For as long as Valerie King could remember, she’d always dreaded her birthday. Her twenty-fourth was no different. She drained her martini glass and speared the toothpick into the olive with a grisly determination that reflected her mood.
In fact, dread had morphed to hate. Which was why she was sitting alone in a bar, stabbing olives and feeling sorry for herself instead of partying with friends. No one liked toxic birthday girl. They liked getting-drunk-and-dancing-topless-on-tables birthday girl.
Why couldn’t she be her?
The older Val got, the more she mourned the sister she’d been born with. It was ridiculous, really. She didn’t even remember Lauren. They’d been two when the accident happened. But she felt her. Or rather, the absence of her. Like a missing piece. A severed portion of spine. An amputated limb.
Her sister. Her twin.
Normally, her mother tried to fill the-day-that-ached-with-things-that-were-not, but for the first time in twenty-two years she was doing something for herself. A Mediterranean cruise with a wonderful new man who loved her, and Val was thrilled.
She was twenty-four, for god’s sake. She didn’t need her mummy. Or her father. Which was handy, considering he was, as per usual, missing in action. A ripple of anger tightened her jaw. She’d cut him a lot of slack over the years, understanding intimately the demons that drove him. But she was tired of reaching out to him and being rejected.
Val jiggled the glass at Charles, the wiry bartender with the wispy gray beard. It’d hurt less with another martini.
“Same again please, Chuckers.”
“Hadn’t you better slow down?”
“I’ve had two.” She stared at him in disbelief. “In an hour.”
“You normally sit on one glass of wine and are tucked up in bed by now.”
This was the problem with having a regular hang-out situated off the beaten track and a bartender that treated his customers like they were his flock. There was no anonymity.
She was usually in bed by eight thirty and not a drinker. But tonight wasn’t just any old night.
“It’s my birthday. I’m lashing out.”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His knowing gaze telegraphed his understanding of her sudden, uncharacteristic need for a third drink. “Fine.” He took her glass. “But you should eat something. And don’t forget you gotta be at Sticky Fingers at four.”
Val glared at his retreating back. As if she could forget. It was her bloody business. She’d been getting up early every morning to go to it for two years.
A bowl of peanuts sat just out of reach, and she reached for them. She was pretty sure it wasn’t the kind of food Charles had in mind but, hey, they were protein, right? She threw a half dozen into her mouth and chewed without tasting.
“Do you have any idea know how much bacteria they find growing on bar nuts?”
Val ignored the voice and the loom of a man beside her. She’d already scowled at two guys who’d tried to pick her up tonight and she wasn’t in the mood for a third. Although, the thought of being violently ill in hospital with food poisoning did have its merits. Maybe then her father might realise she was still alive?
She took another handful for good measure.
“Seriously, the department of health would be performing an emergency stomach pump if they could see you now.”
That surprised a laugh out of Val, and she turned her head to look at the guy who’d managed such an amazing feat on this bleakest of days. She blinked, recognising him instantly.
The hottest thing in rugby in a generation. A try-scoring machine. Every club, every coach wanted him.
Except for her father.
But whether Griffin King liked it or not—and he did not—the powers that be high up in the Sydney Smoke had just scored the biggest coup ever at the ass end of the season by signing him for three years, effective immediately.
Val had been thrilled at the prospect. Her father had been furious. Probably still was, knowing him—the man wasn’t good at letting things go. She knew that better than anyone.
“Hi.” He smiled, and the burn in her chest eased a little. “I’m Kyle.”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “I know who you are.”
She’d been following his career since he’d emerged out of the shadow of his cousin, Danny Leighton, whose own rugby career had been cut short by arrogance, stupidity, and an appetite for cocaine. She’d watched Kyle on the television and checked him out online. She’d even seen him play last year at Henley stadium against the Smoke.
But seeing him up close, in the flesh, was something entirely different. He was taller, his hair darker, his jaw squarer. His smile was bigger. The gap in his front teeth was wider. His nose even more crooked. His eyes were tawnier.
And damn if that combination didn’t reach right through her turmoil to all her good places. She sighed. Why were rugby dudes so well put together?
