Irritation pricked my scalp as I headed down the darkened hall, cringing at the heavy bass thumping its way into my skull. It was almost one in the morning, and instead of being snuggled deep in the comfort of my fluffy goose feather bedding, I was at Arch & Point developing a headache.
That was a lie – the headache started with the phone call.
I had been cozy and warm. Hair wrapped, face scrubbed clean, cocooned in the middle of my king-sized bed. I’d had a glass of Merlot at dinner, another after my bath, and ESPN was on my big flat screen TV. I felt so good I could barely stand it.
So of course the phone rang.
And after looking at the number on the screen, of course I answered.
That was when the headache started.
I was not snug and warm anymore – the owner of the club kept the temperature low to make sure nipples stayed hard and patrons stayed alert. My silk hair scarf was on my bathroom counter, and my hair was brushing my shoulders in soft layers. The clean face was no more – heavily smoked eyes and vivid crimson lips were my look of choice.
I turned the corner in the back hallway that would lead me up front, and nodded at the bodyguards flanking the double doors. They returned my greeting with relaxed chin hikes of their own. They had no reason to be alarmed. For one – they knew me. For the other thing?
Everybody knew better than to pop shit at Arch & Point.
One of the guards opened the doors for me, and I gave my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the lights. A girl who called herself Southern Comfort was on stage in heeled cowboy boots, shredded denim shorts, and a plaid, sleeveless collared shirt with the bottom tied around her waist. She always chose blue lights.
I looked away from the crowd near the stage to attach the voice to the person who’d shouted my name over the music and appreciative groans and yells. At first, they landed on a woman I didn’t know, who was giving the evil eye to the man beside her – from the way he was acting, and the number of “hell yeah’s” he was letting out, I guessed he was a little too comfortable.
Then, my eyes traveled past them, to the sprite of a woman headed my way. Cin – Cinnamon, the name her mama gave her – pulled attention from the stage as she walked up to me. Unsurprising, since her petite frame was almost completely bare, with the exception of crown-shaped pasties covering her nipples, and a G-string.
“Now, I didn’t ask over the phone,” I said, looking her over. “But what are you even doing here? Didn’t you have a baby right before training camp started? How do you already look like… this?”
Cin smiled. “Good genes, girl. The baby is with my mama, and the bills gotta get paid somehow. My graduation fees are due.”
“That’s right,” I nodded. “Uh… does he know you’re leaving when the semester is over?”
“He does now.”
I cringed. “And how is he?”
“Distraught. Worse than when I told him I was pregnant and taking a leave of absense.”
“I bet. Who’s in there with him now?”
“Oh God,” I rolled my eyes. “Is he drinking?”
She gave me a sympathetic nod. “That’s why I called you.”
“Thank you. Show me which room.”
I tried not to let my frustration show on my face, keeping it pulled into my standard, nonchalant expression. I – we – didn’t need any extra attention. If I flew off the handle, so would he, especially while he was upset and had been drinking. Following Cin down another long hall, I focused only in front of me. Undoubtedly, there were people in here who didn’t want to be seen, and I had no interest in seeing them.
My concern tonight was very, very singular.
“Right in here,” Cin said, nodding toward an ornately carved black door. “Cedes is gonna be pissed. You want me to get security?”
I shook my head, then pushed out a breath as I reached into my bag, peeling off several hundred dollar bills to put in her hand. “No. I can handle it from here. Thank you.”
“Anything for Cole Richardson.”
“Uh huh. So we’re just not going to talk about how you waited until after you danced for him to call me, instead of when he came in?”
Cin shrugged, giving me a coy smile as she started easing down the hall on her stilettos. “Hey, like I said… graduation fees are due.”
I shook my head and turned towards the door, letting out a cleansing breath before I pushed it open. It shut behind me with a loud click, just barely registering over the loud thump of blasting music.
I had to push aside a little curtain to see that instead of performing on the stage at the center of the small room, Cedes – one of the few girls at Arch & Point I legitimately could not stand – was in her customer’s lap.
Ass naked, hand cupping his chin, facial expression and words like she was talking to a baby, while he pouted. But at least – at least – his dick was still in his pants.
I crossed my arms, and cleared my throat loud enough for them to notice I was there. Cedes rolled her eyes as soon as she saw me, and then hopped up, tucking her hands behind her back as she turned sideways and faced both of us.
