mother would probably find the comparison flattering. A fierce, dominant, protective female who provided for her pack and would rip anyone to shreds who dared cross them? Hell, the wolf was probably her probably her patronus. Thank you very much, Harry Potter.
"Seriously, Han, how much longer am I required to suffer? We've been here" — he peered down at his watch — "two hours already. How many floral arrangements and invitations can you look at in one afternoon?"
Yep, he was whining. He didn't care if he was being a big man-baby. The occasion called for it. And if any of his teammates found out about this, he would be the brunt of every joke in the locker room. Didn't matter that he was the star wide receiver for the Washington Warriors football franchise and had been for seven of the eight years he'd been on the NFL team. Didn't matter that he'd been All Pro six years running. Nope, if any images of him studying wedding favors leaked, his ass would be in a sling from now until the end of the season.
Thank God, no one had seemed to recognize him, probably due in part to a "gently used," black fedora he'd picked up from one of the thrift stores near his house, and his long hair tucked into a bun that "only samurais and girls should wear," as his oldest sister, Alea, put it.
He scrubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. He wouldn't dare steal any of his sister's joy and excitement, but all these flowers with their cloying smells were like delicate-scented nooses strangling the hell out of him. Each slow pull drew him back to another time — exactly two years ago in just three more days — when baskets, arches, and sprays of flowers had filled a church, their fragrances suffocating him along with the dark hole of grief ...
With something that felt uncomfortably close to desperation, he scanned the hall, searching until he located her.
The noose loosened a fraction, enough for him to drag in a cleansing, free breath of air. Yeah, this he was used to. Familiar with. How many times in the last two years had he eased the dagger-sharp pain of loss, the yawning, empty loneliness, with lust, with sex? Too damn many to count.
He'd noticed her almost the moment he'd arrived. Standing in front of a booth bearing a huge banner with an image of a glamorous hotel that looked like something out of a 50s black-and-white movie, and aptly named the Grand, she was a stunner. Rivaled the sophistication and beauty of the seven-foot image behind her. Even from across the convention hall, he noted her beautiful, almost ... aristocratic features. Yeah, she had that "don't come for me unless I call for you" vibe his youngest sister described as "resting bitch face."
Except he didn't see it as a negative.
No, she exuded graceful poise and confidence.
From the slanting, sharp cheekbones, to the elegant slope of her nose, to the full, damn near lush mouth that had his dick giving its stamp of approval, to the sleek fall of dark brown hair that framed her face and fell inches below her shoulders, she could've been a supermodel, or a warrior queen sitting on a throne, demanding her subjects' attention and adoration.
And he should really lay the fuck off Outlander. All this poise — elegant-cheekbones — adoration shit was threatening his Man Card.
It would help if he could stop staring at her like a creepy stalker. But even with the features of a queen — there he went again — her body was that of a goddamn porn star. Slender, but damn, curves for days. The form-fitting black suit jacket and skinny skirt didn't conceal the breasts that appeared to be a perfect handful — perfect for hands his size — or the generous flare of hips that could no doubt take a little rough handling. Hell, she looked built for sex. And not the gentle, under the covers, all the lights out sex. No. Fucking. She seemed like she could not only take a fucking but give one out so good it'd make a man sell his soul for another raw, sticky-skinned, dirty round.
Need, rough and spiked, knotted his gut as he returned his regard to her lovely face. From this distance, he couldn't detect the color of her eyes, but he'd bet his left nut her gaze was straightforward, unwavering, and didn't take any shit. Damn, he wished he could see the color, so he could picture what they would look like glazed from a hard-won orgasm.
"Here," Hana said, tearing him from his slightly obsessed scrutiny of a sexy-as-hell stranger. He glanced down to see her shove a small piece of cake in a sparkly paper cup into his chest. "Have some cake. You're not yourself when you're hungry."
He snorted, but for the next half hour, he gorged himself on bite-sized samples of hideously expensive cake, going from table to table bearing banners for various bakers. Red velvet, devil's food, strawberry delight ... The sweets violated his strict diet, and he'd have to put extra hours in the weight room. But totally worth it.