He raised both his eyebrows. “You do?”
Val turned back to the nuts. “Winger for the Sydney Centaurs. Twelve tries for them this season. Recently traded to the Smoke.”
In fact, he’d started training with them yesterday.
He leaned his elbow on the bar and angled his body toward her. Even in her peripheral vision she could see the way the movement strained the fabric of his shirt across biceps and shoulders. “A woman who knows her rugby. Be still my heart.”
She fleetingly thought about telling him she was Griffin King’s daughter, but even mentioning her father tonight was like twisting a knife in a wound. She was too mad at him to even utter his name.
“I prefer rugby league myself,” she lied, allowing a brief uptilt of her mouth.
He laughed and clutched his chest dramatically. “That is a low blow.”
Charles placed her martini in front of her, the two skewered green olives swaying in the liquid. He locked his gaze with hers. “Drink it slowly.” Then he turned his attention to Kyle, glaring at him. “What can I get you?”
Either Charles didn’t know he was in the presence of a rugby superstar, or he didn’t care. Probably the latter.
“A Guinness, thanks.”
Charles glanced at Val, then at Kyle, his eyes narrowing. “You get a mid strength.” Then he stalked off.
Kyle blinked at Charles’s back, but shrugged it off. “May I join you?”
Valerie knew she should say no. She was in the middle of a pity party. For one. She was no kind of company at all. But Kyle had won huge brownie points for not being a privileged dick with Charles just now. And for making her laugh. She’d always been a sucker for a guy who could make her laugh.
Maybe because her father had never tried.
Plus, there was an aura about Kyle that drew her. Something electric. She could feel it sizzling, like lightning trapped beneath her skin. It should have warned her to stay away, but tonight she was two martinis and two decades of grief the worse.
She glanced to the side and lifted a shoulder. “It’s a free world.”
It was hardly enthusiastic consent, but he took it and slid his very fine ass onto the stool beside her. His shirt dazzled with a pattern of autumnal swirls.
Charles placed a beer in front of Kyle with a definite thunk and a look in his eyes that said you’re on thin ice, mate. Val suppressed a smile as Kyle picked it up and took a fortifying swallow.
Placing the glass down, Kyle half turned on his stool, his knees perilously close to her thigh. “So…” His voice trailed off as he quirked an eyebrow.
“Val,” she supplied.
He smiled as if he approved of her name, flashing that gap in his teeth. She wondered if he knew how sexy it was. How distracting. How it drew the eye to his mouth instead of the crooked line of his nose.
“So, Val…you know what I do. What is it that you do?”
She didn’t really want to talk about herself, but she didn’t want to be rude, either. Kyle was playing for the Smoke now, so it was inevitable they’d meet sooner or later, and Val prided herself on her strong relationships with the players and their partners.
She should tell him. She didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with him. Thankfully, he took it out of her hands.
“No—hang on. Let me guess.”
Oh, this ought to be good. Not many people guessed what she did. If he said model or actress, as so many men on the pull did, he was going to lose every one of those brownie points.
She angled her body slightly in his direction, too, their knees almost touching. “Okay.”
He ran one hand along his jaw. It was so closely shaved the dark dots of his whiskers didn’t make a noise. His other hand ironed up and down the length of his thigh. His jeans were soft and faded and pulled taut across well-developed quads.
Rugby guys had awesome quads.
And this one had an awesome package, too, if the way the denim cupped him there was any indication.
His gaze roved over her face, and she was suddenly conscious of her freckles. The curse of the redhead. Unfortunately, hers weren’t a cute little Annie smattering. There were a lot of them, and not just her face, but her arms and shoulders, too.
She wasn’t obtuse. She was aware that men found her attractive. She knew her Titian hair and tall, willowy figure that never packed on the pounds, despite owning a bakery, caused men to salivate and were the envy of a lot of women. But her freckles had been the bane of her existence, and at times like this she felt like the gauche, gangly thirteen-year-old who’d tried rubbing lemon juice on her face to rid herself of their blight.
