Not wanting to wait to start on Conor and Claire’s story?! Read the first 2 chapters of DESERVING IT right now. If you haven’t read EARNING IT yet, you can read a sample from book one here.
“Fuck my arse, but this is deadly, yeah.”
This lovely sentiment greets me as I round the corner into the Atlanta hotel’s continental breakfast area. The speaker? Patrick, the only other Irishman on the hurling team besides myself.
“Family hotel,” I mutter.
The smell of fresh-brewed coffee, browning waffle batter, and maple syrup is so thick, I might as well be swimming through the lot of it.
“Well, ya haven’t had a taste of these, have ya?” Patrick lifts a half-eaten cinnamon roll.
I survey the room. Except for one family on the far side, the men’s and women’s teams have claimed all the tables. Everyone’s knackered but wired from our epic win in yesterday’s playoffs. Some even won their girl—Aiden strolls in with a woman who, if the fast-flying rumors are true, he’s head over arse about. Jane, I think.
And the too-pale bowser moving like an old man on his last painkiller? That’s Paolo. One of the lads pulls out a chair for the sorry bugger with an exaggerated by-your-leave wave. The loud scrape of the chair legs makes more than one of them wince. “Shoulda stuck to beer, man. Jager isn’t for pussies.”
“Fuck you,” Paolo growls, but he gingerly sits and cradles his forehead as if his head’s made of glass.
Jaysus. Being captain of this team can be a trial sometimes, yeah. “Come here to me, lads. The van’ll be arriving in thirty to cart you to the airport. Be out front, mind. I’ll not be here rounding you up like a bunch of dossers now.”
Aiden, who was nuzzling Jane’s neck as he pulled a chair out for her, looks up. “You’re not flying out with the team?” He grabs a plate and begins loading up.
I shake my head and grab a plate myself. “Taking a later flight to avoid being with you lot.” There’s roughly four hours I have before I’m needing to be finding my way to the Atlanta airport, and I’m making the most of it. I wasn’t caring for the hint of worry in my sister’s voice during yesterday’s phone call, which is giving me extra incentive for my presentation tomorrow.
“Ah, Conor, ya redheaded bastard. We’re after taking showers, yeah,” Patrick yells.
I roll my eyes and load my plate with protein and carbs. “Be out there in thirty.”
“You got it, captain.” Aiden plunks down with a massive helping of scrambled eggs. The lad smothered his entire plate with the mushy mess. Two slices of American bacon lie on the top.
Plate full and tea in hand, I walk past them. “Enjoy your lax day, lads. We’ll be hitting the pitch at the end of the week, mind.”
We have the championships to be training for. Amazing this ragged bunch of mostly Americans and Irish-Americans formed a decent hurling team. Their willingness to work hard has paid off something brilliant. The Sarasota Wolfe Tones will be representing the Southeast Division at the championships in Chicago in a bit over a month. Considering how I couldn’t leave Ireland fast enough, my fondness for the sport might come as a surprise. But it’s the only memory of growing up in the arse-end of Ireland that’s keeping me warm.
With a final scold, I turn back for the lift, breakfast in hand. Now, to be working on the Bakerfield presentation. It’s the reason I booked a later flight—my peak performance window is late morning and early afternoon, and I don’t want to be wasting it with a bunch of raucous, hungover mates when I could be fine-tuning the presentation. And nailing that? Fifteen quid yearly bonus and a surefire path to a promotion. Which ensures my sister never has to be worrying about her farm. Never has to be worrying she doesn’t have someone there for her.
Working hard, playing hard, wouldn’t that about sum me up? Nothing much else to me.
If I’m avoiding a certain female teammate in the process, that’s all gravy, yeah.
“I’m sorry, what was our bargain again?” I pick at the seam of the car seat in front of me as the Lyft driver creeps forward another few feet in the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the I-75/I-85 Connector to the Atlanta airport.