“Your mommy is here, so I guess I’ll see you later, baby,” she directed at him, and he grinned back, flashing perfectly aligned teeth and dimples.
“You sure as hell will.” He ran his tongue over his lips as he tipped his head sideways for another glimpse at her ass.
She winked at him, then started out of the room, but I stepped in front of her and held out my hand. “Give it to me.”
“Girl, what the hell are you talking about?” she snapped, pulling her face into a scowl.
I propped my free hand on my hip, letting my bag hang from the bend in my elbow. “You know what I’m talking about. Don’t make me make it plain.”
Mercedes stared me down for a few more seconds, long false lashes damn near fanning her cheeks as she looked me over, then finally sucked her teeth. “Fine.”
She shoved the wallet she’d swiped into my hand with way more force than necessary, then stomped out of the room, griping about “stuck up front office bitches messing up her money” as she went. I closed my eyes for a second, taking a calming breath before I turned to face the reason I was in here getting bitched at instead of… anything else.
Jordan Johnson, star wide receiver for the Connecticut Kings.
“Your ass is always popping up to ruin my fun.”
“Someone certainly needs to.” I stomped toward him, my heels clicking on the polished concrete floor. He was sitting way back in a wide, plush leather chair, legs still parted from where Mercedes had been in his lap. I snatched up the – thankfully still mostly full – bottle of Louis XIII cognac from the table beside him. “Have you lost your mind, Jordan? You’re supposed to be in the training room in less than six hours. Team meeting is in seven. Why are you at the strip club, drinking and getting conned out of your wallet instead of at home, in your bed?”
Jordan didn’t answer me immediately. I was standing in front of him with my legs slightly parted, hand on my hip, in four-inch heels and the dress I’d planned to wear to the office tomorrow – carefully selected, perfect blend of professional and sexy, in blue, to convey that I came in peace, even though I didn’t. Instead of responding to my question, he lowered his eyelids, his dark eyes raking appreciatively over my body before they returned to my face.
“Because it’s not like the shit matters anyway.”
A little of the indignation rushed out of my chest in a huff. I knew exactly what he was talking about, but I wasn’t about to encourage that line of conversation. Not here. Or ever, if I could help it.
“I assure you, it does. Your teammates need you at one hundred percent, as do the coaches, and the fans, and—”
“Who? Your father?”
My eyebrow shot up, and I crossed my arms. “Yes, my father too.”
“Does he have anything to say about the team only needing me at 100% because the rest of those motherfuckers are only giving 30% at best?”
Yes, actually, I mused. I’d sat through plenty of rants about the incompetence of our team, especially since less than eight hours ago, we’d racked up yet another loss we couldn’t afford.
“You would have to take that up with him, Jordan. But for now, we need to get you out of here, quietly, before someone sees you and this becomes news.”
Jordan scoffed, then propped his hands behind his head in a move that put his powerful biceps on full display. I forced my eyes to stay on his face.
“What, they got you acting as PR now? You’re not my publicist, or my agent. Shit isn’t really your business.”
“Your reputation reflects on the team’s reputation, which is absolutely my business. And since you refuse to hire adequate representation to manage your bullshit, well… your business becomes my business. So are you going to make my job painless or difficult tonight?”
Jordan groaned, and then pulled all six feet five inches, two-hundred thirty pounds of extra dark-chocolate coated muscle up from his chair, in no apparent hurry. I ran my tongue over my teeth, annoyed at my body for wanting to react to him, and downright bothered that I had to tilt my chin up to look at his face, instead of staring at his chest.
Those dark eyes of his bored into mine, and as bad as I wanted to look away, I didn’t. Men like Jordan preyed on signs of weakness, and damn if I was about to hand him one.
“It’s your lucky day, Nicki. I was ready to leave anyway.”
“My name is Cole,” I said from behind gritted teeth, eyes narrowed. “And good. Where is your security?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Looking at ass, I guess. I wanted to be alone.”
“You mean you wanted to get robbed.” I held up his wallet in the narrow space between us, but he didn’t even look at it. He kept his eyes on my face as his mouth quirked into a smile I knew better than to trust. “What are you smiling about?”
“How uncomfortable you are.”
I wrinkled my brow. “What makes you think I’m uncomfortable?”