Normally, she wouldn’t leave the house without a foundation that concealed at least most of their numbers, but she hadn’t given one single fuck about her beauty routine tonight.
That had been monumentally stupid.
She dropped her gaze under his scrutiny, fighting the urge to sit herself back a little, mentally preparing for him to mention them, make some kind of crack or tell her how cute they were. He didn’t.
“I’m going for secret agent.”
Val blinked, the statement not making much sense for a moment, caught up as she was in familiar insecurities. “What?”
“Your martini gave you away. Rookie error.” He tisked, and the gap in his teeth peeped out as his lips parted. “Am I right?”
Val suddenly felt light as air at this ridiculous conversation. And the fact he was flirting with her despite her face full of freckles, which would not have been great camouflage for a secret agent. “Well…” She affected casualness as she stirred her martini with her olive stick. “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
His laughter shimmered around her like a mirage. But he was real. Big and solid before her.
“I imagine there’d be worse ways to go.”
Their gazes locked. The tawny flecks in his eyes heated, and she could almost see the play of images cavorting through his brain. Pinwheels of colour flashed on her inner eye, lightning flared and forked beneath her skin and sizzled through her blood.
The sudden thought that her father would not be impressed by this fraternisation with one of his players made it feel even better.
“Okay, I’m on a roll. Let me guess how old you are now.”
For a while, Val had forgotten it was her birthday and why she was here. She kept her smile firmly plastered in place, refusing to let the reminder kill the buzz between them.
“Twenty…” He narrowed his eyes and regarded her, a smile on his mouth she wanted to kiss right off. Her breath hitched at the thought. Yes. She wanted to kiss him. “Four.”
Another little chink punctured the buzz. Twenty-four. Today. And her father couldn’t even pick up a damn phone. Her mother, who was in a different day in a different time zone, had managed to figure it out.
She swallowed hard against the thought. He tilted his head slightly, a crinkle between his brows as if he’d caught a glimpse of her muted misery. She lifted her martini and tapped it against his beer glass. “You are good at this.”
“Well…” He grinned as he picked up his beer. “I don’t like to brag.”
The guy didn’t have to brag. A body like that was a flashing neon sign. He was a ridiculously good-looking man who was flirting with her. And tonight, that felt good. Too good to pass up. Too good to listen to her wiser angels.
It was wrong, she knew that. She shouldn’t be indulging in this at all, shouldn’t be letting him flirt with her—not when he didn’t know who she was. She should either fess up or finish her drink and call it a night. Her father would not approve. He had one rule where she was concerned—the men of the Sydney Smoke were off-limits—and Val had never pushed that boundary.
But this felt good, and she didn’t want it to end. Not yet. The night ahead stretched long and lonely and she hurt too damn much.
It was just some harmless banter, right?
“So…” He eyed her speculatively. “You’re on some top-secret government job at the moment, aren’t you?
Val laughed. “What makes you think that?”
He shrugged. “I can’t think why else a beautiful woman would be sitting at a bar all by herself.”
Val’s gaze lingered on his throat as Kyle took a swallow of his beer. She watched as it undulated and wondered what his neck smelled like and how it would feel to press a kiss to the pulse thudding there.
“You’re right,” she said. “I’m undercover.”
He grinned triumphantly. “I knew it!”
Val sucked in a breath. The man had a smile that could melt ovaries. “I’ve been sent to take out all men using cheesy pickup lines.”
“Oh no.” He gave a faux groan. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
“It needs a little updating. But I suppose a guy like you doesn’t have to try too hard.” She bet he didn’t even have to open his mouth to set women swooning.
“A guy like me?” Kyle cocked an eyebrow, a smile tilting the corners of his mouth.
“You know what I mean.”
“No.” He shook his head innocently. “No I don’t.”
Val rolled her eyes. “All buff and hot and…” She swept a hand up and down in front of him to indicate all his incredible man flesh. “Rugby.”
He chuckled. “I’m…sorry?”
God, he was so sweet and she wanted him. She knew she shouldn’t go there but her body was already eroding her resolve. And if he’d been any other guy stirring her interest on this night of all nights, hooking up with him would have been a no-brainer.
