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Playing for Keeps (Feeling the Heat Book 6) by Alison Packard (1)

1

Amy Vaughn was running late, and of all the nights to be late, this wasn’t one of them. After grimacing at her reflection in the mirror above her dresser, she grabbed her coat off the bed and hurried to the living room.

“Mom, what did the lightning bolt say to the other lightning bolt?” Danny asked from his position on the couch. On his lap was her iPad which he’d commandeered after dinner for his nightly hour of tablet time.

Unable to contain her smile, Amy halted mid-stride and met her son’s eager gaze. “I don’t know. What?”

“You’re shocking,” Danny said, then let out a snorting laugh.

Amy chuckled, shaking her head as she moved to the breakfast bar that separated the small living room from the equally small kitchen. She glanced at her watch; she wasn’t the only one running late this evening. If Jade didn’t arrive soon, there was no way she’d make it to work on time. “I think that joke is older than I am.”

“Then it must be really old,” Danny said, a grin highlighting the slight gap between his two front teeth.

“Hey, I’m not that old,” she said with mock indignation as the doorbell rang. Laying her coat on the counter, she moved to the door and although she was expecting Jade, she checked the peephole to make sure it was her friend.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Jade O’Brien said with an apologetic smile after Amy opened the door. “Nora’s having boy trouble and called me for some sisterly advice. I just got off the phone with her. I don’t think I was much help, though. I think she’d have better luck with the psychic hotline.”

Amy laughed and motioned Jade inside, then closed the door before the cold November air could chill the apartment. “It’s okay. I’m running behind myself.”

Danny looked up from the iPad and waved at Jade. “What do you think of Mom’s new wig? She just got it today.”

“It’s...” Jade tilted her head, her dark eyes assessing the mass of wavy auburn curls that fell around Amy’s shoulders. “A lot of hair.”

“It’s way better than the old one,” Danny said matter-of-factly. “That one made her look like a lady vampire.”

Now you tell me, after I wore it for four months,” Amy said, moving toward the breakfast bar. “Okay, sweetie. It’s time for me to go to work. You know the drill. Only a small bowl of ice cream for dessert, no staying up past your bedtime, and make sure you brush your teeth before you go to bed.”

“I will.” Danny set the iPad on the couch then jumped up and ran to hug her.

Amy’s heart softened as she leaned down, wrapped her arms around her son, and kissed the top of his head. Once Danny got older, he wouldn’t be as openly affectionate. She planned to enjoy it while she could. “I love you, Danny.”

“You say that every day,” he said, tilting his head back and grinning.

“Because I mean it every day.” She brushed a lock of sandy blond hair from his forehead, then pressed a quick kiss to his cheek before releasing him.

Danny looked at Jade, excitement sparkling in his eyes. “Do you want to see my science project for school? It’s a flip book about the weather. It’s really neat.”

“You bet I do,” Jade said enthusiastically as she perched on the arm of the couch and unzipped her neon pink fleece coat.

“I’ll be right back,” Danny said, then raced toward his bedroom.

Amy turned to look at Jade, lifting her hand to touch the wig. “Be honest, between the wig and the breasts, could I look any more ridiculous?”

Jade’s amused gaze lowered to Amy’s chest, then lifted. “You said you wanted more tip money. Mark my words. With that new wig and the silicone gel inserts in your bra, your weekend tip total will at least double.”

Amy reached for her cream-colored wool coat and pulled it on. “I hope you’re right. I’m not working at Stylus for my health. And now that I’ve gotten the opportunity to work in the VIP lounge, I want to make the most of it.”

The goal of every cocktail server at Stylus was to make it to the holy land: the second level of the nightclub, where the city’s elite partied above the club’s main floor. The competition to be chosen to work upstairs was fierce. Amy had been working at the club on weekends for four months until Brock, the club’s manager, finally decided to give her a chance. Tonight was her first night serving in the VIP lounge and it was time to step up her game. Hence the gel inserts and sexy wig.

“I am right.” Jade brushed her long dark hair over her shoulder. “If your male customers are anything like the guy I went out with a few months ago, you’ll get a boatload of tips. He has a thing for big boobs. He flat out told me he didn’t want to go out with me again because he thought mine were too small.”