The two-hour recommended arrival time passed ten minutes ago. I’m on the phone with my bestie Jane, who was holed up with The Turd after the playoff game, so I didn’t get a chance to catch up.
I know perfectly well what our bargain is.
Yeah, I’m stalling.
A frustrated huff comes over the phone. “I did what you asked. I burned a dildo as an effigy, for Pete’s sake.” Jane’s in her car several hours south, heading back to our hometown, Sarasota, Florida.
A male voice laughs, so The Turd must have gone with her instead of flying back with the team.
I snicker. Yeah, the dildo burning had been funny to picture. Jane’s the stereotypical librarian you wouldn’t think actually exists, but does. I couldn’t resist putting that on her list of things she had to do to “break out of her shell” on her trip up here in order to get over The Turd—I mean, Aiden.
I sigh. I really gotta stop thinking of him by that nickname. I saw enough of their interaction yesterday to admit that, yeah, I might’ve misjudged him.
But while it was fun to put that on her list, I didn’t think she’d actually do it. I mean, Jesus—it’s why I put it on there. And all the other stipulations. Because she wants me to visit my mom, and I said I would if she did something for me in return.
And since I reallllly don’t want to visit my mom, I made the list impossible for a recluse like Jane to fulfill.
Yeah, that backfired. Plus she ended up getting together with Aiden instead of getting over him.
“I’m holding you to it, Claire.”
I trace a star pattern on the window as the Midtown Atlanta skyline inches past. “Yeah, yeah, okay.” My voice is all whatever, but hah, not my insides. They’re all fuck-shit-no with a big fat dollop of guilt and shame.
“Where are you? I thought your flight left an hour ago?” she continues.
“I didn’t fly out with the team. Booked a later flight.” I didn’t go down to breakfast for the same reason I booked this later flight—Conor. Instead, I got up early and met a college friend for brunch in Gwinnett County. Which…now looks as if it was a stupid move as another minute passes and we haven’t mooooved.
Stupid Atlanta traffic. I pull up my Delta app and check in.
“Oh. Okay. See you later this week?”
“It’s a date.” Thankfully Jane doesn’t probe about my later flight—which is so Jane—but lately she seems to be more perceptive about my secret.
Oh, just that I have the unhealthiest crush on the men’s team captain, one hunky Irish ginger named Conor. With me as the captain of the women’s team. Yeah, yeah, cliché. I get that. It’s just painful. And downright pitiful. Sometimes I’m sick of myself, because I’ve had it bad for him ever since the women’s team was formed. He walks onto our practice field in those short Irish shorts, thigh muscles bunching and flexing during the drills, and I swear to God my back straightens, my heart beats in a giddy rhythm, and I’m super aware of where he is at all times. And so I’m acutely conscious of where his attention is not directed.
I’m the tough jock captain of the women’s team in all her unfeminine glory, with grass stains on my knees instead of the latest fashionable stain on pouty lips. Which doesn’t do it for him. Which is fine. Sort of. But I refuse to change to appeal to him, so if it’s just lusting after him from afar, then so be it.
Ages later, the Lyft driver drops me at Departures. With no bag to check, I head straight to security, and after getting the pat-down, I hustle to the people mover. Alternating between watching the minutes tick by on my phone and the sign indicators on the mover, the doors finally swish open onto C Terminal, and I jog through the crowd to the Up escalators. All but one is packed, so I dash to the one where people are standing along the side. My flight’s boarding, and despite being in great shape, my calves are burning as I power up the moving steps. Also, the exhibition games yesterday did a number on my ankles, and there might possibly be a blister forming on the ball of my foot. Dammit.
I ignore my body’s complaints, and when I get to the top of the escalator, of course the airport is following the rules by having anyone in a hurry assigned to the last gate. I swerve and dodge, my rolling suitcase bobbing and weaving with me on its little wheels. I’m the only one running, and navigating through the crowd—anticipating their trajectories and adjusting my path—is kinda like how it is on a long run down the field when you’ve got the sliotar and are aiming for the goal.