"When I did this, I always imagined Mom with me, not you," Hana murmured. She lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. "No offense."
"None taken." Ronin pulled his sister close and pressed a quick kiss to the top of her dark curls even as he forced himself to swallow past the sadness, anger, and worry that had lodged in his chest. Clearing his throat, he squeezed her shoulders. "I wish she was, too."
Because their mother should've been with her daughter, oohing and aahing over all this wedding shit that bored the hell out of him. And if she hadn't just been diagnosed with stage two breast cancer, she would've been. So, he'd volunteered to go with his sister, all the while trying to remain strong for his mom, the woman who'd been his rock his entire life. Struggling to hide that he was shaken, hurting, and fucking terrified of losing her.
Jesus, he didn't think he could survive another loss of someone he loved.
"Mom's going to be fine. And if she knew you were at this expo upset, she would rip me a new one. And let's be honest. My ass is way too nice for that." Hana's fist connected with his stomach, and he released an exaggerated grunt then laughed. "It's almost time to check out these dresses that cost more than my car," he announced. "Let's go get a seat."
This was Hana's day. No sadness. He took her empty paper plate and tossed it along with his before letting her lead the way to the huge stage and runway set up in the middle of the convention center. Several rows of chairs flanked either side, and he groaned as Hana headed toward the few empty seats on the front row.
"I feel like such a pussy," he muttered, crossing his arms. "Hold my seat. I have to hit the can."
Before his sister could object or stop him, he shot to his feet and slid past the row full of women, hurrying in the direction of the bathrooms ... and freedom.
As soon as he cleared the area with most of the booths, he inhaled the first wedding-free breath he'd taken in hours. The heavy metal doors with their crossbars beckoned, and he detoured toward them. If he was going to make it the rest of the afternoon, he needed a break, even if it was a short-lived one. As long as it was absent of flowers, arches, dresses, and embellished card stock.
Pushing on one of the doors and exiting as if committing a jailbreak, he strode across the convention center's lobby. For the life of him, he couldn't understand all the fuss and money spent on one day, when the ceremony would probably last longer than the actual marriage. Why in the hell would someone willingly put themselves through the torture of —
"Ronin," an unfortunately familiar voice called his name.
No fucking way. He groaned, not needing to turn around to lay eyes on the woman behind him to identify her. Marissa. The Clinger. Mentally, he slapped his palm to his forehead. How had she found him? Did she have a GPS tracker on his truck? As soon as he and Hana left this place, he was taking his vehicle in to be checked.
Damn, this sucked. His best friends Zephirin and Dom might call him a man-whore — and in all fairness, he might have earned that title in the last couple of years — but being raised by a single mom with four sisters prevented him from being disrespectful and offensive to any woman. Which was why he never lied to one, was always upfront about only wanting a night or two of mutually satisfying sex and nothing more. Most women accepted it. Sad but true — a lot of women he encountered just wanted the bragging rights of fucking a professional football player.
But Marissa was a whole 'nother story.
Desperate, he surveyed the partially empty lobby. He could head back into the convention hall, but he didn't put it past the persistent one-night stand from hell to follow him inside and cause a scene. He didn't want to put Hana into that position.
Damn, he should've just kept his ass in the seat for the fashion —
The door leading to the wedding expo opened, and she exited. The woman from the hotel booth. The one who'd captured his attention and fascination.
His feet moved in her direction even before his brain had fully formed an idea.
* * *
"Landon, just let Rankin know that even though I'm in Seattle, the team that came up with the concept for his marketing campaign is still in place in Boston. Tell him everything is running smoothly and set to launch next week as planned. And if any issues pop up, I'm just a phone call away." Kim Matlock shoved out of one of the wide doors and into the partially empty — and much quieter — lobby of the convention center where the Seattle Wedding Expo was being held. Holding back a relieved sigh, she continued her conversation with one of her Public Relations department heads from Bishop Enterprises' Boston offices. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she listened as Landon continued on about the complaints from a high-maintenance president of an insurance company they'd recently acquired. "He should be satisfied that we'll provide the necessary rebranding and publicity, as promised when Bishop Enterprises bought them. Listen, shoot me his email, and I'll reply to him, okay?"