“Sounds like you dodged a bullet with that one,” Amy said, thankful that she wasn’t the least bit interested in dating. Some of Jade’s dating stories were cringe-worthy.

“You can say that again.” Jade’s expression brightened. “Did I tell you I met a nice guy at the gym? He’s a sous chef. We’re doing brunch on Sunday,” she said as Danny returned to the living room clutching his science project in both hands.

“What’s brunch?” he asked, a frown tugging at his eyebrows.

“It’s when you combine breakfast and lunch into one meal,” Jade said.

Danny cocked his head, his frown still in place. “Wouldn’t you get a stomach ache if you ate that much food?”

Amy exchanged an amused grin with Jade, then belted her coat and grabbed her keys and tote bag. “I’ll let you explain brunch. If I don’t leave now, I’ll be late for sure.”

Forty-five minutes later, just before her shift started, Amy stood at the glass railing sandwiched between her two favorite co-workers, Cynda and Ronnie, and watched as the guest DJ tinkered with his equipment on the raised platform of the parquet dance floor below. Stylus opened at nine and she had no doubt there were already a slew of eager customers lined up at the front door and around the block. Soon the club would be pulsating with a swarm of hipsters, college students, and young professionals. If the VIP lounge wasn’t too crowded, Brock would invite a handful of the hottest female patrons up to the second floor so that they could mingle with the wealthy power brokers and professional baseball players that frequented Stylus on a consistent basis.

Now that the 49ers played in Santa Clara, the club didn’t attract as many football stars, but with Blaze Field in the vicinity, several of the Blaze players who’d made San Francisco their home during the off-season had become regulars.

According to Ronnie and Cynda, the players were excellent tippers. Several of the women Amy had worked with downstairs were dying to work the VIP Lounge. Money wasn’t the only lure though. The end game for a few hopefuls was to hook up with a ballplayer and live the life of a wife or girlfriend. WAGs, as Jade called them: an exclusive club that Amy had no interest in joining. Sure, the lifestyle might be nice, but in the end, the players weren’t any different from any other men and she’d had more than her fill of the opposite sex.

Cynda’s voice distracted her from her thoughts. “Word on the street is that Kirby Ferrara and her posse booked a table tonight.”

Ronnie groaned. “Damn it. I hope they’re not in my section.”

“Why?” Amy asked, looking first at Ronnie, then Cynda. “And who is Kirby Ferrara?”

“She’s one of those rich brats who lives off of their daddy’s money.” Cynda’s expression darkened. “If she’s in your section, watch out for her. She’s crazy and she can be nasty as hell, especially when she’s wasted.”

“Her friends are just as bad. Whatever she does, they follow her lead,” Ronnie added. “A friend of mine who works at Club Zee said Kirby got a server fired last month.”

Amy shifted from one foot to the other. The thigh-high boots with four-inch heels were a requirement in the VIP room, and they weren’t comfortable. For the past year she’d lived in flats, and while serving downstairs she’d worn conservative pumps. Returning to high heels was an adjustment. Hopefully, she wouldn’t wobble all over the place or fall flat on her ass. “For doing what?”

“Kirby and her friends claimed they saw her spit in their drinks,” Ronnie replied. “It wasn’t true, but the manager didn’t stick up for her. She got canned on the spot.”

“That’s awful,” Amy said, hoping Kirby Ferrara didn’t make a habit of getting people fired. She needed this job to supplement the income from her day job. Rent was due in a week and although her landlord was Jade’s father and she was getting a huge break on the monthly rate, she didn’t want to be late. More than that, she had to provide a stable environment for Danny. Although she’d made the decision to move back to San Francisco before the bullying he’d endured could escalate further, it had killed her that her sweet little boy had gone through it at all. There was no way she could continue to send him to a school where his classmates were pros at getting away with their cruel taunts, and where the teachers and parents turned a blind eye to it even after she’d lodged a formal complaint. Protecting her son was the most important thing in her life and leaving Barstow was the only way to ensure Danny was safe.