Finally, I reach the end. My gate doesn’t have a long line. In fact, no one is in line to board. Shit.
I collapse my upper body against the check-in gate’s countertop. “Have you closed off boarding?” I get out between gasps.
Ma’am? I’m only friggin’ twenty-six.
The overly made-up woman smiles. “Your flight’s been delayed forty-five minutes. Weather in Savannah is holding up the plane. The hurricane’s weather system is affecting a lot of flights on the Eastern Seaboard.”
“Oh good. Okay.”
Now I can catch up with myself. I’d forgotten about the hurricane, though. Which, ha-ha, is named Claire.
I limp off. Damn. I really need to tape my ankles. I stroll down the concourse, searching for a nook, corner, unused room, anything to give me the space and relative privacy to shuck off my socks and shoes.
While I don’t care what people think of me, I don’t want to be rude, and I guarantee you no one wants to see the blisters or what could possibly be a blackened toenail, courtesy of a particularly nasty play yesterday.
Up ahead is a snack vendor, and a banana nut muffin catches my eye. I get in line.
While there, I see the perfect spot for the foot inspection. Some might just use a bathroom, but I make it a point to only use a bathroom for, well, going to the bathroom. Nothing else. Not anymore anyway. It’s also why I’m getting the muffin—as a former bulimic, I’ve learned to listen to my body. When it wants something, I get it. With no judgment.
I hand over my money, nab my muffin, and scoot around the partial wall. The closest people are enough of a distance away, and in front of me is a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a lovely view of asphalt and planes and clear blue skies.
I plop down on the carpeted floor, set my muffin to the side, zip open my carry-on, and fish around for my tape. The first couple of away games, I didn’t bring anything other than the standard travel supplies—clothes, shoes, toiletries. Now I pack a small sports first-aid kit, with tape, Bengay, and other items I, or my teammates, might need.
I yank my shoes and socks off. The nail on my big toe glares back at me, black and purple.
I find the end of the tape and pull, winding it round and round both ankles to support them better. Okay, next—blister investigation. I pull my left foot up to my face. Yep, a blister’s forming but hasn’t popped. No need for Neosporin. Which, of course, I have too. Just a Band-Aid then.
A startled noise has me looking up, my foot still right up in my face as if I’m smelling it. The one with the black toe. And my heart does a weird squeeze-drop.
Yeah, I said I didn’t care what people thought of me or what I was doing. And I don’t.
Except for him.
Because standing right there with his duffel and a computer bag slung over his shoulder is Conor.
A full body flush of embarrassment and desire washes over my skin.
Which I quickly tamp, because WTF? So what if I look like an unfeminine lump with ugly feet. One of which I’m still holding right up in my face.
I let my foot drop with a clunk.
Conor, Conor, Conor. He was supposed to be on the earlier flight with the rest of the team.
He looks baffled for a second, rooted to the ground, staring at me and my legs sprawled out on the carpeted floor. I suppress a sigh because he’s the unattainable one. Over six feet of muscle, broad shoulders, and dark red hair against his pale skin, complete with a sprinkling of friggin’ freckles. His hair is sticking up in curly waves, and just like the first time I ever saw him, I want to run my fingers through them. His delicious red hair can’t be contained on the top of his head, though—Conor has a nice trim beard. Not one of those hipster beards—just full enough to be manly but soft, and not all mountain-man-I-can-hide-a-squirrel-in-here.
Straight nose, strong jaw. Aaaaand that nose and part of his lip just wrinkled. Yep, just caught sight of my feet. Lovely.
“What’s news?” he asks. Oh, and I mentioned he’s Irish, right? Cuz, yeah, his accent doesn’t do it for me at all.
Ugh. It totally does. Lilts right up to my lady parts and gives ’em a little tingle.
“Taping my ankles, what does it look like?” Okay. That came out more harshly than I’d have liked, but c’mon.