Seconds later, Kim ended the call and exhaled a deep breath.
This she could handle — projects, clients, campaigns. Give her a problem, and she thrived on solving it. As Vice President of Public Relations with Bishop Enterprises, her half brother's financial and holding company, she'd spent the last eight years proving her presence and position had been earned rather than gifted through nepotism. And to some degree, she'd succeeded. But being a woman — and a woman with brown skin when her CEO brother's was white — in a male-dominated field brought its own set of challenges. But damn if she didn't meet those head on, too. She refused to be defeated.
In business, at least.
This time, she released the sigh that she'd previously held back and scrolled through the list of texts she hadn't been able to answer for the past few hours. Today, all her attention had been devoted to ensuring the expo was a success for Bishop Enterprises as a sponsor, and the Grand as the hotel chain they were promoting. This expo was just step one in revamping the marketing and branding for the beautiful, old-world hotels. Advertising their huge ballrooms as the perfect wedding and reception venues to excited brides and mothers-of-the-brides had been one of the ideas she'd come up with when directed to take on this project. The Grand hotel chain was bleeding money, and if she didn't turn the financial trajectory around in a year, they would have to dump it, sell to the highest bidder. Which would only piss off her father since the chain had originally been his acquisition. First, his son had taken over as CEO a year ago and had relegated Malcolm to the position of another Vice President. And now, his bastard daughter, who he resented the hell out of, had been called in to save his failing project. He was not overjoyed.
Still, regardless of her father's connection to the hotel chain, she wasn't letting it go under without a fight.
Even if it meant spending a weekend in her private version of hell.
Weddings. Brides. Love. Marriage. Commitment.
Lies. Pain. Betrayal.
Only a few years ago, she'd been like one of those excited women in the convention hall, visiting the different vendors and ogling the wedding dresses in the fashion show.
But marriage to a cheating football player had obliterated those hopes of happily ever after, boisterous kids, a messy but deliriously happy home, and celebrated anniversaries. Her shit-show of a union had reduced her dreams to just that — dreams.
Now, thirty years old and divorced, she'd rather dance barefoot on a bed of Washington state's famed prickly pine tree needles than be here among these smiling, foolishly optimistic and naive women. Lambs to the proverbial slaughter.
Her phone vibrated then pinged in her hand, dragging her from her morose, bitter thoughts. Thank God. She was depressing her own self.
"That was fast." Glancing down at her screen, she expected to see an email notification from Landon, but instead ... "Oh, shit," she muttered, fingers tightening around the cell. "You've got to be kidding me." She narrowed her eyes at the little card-like text notification, but nope. The name stayed the same.
Matt Cooper. Her low-life, cheating, lying ex-husband.
Her ex-husband who obviously couldn't take a hint about leaving her alone. This was the fourth text he'd sent in as many days.
Apparently, "I hope you die, resurrect, choke on a bag of dicks, and die again," didn't mean what it used to.
Swiping her thumb across the screen, she relegated the message to the trash can, unread. On a good day, she had a limited number of fucks to give, and this weekend's event had drained her of every last one. But even if she'd been home doing her couch potato act, she still wouldn't waste a single, solitary fuck on him, of all people.
"Damn," she whispered, shoving her phone in her jacket pocket, hating that her hand trembled. Hating that even though a year had passed since she'd discovered Matt's infidelity, she still resembled a bombed-out, burned shell of a house after a riot — looted, empty, scarred, abandoned ... lonely.
Hated herself for allowing just the sight of his name on her phone screen to affect her.
Get it together, she ordered herself, jerking her chin up in a defiant gesture that was lost on everyone in the lobby except her. Matt, her marriage, the devastation he'd wreaked — they were her past. Her career, this project revamping the hotel — they were her future ...
Big, thick arms covered in geometric patterns and swirls of black ink banded her waist, pulling her back against a rock-solid wall of muscle.
Excerpted from "Scoring the Player's Baby"
Copyright © 2018 Naima Simone.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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