An hour later, Amy stepped up to the bar and slid her tray onto the smooth surface. The throbbing bass from the dance floor below beat a hard rhythm against the soles of her boots and she couldn’t help but tap her toe in time with it. Quickly, she punched in her server number and the drink codes on the touchscreen computer system set up in the server’s well. “I need four Captain Coke shots, three Cosmos, and two Appletinis,” she said to Buddy, the bartender, then picked up a cocktail napkin and fanned herself. “It’s warm up here.”

“I called maintenance and asked them to lower the thermostat,” Buddy said as he reached for the glasses under the bar. “It should cool off in a bit.” He glanced up and focused his attention behind her. “The boys of summer have arrived.”

Amy looked over her shoulder and her pulse quickened as she observed Brock leading a group of five men to their reserved alcove in her section. She recognized two of the men as San Francisco Blaze players, but only because they were clients at Logan-Johnson Sports Management, where she worked during the day.

She’d never been formally introduced to Rick Taylor or Trey Gentry, but both of them had been to the office on several occasions to meet with their agents. She doubted they would recognize her, but her mouth still went dry. The only person at Logan-Johnson who knew she worked at Stylus was Jade, and she wanted to keep it that way.

She watched as the men settled themselves into the alcove. Each private niche featured a horseshoe-shaped sofa and a low table for customers to place their drinks on while they talked or celebrated. For those who preferred more privacy, a dark velvet curtain secured with a matching tie could be pulled across the entrance to the alcove.

Cynda sidled up to the bar next to her. “Why is it you get the smokin’ hot jocks and I get the nerdy girls’ bachelorette party?”

Amy burst out laughing at the injured expression on Cynda’s face. “Beginner’s luck?” she said with a smile, then turned and moved quickly toward the new arrivals. “Good evening, gentlemen. Welcome to Stylus,” she greeted them smoothly. Her gaze collided with that of Rick Taylor and a hot tingle crept up her spine.

Wow. Those few glimpses she’d gotten of him at Logan-Johnson hadn’t done him justice. Thick chestnut brown hair cut short, eyes the color of dark chocolate, and a strong chiseled jaw with just the right amount of stubble. If she was at all interested in hooking up with a guy, Rick Taylor would be a worthy candidate. But since she was off men for pretty much eternity, she tilted her head and arched a brow. “What can I get for you?” she asked, forcing her gaze from his and focusing on the other men.

“How does it feel to be the hottest woman in the room?” The question came from a fair-haired man sitting across from Rick Taylor. The statement elicited groans from his tablemates. Practically undressing her with his eyes, he gave her a salacious grin. “You, sweet thing, are a goddess.”

“No. Just a mere mortal,” she shot back with a practiced smile. “But thank you for the compliment.”

“I’ll have a Heineken,” Trey Gentry, whom Amy knew was a pitcher for the Blaze, said, narrowing his gaze at Mr. Cheesy Pick-up Line.

After the other three players ordered, she returned her attention to Rick Taylor. “And for you?”

“Club soda. On ice.” Taylor’s deep rich voice had a hint of an accent. Oklahoma? Texas? She wasn’t sure, but he definitely wasn’t from the West coast. Against her better judgment, she let her gaze linger on his handsome face. Just then he lifted his hand to set his phone on the table and the gold band on his left ring finger glinted under the pendant light suspended directly above the alcove.

“I’ll be right back with your drinks,” she said with a smile, then turned and headed for the bar, oddly disappointed that Rick Taylor was married.

Rick Taylor relaxed against the leather sofa and waited for the shit to fly. It didn’t take long.

“Sweet thing? Goddess?” Trey Gentry gave Dallas Bristow a pained look. “Hottest woman in the room? What kind of bullshit is that?”

Next to Dallas, first baseman, Nico Donovan, snorted. “The same bullshit you used to shovel not that long ago, Gentry. Don’t be ragging on Bristow just because you lost your mojo.”

Trey’s expression turned dark. “Fuck you, Nico.”

Zach Jamison, the team’s third baseman whose birthday they were celebrating, came to Trey’s defense. “Leave it alone, Donovan,” he warned. “We’re here to have a good time, not rehash old news.”