He puts his hands up in a whoa-Nelly move, his gaze darting to my legs and away. And back. And away—like a car wreck he knows he shouldn’t gawk at but can’t help it. He backs up. Leaving me alone with my ugly feet.
“Delta flight 4815 to Sarasota has been canceled,” a feminine voice squawks over the speaker.
Bloody hell. I slap the lid down on my laptop and shove it into my messenger bag. Finally I’d found a spot away from screaming kids and other passengers hollering into their mobiles.
My first attempt at finding a quiet corner was a feckin’ disaster—the last thing I needed was the image of Claire all…bendy to be plaguing my thoughts while I worked on the presentation. Which is done. It is. I’ve been obsessing on it most of the day at a nearby Starbucks. I should be letting it go, but I can’t. So much is riding on nailing it that I can’t stop crawling through every line and slide to ensure I made the most of what I’ve got. When I arrived at the airport, I was that glad of a delay. But canceled?
I hoof it over to the gate desk, which is absolutely mobbed. When it’s my turn, the agent patiently explains Hurricane Claire touching down on the South Carolina coast, and there’s not another plane to Sarasota that’ll be ready tonight.
Shite. “What’s the earliest flight you can be getting me on?”
After some rapid clicking, she hands me back a new boarding pass. “First flight at 8:44 a.m.”
I readjust my rucksack and push away from the counter. Since the flight’s only a little over an hour, I’ll still make my presentation. Walking past the others in line, it’s Claire I spot. “What a feckin’ mess, yeah?”
She nods and returns to her mobile.
What else should I be expecting? She’s always self-contained and low on the drama, even with the fuckton of barbs she has guarding her. When I first met her, she crowded my head with fantasies of her, but at our league’s first away game in Chicago, she made it clear she wasn’t looking at me that way and I shut that shite down. I don’t go in much for relationships and definitely not for pushing if she’s giving me back-off signals. And the look on her face earlier? A clear go away with your hairy eyebrows. Being smart, I did.
I whip out my mobile because it’s a place to crash I’m needing. I do not want to be resting my head at the airport.
I give an I’m-cool nod to Conor as he walks by. His hair’s even spikier than usual, as if he’s been yanking on it, proving he’s as frustrated as the rest of those around me.
I quickly push accept on my phone app for a room close by—as soon as the cancellation was announced, I started searching. The choices were few, especially at a price I could afford near the airport.
“Your boarding pass, please?”
I glance up at the gate agent who, despite the chaos, has every hair in place and maintains her professional poise. After a few moments, she hands me a new one. “You’re on the 8:44 a.m. flight.”
“Thank you. No vouchers for a hotel stay?”
“I’m sorry. We’re not giving them out tonight.”
Well, dang. I tuck everything into my purse and roll my carry-on down the concourse. Apparently ours wasn’t the only flight canceled, because the hall is already filling up with people propping up against the wall, or even lying down.
Up ahead, Conor’s familiar frame and gorgeous hair are hunched over his phone, a scowl marring his forehead.
I stop beside him, my fingers gripping the carry-on handle. “Did you find a room?”
He glances up. “Everything’s booked solid as St. Peter’s Rock. Looks like we’re camping here.”
He must see my guilty expression, because he straightens. “You bagged the last room, didn’t ya?”
I swear to God, his Irish accent acts like some kind of aphrodisiac, rolling over me in seductive waves. His th’s come out as t’s, so everything is everyting with a little aspiration that’s like little happy sighs to my ears. Gah.
“Yep. Looks like I got it just in time. Surely there’s some closer in to the city?”
He frowns. “And why would I be wanting to venture out so far? What passes for motorways here would have the devil saying his Hail Marys, and I can’t be risking my morning flight.”
“Yeah.” He surveys the concourse, the muscles in his jaw bunching. Which—gah—does some really hot things to the intensity of his manly face.