He leaned toward me a little more, and my breath hitched as his face came toward mine. I turned into molded plastic and molten heat at the same time – Assistant Director of Player Success Barbie, frozen where I was, holding up Jordan’s wallet while the closeness of his body made a sauna between my legs.
“That.” A wicked grin spread over his face as he backed away and plucked the wallet from my hand – which was still in the air. “Your whole reaction to me being close to you. It’s hilarious,” he chuckled.
I swallowed the sudden anger that flared in my chest, and dropped my hand to my side as it curled into a fist. “Whatever, Jordan. Just make sure you have your ass in the cafeteria for breakfast with the team at six. Okay?”
“Whatever you say, Nicki.”
I opened my mouth, but then closed it right back up, deciding against the verbal lashing I was practically itching to give. Partially because even though this situation was atypical – for the job, not for Jordan – I needed to remain as professional as I could. But mostly?
Jordan wouldn’t give a shit anyway. I would get all riled up, and it would be nothing more than entertainment for him. It was pointless.
Instead of saying anything else, I simply lifted an eyebrow at him before I turned and left, pretending I didn’t feel his eyes on my ass on the way out.
I hummed to myself as I arranged a scoop of loose leaf chai in the filter cup for the brewer. The sun was shining, even though it was cold out, reflecting against the clean white contours of my gourmet kitchen. I wasn’t expected at the office today. And, I’d just gotten word that one of the other players I was responsible for, a running back who was only two years out of the draft, had just signed his first endorsement deal.
Today was a good day.
The position I held in the Connecticut Kings front office, Assistant Director of Player Success, was all about making sure our players thrived, on and off the field. It was unconventional – a blend of duties from two other existing positions – but we were a team in recovery. Being more involved with our players, making sure they were well taken care of… it wasn’t just a hope, or a desire. It was an imperative that I was determined to make happen.
I was responsible for twelve of the twenty-four members of the Connecticut Kings offense. Their contracts, their impact on the team, their… success. From referring them to financial advisors to keep them from going broke, to pulling strings to get them ESPN interviews for commentator positions when they retired, to making sure their parents had prime seats, it was up to me to make sure that their off-field – and sometimes on field – experience within our team was a good one.
It was difficult, and demanding, and I loved it most of the time.
Today though…I wasn’t planning to physically deal with anybody.
My assistant was in my office handling paperwork that I would sign off on tomorrow. I had a couple of phone calls scheduled, but nothing big. The heaviest lifting I planned to do today was my oversized, chevron-printed mug of chai and my e-reader, while I curled up under a blanket in front of the fire.
It’s going to be perfect.
The thought hadn’t even completely crossed my mind before the phone rang.
“Yes, Presley?” I answered for my assistant as I pulled my cup from the brewer. I used my shoulder to balance the phone against my ear as I plunged the honey dipper into the jar, and then into my cup, swirling it around to sweeten my tea.
“Where are you?!” was her panicked answer, and I frowned as I pulled the dipper from my mug, sitting it down on the saucer.
“I’m at home, as we planned nearly two weeks ago. Where should I be?”
“Home?” she asked, sounding genuinely shocked. “Oh. I just… I guess I would have…”
“Out with it, Presley! What the hell is going on?”
She let out a heavy sigh from the other side of the phone. “I guess you haven’t been on social media this morning…”
My heart dropped to somewhere around my belly button. “I was purposely avoiding it. What happened?”
There was a long moment where she said nothing, and then pushed out another of those sighs. “Well, apparently someone had a camera at this upscale strip club last night, and—”
“Say no more,” I droned, staring wistfully at the cup of perfectly brewed tea I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy. “I’m on my way.”
I practiced my words in my head as I marched down the hall of the King’s front office building. If I didn’t, I was very likely to simply fly into a cursing rage, venting every little bit of frustration that had been building this week.
Just this week.
I wanted to exhibit poise, and control, and professionalism. Something, anything better than devolving immediately into screams of “What the hell is your problem?!”
People scurried out of my way as I turned the corner that would lead to my office. I must have – accurately – looked like I was one annoyance away from committing a murder, because not a single person tried to stop me because I reached the little reception desk in front of my door, where Presley was sitting.
She was a cute girl, with big hair and honey toned skin, fresh out of college, and not yet immune to the charms of the professional football players we dealt with all day, every day. Too often, I’d stepped out of my office, wondering where my player was, only to find him grinning in Presley’s face, waxing not-that-poetic about how he could show her the time of her life.