Rick appreciated Zach’s loyalty and until recently, Nico had been loyal to Trey too. But Dallas Bristow liked to stir shit up, and ever since he’d been called up from the minors last May, Dallas, with his air of privilege, had been an annoyance in the clubhouse. Now it seemed that Nico had picked up some of Dallas’s worst traits.

Last season, Rick and Dallas had alternately backed up veteran Blaze catcher, Matt Scanlon, and when Scanlon had announced his retirement it became clear to Rick that when spring training rolled around, he and Dallas would be competing for the starting catcher position. Rumor had it that Dallas had been bragging to anyone who would listen that he was a shoo-in for the job, but while Dallas was four years younger and possessed a shit-ton of talent, he didn’t have the first clue about life. Or about fighting for something you wanted so badly you could taste it.

Rick tuned out his teammates’ bickering and cocked his head to study their sultry cocktail waitress who stood with her back to them at the bar. She’d handled Dallas’s tacky lines with the ease of someone who’d done it on a regular basis. He could only imagine the amount of shit she dealt with in a club like Stylus.

Taller than average, she had curves in all the right places, and the second she’d strutted up to the table in those sexy-as-hell thigh-high black boots, a jolt of sexual energy had shot straight through him. The fierceness of it surprised him, and then the inevitable twinge of guilt had set in. He slid his thumb over his palm to rub the ring he still hadn’t taken off after three years. Jill was dead, and logically he knew his attraction to the woman at the bar, or any woman for that matter, was natural. So why did it feel like he was cheating?

An hour later, Rick was more than ready to escape the club, and judging by the brooding expression on Trey’s face, he wasn’t alone. Dallas, Nico, and Zach had been lured to the dance floor downstairs by three scantily clad women and hadn’t returned.

“Bristow’s a Grade-A prick,” Trey said, then picked up his beer and took a long pull.

Rick chuckled. “You won’t get an argument from me on that one.”

“You know what bothers me the most about him?”

“The fake tan?” Rick grinned. “The blindingly white teeth?”

Trey let out a snort of amusement then set his bottle on the table. “No. He reminds me of me.”

“That’s bullshit. You’re nothing like him.”

“You weren’t here.” Trey shook his head in disgust. “You didn’t see how much of an asshole I was.”

No, he hadn’t. He’d heard a few stories about Trey’s behavior, and then there was that false allegation of attempted rape, but Rick had barely paid attention to what was going on with his former teammate. He’d been going through his own personal hell. By the time he’d gotten his shit together, dedicated himself to getting back on the team, and landing a non-roster invitation to spring training last year, Trey had been vindicated and had led the Blaze to their second World Series championship. Still, the man that sat at the table with him now was a far cry from the Trey he’d been friends with during their rookie season. But then again, so was he.

“Whatever you became while I was gone, you’re not that man now.”

“Maybe so. But it doesn’t make some of the shit I said and did any easier to live with. What Bristow said to our cocktail waitress was mild compared to what I would have said two years ago.”

Rick shot a cursory glance at the woman in question, who was carrying a tray of drinks to a nearby table. “She seems more than capable of handling Bristow, or anybody else.”

“That’s not the point.” Trey leveled him with an irritated gaze. “She shouldn’t have to handle it. She should be able to do her job and not be harassed.”

“I agree.”

Trey’s brow furrowed. “I’ve been thinking.”

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Rick said, earning a wry grin from Trey.

“Seriously. Remember in our rookie year how we talked about teaming up to support a worthy cause?”

“Yeah, but we never got past the discussion phase. I got injured, and then

“Looks like you two might need another round.”

Rick turned to find their server smiling down at them. Even though she had her hands full with a table of barely legal women who’d strutted into the lounge not long after he and the guys had sat down, she’d been more than attentive. However, with Dallas’s absence from the table, the smile curving her lips was more genuine. The heavy eyeliner and smoky eyeshadow she wore enhanced her green eyes, but he couldn’t help but wonder what she looked like underneath the thick layer of beauty products. Now that he’d spent time observing her, he was certain her entire physical presentation was nothing more than a façade. But he supposed in her line of work a certain amount of artifice was necessary.