I swallow, trying to work some moisture into my throat. “You might be able to rent a car. It’s about an eight-hour drive, so you’d get there about the same time.”
He shakes his head. “You Americans always thinking it’s no bother driving to hell and back in a day. Tempting, as I’m not looking forward to my rucksack for a pillow, but it’s work tomorrow and I need some sleep.”
“Can’t you call in? They’d understand, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, that’d be grand, what with me being the one who’s supposed to be giving a big presentation.”
Yeah, that would make it tough. I’m fighting the pull to let him stay in my room despite it being only a double. His frustration—I can feel it push against me, begging me to make it better for him, but I straighten my spine.
I learned the hard way to ignore my sensitive side, the one that wants to make everyone else comfortable and happy, even if it goes against my own wishes. But I also try not to be an asshole, so it’s a fine line to straddle.
He scrubs his hand through his hair and locks his gaze on me.
Shit. Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
“Listen. This presentation I’m making. It’s kind of a big deal. Can I crash with you? I’ll be a perfect gent, I swear by all that’s holy. I need a good night’s sleep is all.”
Panic flares in my chest. Shit.
Being empathetic sucks. It makes it hard at times like this. But God. No way. Sharing a room with him is the last thing I want—pure torture. Can you imagine? Me. Trying to deal with all that masculine hotness in the same room?
You might wonder what’s so bad about that. Well, let me tell you. I have these walls for a reason—that empathic, deep feeling shit? Makes it tough to be in a relationship without getting steamrolled. So you either get me with my armor, or not at all.
And clearly he doesn’t like armor-me. We’ve played in the same league sport for three years now, and he’s never given the slightest hint that he’s interested. Knowing me, I won’t be able to hide my feelings, and one of two things will happen, both of them problematic.
Either he’ll be like some guys and not turn down an opportunity for sex. Or he’ll reject the idea. I can’t do casual sex. Not with him. I just know I won’t be able to maintain my armor. I’ll start to feel. And I’ll start changing for him.
And if he rejects the idea, I might feel the pull to change too.
No. Just no.
Don’t get me wrong—I can have casual sex. I don’t sleep around a ton or anything, but I have no trouble asking for what I want. When the stakes are low and my armor can stay in place.
It’s easy when you don’t let yourself care.
He steps forward, adjusting his bag’s shoulder strap, his green-eyed gaze locked onto mine like a friggin’ tractor beam, trying to pull me in to his will. “Really. A soft bed’s all I’m after. I’m not looking to get in your knickers. It’s conked I am.”
See? He’s not interested.
“I, um, can’t. I have…I have some nightly routines. Aaaand morning ones. Trust me, you don’t want to be in a room with me.”
God, that was lame. His forehead wrinkles, and his eyes take on a confused, unfocused look. He glances up and down my body. Probably trying to picture what the hell my stupid routines could be. Heck if I know either, bud.
I could cap it off with a reminder of my ugly feet, but there’s only so much I can do in the name of scaring him off.
He leans back against the wall and drops his duffel bag on the floor. “Yeah, don’t be troubling yourself. Probably for the best and all.”
Probably for the best? What does that mean?
Thirty minutes later, I tap my keycard against the box above the door handle. The green light blinks on my third try. God, I’m exhausted. The guilt riding shotgun with me on the short Lyft drive here doesn’t help either. Conor’s probably tossing and turning on the cold floor of Concourse C right now because my pansy ass couldn’t handle sharing a room with him. Ugh.
I shove my bag inside and ease into the room, plopping my purse onto…a kitchen counter?
I look around the room. High five. I scored an executive suite, complete with a galley kitchen and dining room table that doubles as a computer desk, with USB and Ethernet plugs handy.
To the left, I step into a huge-ass bathroom. Seriously. The bathroom alone would be a studio apartment in New York. Beyond the kitchen is just a couch and flat screen TV. Huh? I wander farther in, and that’s when I see another room to my left, which has a king bed and another flat screen TV. Somehow I got upgraded.