But he wasn’t. He was a Smoke player. He was off-limits.
She shook her head on a sigh. “Don’t be.”
“Ah.” He grinned then. “You have a thing for rugby guys.”
No. Not really. In fact, it was fair to say, having grown up around professional rugby players, she was relatively immune. But Kyle was different, and suddenly she couldn’t bear the thought of passing up this opportunity. She was twenty-four years old, there was a very definite spark happening, and she didn’t want to be alone tonight.
Her father and his edicts could go to hell.
“No.” She shook her head, decision made. “Just you.”
The beer stilled en route to his mouth. His gaze locked with hers. “That’s a good answer.”
Val gave him a half smile and neither of them spoke for a beat or two. “Can you guess what I’m thinking right now?”
He shifted on his stool. “Probably not what I hope you’re thinking.”
Val liked that he was still treading gently, not going in for the hard sell despite her obvious interest. “You might be surprised.”
Her pulse fluttered at her temples, and her scalp prickled. She was doing this. She was actually doing it. Val didn’t usually go for one-night stands. She lost her virginity at nineteen to a guy at uni she’d been seeing for a few months, and had a series of short-term boyfriends since. She’d even let a few of them into her body, but none close enough to see all the broken, damaged parts.
Parts that ached so much more on nights like tonight.
She’d tried so hard, damn it. Tried to be good, not to cause any further ripples in her father’s life. She’d only ever wanted him to love her. Val drained her martini to push back the abyss.
“You’re thinking you want another drink?” he said.
She sucked the olives off the toothpick one at a time, watching him steadily. “Nope.”
His gaze dropped to her mouth as she licked the glistening residue from her lips, and muscles deep inside her belly heated, melted. He lifted his eyes to hers. “You want to order something to eat?”
“You…want to get out of here?”
Val smiled. “Warmer.”
“To another bar?
She huffed out a small laugh. “Colder.”
They may not have been saying very much, but their eyes were carrying on a full conversation. His, busily assessing her signals, dancing around the question. Hers, daring him not to, expressing her interest.
“Hot,” she murmured. “Very hot.”
Hell yeah, she wanted to go to his place. Because the night was long and she couldn’t think of a better way to forget this shitty day. And because it was the biggest fuck you to her father she could think of. Which probably made her a terrible human being at the moment, but being good and trying to always do the right thing had only gotten her heartache.
The fact that the vehicle for her defiance came wrapped in such a sexy package was an added bonus.
Not that she had any intention of telling her father. It’d bring all kinds of crap down on Kyle’s head, and she had no desire to trash his career. But she’d know. She’d know she’d deliberately flouted Griffin King’s rule—Coach’s daughter is off-limits.
“To…see my harbour view?”
Val gave him more brownie points for attempting to clarify her expectations. “You live on the harbour?”
“I live a few streets back, but yeah…you can see a little water.”
He could have lived in a tent that looked out onto a brick wall and she wouldn’t have cared less. “I hope you’re not offended if I say no to the view.”
He grinned. “Not even a little bit.”
“Good, then.” Val took a steadying breath as she slid off the stool. “Shall we go?”
Kyle stood also, abandoning his barely touched beer. He was taller than her by a good few inches, and that was sexy, too. At five ten in her flats, she could look a lot of men in the eye. She had to tip her head back to meet his gaze, and she liked it.
“Night, Chuckers,” she called, dragging her gaze off Kyle to grab her bag.
Charles looked over his shoulder. “Night, Val. I’ll be over in the morning for my usual,” he said, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was glaring at Kyle. Then he made a V sign, jabbing it toward his own eyes and then swivelling it around to jab it in Kyle’s direction.
I’m watching you.
Kyle blinked and murmured, “He’s not your father, is he?”
The irony snap froze like ice in Val’s chest. Charles acted more like a father toward her than the man who had given her life.
“No, he’s not. But he does have a shotgun under the bar, I believe.”
“Am I allowed to ask about his usual?”
Val smiled. “I could tell you,” she whispered, “but I’d have to kill you.”