She ate it up every time, but she also knew better than to date a player. Not technically against the rules, just not a good look. To her credit, she stuck to that.
“Is he in there?” I asked, even though I didn’t stop to wait for an answer. The shades were drawn over the glassed walls, so I couldn’t see inside, but my hand was already on the door handle by the time the “Yes, but,” had made it from her mouth.
I didn’t have time for buts.
I pushed the door open and walked inside, stopping short at the site that welcomed me.
“What the hell is your problem?!” I asked, managing to keep my voice below a scream as I closed the door.
Jordan looked up from his phone just long enough to shoot me a grin, then turned back to whatever the hell he was doing on the device. I swallowed hard, steeling myself for what was almost assuredly about to be a joke of a meeting, then walked over to my custom-mirrored desk and shoved Jordan’s feet off the top.
“Where is your agent?” I snapped, sitting down behind the desk. “He’s supposed to be here.”
Jordan still didn’t look up from his phone. “He’s not.”
“Obviously. Where is he?”
“Hell if I know. I fired him.”
I scoffed. “You can’t just up and fire your agent, Jordan. There’s a little thing called a contract…”
“Which stipulated that I could fire him when I got ready,” Jordan mumbled, tapping away on the screen. “So I did.”
“So who… who represents you now? Who is your advocate, who’s doing your PR?”
I got a shrug. “Me, I guess.”
“You?!” I laughed, because it was ridiculous, not funny. “Can you put your phone down, and talk to me please?”
“Yeah, gimme a second.”
I rolled my eyes as he kept his attention focused on the little device in his hands. One minute stretched into two.
“Just a second, damn,” he said, holding up a finger to… shush me? Was he shushing me? He chuckled loudly at something on his screen, and I let out a sigh. If this was how he wanted to play it…
I reached up, pulling the pins out of the simple bun I’d pulled my hair into before I rushed out of the door. Stylish, black-rimmed glasses were tossed onto the desk, hair fluffed out and around my shoulders, and I took down enough buttons on my shirt to show off an ample peak of the deep gold, lace trimmed bra I wore underneath.
“Jordan,” I said – damn near whispered, in a breathy, sexy voice.
He immediately looked up to see me balanced on my elbows as I leaned across the desk toward him. His eyes dropped to my cleavage, then slowly raked back up to my face, and I hated that a tiny, hopefully-only-perceptible-to-me shudder ran through me. No matter what else I could say about Jordan, there was no denying that he was a gorgeous man. Deep chocolate skin, thick lips, immaculate facial hair, perfectly sculpted face, and those damned dimples.
I bit my lip – to seduce, and to bring myself back to reality – and leaned a little further.
“There’s something you and I desperately need to discuss.”
He lifted an eyebrow, his phone hanging limp and momentarily forgotten in his hand. “What’s that?”
“Well…” I leaned in a little bit further, and his gaze stuck to my breasts. “Before we start, I just need you to… Give me this goddamn phone,” I said, back to my normal voice, as I snatched it from his unsuspecting hands. I promptly stuck it between my breasts, because I knew he wouldn’t dare try to get it from there, and was already re-buttoning my shirt by the time he’d hopped up from his chair.
“Jordan Johnson, you sit your ass down and listen to me. Or have you forgotten that I am responsible for your contract?”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean, Nicki?”
I ignored his use of that nickname. “It means, that unless you at least try to act like you have some damned sense when you aren’t on the field, I don’t think you’re going to be very happy with the way your negotiations go. You only have a few months left, Jordan. You want to see more money? Then I want to see this team improve.”
“Then you need to talk to these other motherfuckers,” Jordan snapped, pacing in front of my desk. “Just like I said two nights ago, I’m already pulling all of the offensive weight on this team. Why the fuck does everything fall to me?”
Because you’re all we have.
I knew it.
He knew it
Everybody knew it, but he was the only one who was about to say it out loud. Truth was, as much as I really did need him to clean up his act off the field, for the sake of the team’s reputation, he’d have to do something pretty horrible for me to follow through on any threats.
A video of him partying and drinking at Arch & Point wasn’t it.
We needed him too bad.
“Listen,” I said, carefully trying to gauge my words to not push him too far. “We are three games into the season, and we’ve only won once. Preseason, three out of four were losses.”
“You don’t have to remind me,” he muttered through his teeth.