In the living room, I switch on the TV and head to the couch. A suspicion forms, and I almost don’t confirm it, because then I know what I’ll feel compelled to do.
But apparently, I don’t know…curiosity? A suppressed desire to torture myself by having him over? Whatever it is, I step over to the sofa and lift the cushions.
Yep. Sofa bed.
Conor’s face as I walked away flashes across my mind.
Jesus. He just wants a place to rest comfortably so he’ll be fresh for some big meeting. I’m being ridiculous. And selfish. I’m not weak-willed. Not anymore.
Fuck me. I punch my rucksack for the third time and switch to my other side, hip bone jarring against a floor that’s gone harder than a stone’s heart. I could be sharing a room right now with Claire. Rooms usually have some kind of chair, and that’s gotta be better than this poxy floor.
Because I’d definitely take the chair. Not the bed with her in it. Not with her next to me. Laid out. Both of us comfortable. And it’d be one of those small doubles, and we’d accidentally bump into each other and murmur awkward apologies.
Heat curls through me, and my mind’s conjuring Claire stretched out on her side, her arm resting over her hip, with one finger crooking and urging me closer. To her.
I give a start and shut that shite down fast.
She’s not interested, eejit. Claire is direct and not afraid of saying what she wants.
At first, when I heard she had a room, all I could think about was the presentation and how badly I needed to do well so I can be helping my sister with the family farm. But then as her excuses piled up, it was a slap in the face, yeah—a reminder of every one of our prickly encounters. Gets me frustrated, it does, and then I’m saying stupid shite like, Probably for the best. Probably for the best doesn’t get a place for my head to be resting, now does it?
My mobile beeps a text alert. I fish it out from the back pocket of my jeans. It’s from Claire: Room 151
Triumph’s surging through myself, especially when the mobile dings again, this time with the address of her hotel.
I jump up and grab my rucksack. Now I’ll be having some decent sleep at last. We’ll both be so knackered, there’ll be no energy for our uneasy dancing.
It doesn’t take but twenty minutes, and I’m knocking on Room 151. A minute passes, then the door opens and Claire appears. She’s draped in an oversized T-shirt and baggy men’s boxers.
Well, that’s absolutely fantastic—such form-disguising clothes shouldn’t be a turn-on, but fuck if the lad in my trousers doesn’t twitch. Down, boyo.
I’m knackered. That’s all it is. And seeing her in sleepwear is melding with my earlier fantasy of us sharing the same bed.
“Hey. Well, thanks for letting me crash here.” I look past her, my gaze searching out my goal—my spot to sleep.
“No problem. Come in.” She pads into the main part of the room and points. “Here’s the kitchen.”
Who feckin’ cares? But I dutifully nod.
A weird tautness permeates the air. With her standing there, vulnerable in her baggy clothes, I feel every bit of my six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound size. As if it’s pushing into her personal space. And that personal space is this whole room.
Jaysus, I’m being a tool. If I hadn’t acted whiney as a two-year-old in wet nappies, she wouldn’t be bailing me out of a tight spot.
She’s uncomfortable, that much is clear, pointing out each spot in the room when I just want to know—where am I going to be laying my head?
Her increasing nervousness makes me study her for the first time in a while—she’s acting so not like her normal tough persona, and it’s making me curious. I’ve never worried about my size around her, while I do feel like some huge mong around other women. Especially shorter ones. But Claire’s never seemed to me to be all that intimidated.
It was that strength in her that caught my eye the first time she walked up to me, saying she’d heard about the men’s hurling team and was wanting to start a women’s equivalent in Sarasota—camogie.
Of course, me being a lad, I also noticed her fantastic tits—the right size for her tall frame, that athletic body of hers, and all those grippable curves. When she proved level-headed, I was caught enough to watch her closely, to see if she was giving the slightest clue that she was interested in me.
Which she didn’t.
This behavior, however? This is different.
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