“I’ll have another beer,” Trey said with an amiable smile.

“Coming right up.” She swung her attention to Rick. “Another club soda?”

“Yes. Thanks.”

Trey leaned forward. “Hey, I’m sorry about what our…ah…friend…said to you earlier.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I appreciate that, but you don’t have to apologize. Comparatively speaking, what he said was mild. And I’m used to it.” Another smile tilted her glossy lips. “I’ll be right back.”

Rick watched the womanly sway of her hips as she moved toward the bar and a shot of pure unadulterated lust heated his body. His father would say it was a good sign; that he was finally moving on. He, however, wasn’t so sure.

Satisfied that her customers were momentarily taken care of, Amy made her way to the restroom. It was her first break of the night and she more than needed it. Although less crowded than the first floor, the VIP lounge was no cakewalk. The customers spent big bucks to be seated in the exclusive section and expected extra attention and a positive attitude at all times. And if they didn’t get what they expected they didn’t hesitate to complain.

Maintaining a positive attitude hadn’t been too difficult, or at least it hadn’t until Kirby Ferrara, the mega-wealthy San Francisco socialite and her three friends arrived and were seated in Amy’s section. The four young women were barely over the legal drinking age, which wasn’t unusual in any club, but the aura of entitlement and superiority oozing off of them was anything but normal. Maybe that’s what having a ton of money did to people.

Her first clue that dealing with Kirby was going to be challenging was when Kirby had set her sights on Rick Taylor and Trey Gentry. Kirby had demanded that Amy ask the two men to join them at Kirby’s table, and because it was in her job description to keep the customers happy, Amy had dutifully marched over to the ballplayers and extended the invitation. Her opinion of the two, whose friends had abandoned them for the dance floor, rose several notches when they basically said “thanks, but no thanks.” When Amy delivered the bad news it was obvious that Kirby didn’t take kindly to rejection, and with each downed flute of Cristal that followed she grew even more petulant.

She’d also offered up a scathing critique of Amy’s hair and makeup. Per Kirby, Amy’s hair was obviously a wig (and not a good one) and her makeup was more suited to RuPaul’s Drag Race than to the VIP lounge. It was all Amy could do not to tell her to go to hell, but she had managed to avoid taking the bait. Luckily, she’d had plenty of practice doing that in Barstow.

After exiting the stall, Amy washed her hands then grabbed a paper towel from the stack on the counter. One of the other stall doors opened and a woman Amy recognized from Cynda’s bachelorette party stepped out to wash her hands. Amy smiled and met the woman’s gaze in the mirror as she dried her hands. The woman, a bit older than the rest of her party, returned her smile and turned on the faucet. “I love your boots,” she said as she pushed the soap dispenser. “But I can’t imagine working in them all night.”

“They’re not so bad. The cushioned insoles I stuck inside them help.”

The woman laughed. “Right after college I worked in a copy shop and was on my feet all day. I wish I would have thought of insoles back then.”

Amy tossed her paper towel in the trash receptacle. “I noticed you’re with the bachelorette party. Are you having fun?”

“Surprisingly, yes. My co-worker is the bride-to-be and she insisted I come even though I’m not much of a club-goer.” The woman rinsed her hands then reached for a paper towel. “As long as they don’t drag me down to the dance floor I’ll be fine. In high school under my senior picture it said, ‘Grace Pratt…most likely to trip over her own feet.’”

Amy laughed as the door flew open and Kirby and one of her friends, who was sporting a similar tight bandeau-style dress and the same artfully highlighted long blonde hair, stumbled into the restroom giggling.

As the door closed automatically behind them, Kirby treated Amy to a scornful once-over, and then swung her attention to Grace. “What are you looking at, grandma?” Kirby said, exchanging a smirk with her friend. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

Kirby’s friend cackled at the insult.

The quick flash of pain in Grace’s eyes and the pink staining her cheeks were a stark reminder of what Danny had endured. There was a lot in life Amy could tolerate, but a bully wasn’t one of them. Anger fueled her as she crossed the short distance to stand in front of Kirby. Staring down at her from the lofty height of her four-inch heels, she scanned Kirby’s face with derision. “You should have better manners. But I guess money can’t buy class.”