I nodded. “I know I don’t. But I am anyway, because I need you to act like you understand that this team is floundering this season, Jordan. We aren’t looking good out there on the field, but the least we can do is look good when we’re not. I just pulled you out the club Sunday night, and Monday night you go right back. In the middle of the club popping bottles on a fucking Monday night, like you shouldn’t be down in the weight room working on that shoulder.”
“My shoulder is fine, and Tuesday is my day off.”
“Tuesdays are off days for teams who won the week before. Hasn’t that always been the motto? What happened to total domination? You weren’t dominating on that field Sunday. You weren’t “The Flash”. You were slow, and weak.”
He sucked his teeth. “Man, fuck that noise.”
I shook my head. “No. That’s the hot take now, Jordan. No wonder they lost, he’s partying during the season. Doesn’t alcohol make you sluggish? Didn’t he have that surgery after last season? You could tell in the performance from last game. That’s what they’re saying now.”
“I don’t give a shit about that.”
“But I give a shit. The team gives a shit. The NFL gives a shit. It’s time out for this “bad boy” mess, Jordan. You need to get serious. You’re one of the top wide-receivers in the world right now. 1,500 receiving yards your first year out of draft, and on the field, you keep getting better. But if you want the big deal endorsements, longevity on this team, high dollar contracts… Jordan, you are going to have to grow the hell up.”
There was silence for a long moment after that. More silence than Jordan could usually offer the world. Such a long silence that I shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, but didn’t break eye contact with him. Finally, he nodded, looking away as he scrubbed a hand over his face.
“That’s how the Kings feel, huh?”
I said nothing, and he raised his eyebrows.
“Come on, Nicki. Speak up now. That’s how the Kings feel? Old Jordan is a fucking drag now, because I like to have fun? There weren’t any complaints when me and TB were taking this team to championships, but now that I’m here by myself, no fucking help on the team, now I’m a liability? Well guess what? I’m probably outta here after my contract is up anyway. How about that?”
Shit. Did not play this right.
“You’ll be a free agent, Jordan. You can do as you wish, but the Kings have been loyal to you, and obviously want to keep you here with us.”
“Oh don’t give me that bullshit now. Y’all are out here acting like I’m a damn problem, when I’m the same dude you couldn’t wait to get your hands on a few years ago. Nothing has changed.”
I swallowed hard, looking him right in the eyes. “And that is exactly the problem.”
He blinked once, then twice, and for a second the bravado slipped, and I saw… something else. But just as quickly as I’d noticed, he’d blinked it away, and rolled his eyes. “What-the-fuck-ever Nicki.”
“Whatever. Give me my phone.”
I wasn’t about to argue. I was drained enough from this completely unproductive meeting, that I couldn’t even remember what I’d hoped to accomplish from. I pulled his phone from between my breasts and handed it to him, and in true Jordan fashion, the first thing he did was lift it to his nose and inhale. “Why do your titties always smell so good?” he asked, in a tone that gave the distinct impression he meant it as a compliment.
I rolled my eyes. “The better question is, why wouldn’t they? Don’t answer that,” I said, raising my hand to cut him off. “While you’re with us, you need an agent, and you need PR. Chloe McKenna. I’ll set up a meeting.”
“I don’t need you to hire my people.”
I scoffed. “I insist.”
“I insist that if you wanna hire some people, talk to scouting about getting me some offense I can work with on this team. I want a fucking ring. If the Kings can’t do that for me this year… I’ll find a team that can.”
He turned around without saying anything else, and ambled out the door. I closed my eyes as the door shut behind him, finally taking the opportunity for a deep breath, the kind I hadn’t dared take the whole time we were alone in my office.
The door opened again, and my head popped up as Presley walked into the office, tablet in hand. “How did it go?” she asked, chewing at the corner of her lip. “Jordan looked unhappy.”
“Because he is,” I said, finally putting my glasses back on my face. “And we have to figure out how to make him… not that. Set up a meeting with him and Chloe McKenna please.”
Presley nodded, then left me alone in the office as I sank into my chair, fingers pressed to my temples. I wasn’t about to kiss Jordan’s ass – yet – but him not being on the team wasn’t an option. Especially not while he was my responsibility.
Twenty-eight years old.
I was already a unicorn around here, and I’d never live it down if I lost our star player.
Somehow, I had to make sure that didn’t happen.