“How dare you!” Outrage flared in Kirby’s gray eyes. Not intimidated, she lifted her slightly pointed chin defiantly. “Do you know who I am?”

“Of course I do. I recognize a bully when I see one.”

Kirby wasn’t accustomed to being called out for her bad behavior. She glared at Amy, her mouth pressed into a tight grim line. Behind her, her look-alike friend had taken a step back toward the door, her fingers gripping the handle, ready to bolt.

Amy glanced at Grace who looked a little shell-shocked. “Shall we?” Amy gestured toward the door, then stepped around a still seething Kirby. “Move,” she barked the word at Kirby’s rattled friend, who backed up and cowered against the opposite wall while Amy opened the door and let Grace precede her out of the restroom.

“You’ll be sorry you talked to me like that,” Kirby called out, her voice laced with venom.

Bracing her arm against the door, Amy looked over her shoulder and met Kirby’s furious gaze. “Honey, I’ve faced much worse than whatever you can dish out, so I doubt I’ll lose any sleep worrying about it.”

Ten minutes later, Amy was kicking herself for letting anger cloud her judgement. The smart thing to do would have been to walk out of the restroom with Grace and not say a word. Instead, she’d opened her big mouth and added fuel to the fire. Kirby was already pissed because Rick and Trey had blown her off, and now, judging by the hostile glares Kirby and her friends were shooting in her direction, Amy had risen to the top of Kirby’s shit list.

As much as she hated to apologize to a bully like Kirby Ferrara, she had to do it. For Danny’s sake. She couldn’t lose her job and jeopardize her son’s future. Turning, she picked up the tray of drinks for the table next to Kirby’s and balanced it with both hands. After she delivered the drinks, she would stop by Kirby’s table and give an apology worthy of an Oscar.

Taking a deep breath, she glanced at the alcove where Rick and Trey were sitting. Their friends had returned, but Rick’s attention was on her instead of his fellow ballplayers. She wasn’t close enough to read his eyes, but warmth still surged beneath her skin. His interest didn’t seem lascivious, but it unsettled her. It had been a long time since she’d had any reaction except disinterest towards a man.

Acknowledging him with a slight nod, she moved away from the bar. As she passed in front of Kirby’s alcove something hard jammed against the back of her right knee and it buckled. She pitched forward, letting out a gasp of surprise as the tray flew out of her hands. Then everything seemed to happen at once. Instinctively, her arms went out to brace her fall, but she wasn’t quick enough and she landed with a hard thud on the carpeted floor. Clattering glass and startled screams echoed in her ears all but drowning out the thundering of her heart.

Embarrassment flooded her, but before she could move someone was by her side, crouching next to her.

“Are you all right?” It was Rick Taylor.

Mortified, Amy tried to push herself up from the floor.

“Don’t move. You may have broken something,” he said, resting his hand gently on the small of her back.

“I’m fine.” Fighting embarrassment, she scrambled to her feet and shrugged off Rick’s assistance. She brushed her mass of hair back and looked at Kirby’s table. It was covered with broken glass and shallow puddles of alcohol, but Kirby and her friends hadn’t moved. Instead, the gaggle of them watched her with thinly veiled satisfaction.

“What the hell is going on?” Brock strode toward them, his face contorted with anger.

In the blink of an eye, Kirby’s triumphant expression morphed into one of indignation. “Your klutz of a waitress dumped a tray of drinks all over us.” She pointed a glittery pink-tipped finger at the table. “There’s broken glass everywhere and our dresses are ruined.”

“I—I’m sorry.” Amy could barely choke the words out. “I’ll be happy to pay your dry cleaning costs.” She moved forward, intending to clean up the mess, but Brock gripped her upper arm, pulling her back.

“I’ll get someone else to take care of this.” His angry gaze swept over her. “You’re a mess.”

Amy looked down to find her fishnet stockings had torn just above the tops of her boots. “I have another pair in my locker. I’ll go change.”

“Don’t bother,” Brock said tersely. “You’re fired.”

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