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Hard Target (MF)

All or Nothing

Etopia Press

Heat Rating: STEAMY
Word Count: 54,713
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Winning can be dangerous when the stakes are high.

When star quarterback Riley Sloane begins receiving anonymous threats, it couldn't have happened at a worse time. His team has their sights set on the Super Bowl. He doesn't have time for a stalker, besides it's probably a prank. But when team owner Seth Blake gets wind of the situation, Riley ends up with a security detail for protection. Too bad Parker Carson is part of the plan. Since the day they first met, there's been nothing but trouble between him and the beautiful PI. She's bossy, as maddening as she is sexy, and she seems to hate his guts. But the more time they spend together, the more he wants to keep her safe. Too bad it's her job to protect him and she doesn't appreciate anyone getting in her way. As Riley tries to keep his head in the game, he finds himself distracted by the beautiful Parker...and that could be hazardous for both of them.

Parker Carson isn't thrilled about her latest assignment. She has to babysit the obnoxious quarterback Riley Sloane! So what if he's handsome, charming, and a great football player? He's also a conceited bad boy pain-in-the-neck who loves to push her buttons. But while protecting him, she begins to see the side of him he keeps hidden from the world. Only now the unknown threat to the quarterback is not nearly as dangerous as her growing feelings for Riley...

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Riley Sloane pulled up to his condo building and put the sports car in park. The sun was coming up on the city’s landscape, and it was coming alive. He looked at his watch. The day was just beginning, and he hadn’t even gone to bed yet. He had only himself to blame for his current state of fatigue. Going out with a few teammates to celebrate their conference championship win that had propelled them to the Super Bowl seemed like a good idea in theory. The Texas Tomcats were fourteen and two and had killed it in the playoffs.
What he hadn’t expected was a never-ending night of hijinks at a strip club. Next time, he wouldn’t let Wade, his good friend and wide receiver, pick the venue. He’d long outgrown that kind of trivial, salacious entertainment, and these days he preferred to be out of the limelight. As soon as they entered the club and got a table in the VIP section, everyone else got hammered. He wanted to keep a cool head, and that meant staying away from the alcohol. A big dream of his was looming in the distance, and he wasn’t going to do anything stupid like having a scandalous dalliance while out partying to overshadow achieving that goal.
He shook his head at his new view of the world. Not so long ago he relished the women and the wild nights, but now that took a backseat to focusing on his job. And it was all Seth Blake’s fault. Since the former MVP and four-time Super Bowl champ became part owner of the Tomcats, the energy in the stadium had changed. The man was a champion and a perfectionist, just what the flailing team needed to fuel the fire for not just winning but becoming a unified group that functioned well together. And it had been hard work. He had to admit his mentor had been right about bonding with the guys. It had helped their game tremendously, and they were beginning to trust his abilities on the field.
But this newfound determination had a price. His love life had taken a terrible hit. The tabloids were reporting that he’d been devastated after his last breakup, but the truth was he’d shifted his priorities. He had the money, fame, and the social media followers. He was the new golden boy who was going to put the Texas Tomcats on the map. He did interviews and had endorsement deals. Life couldn’t be better, but lately he’d been feeling empty inside. Seth had been teaching him to strive for more than the material things being a star quarterback could give him.
“Good morning, Mr. Sloane,” Stewart, one of the building valets, said as he opened his car door.
“Good morning, Stewart.”
“That was some win yesterday. My friends and I watched the highlights twice. Did you have a good time celebrating last night?”
“My teammates certainly did.” Riley got out of the car. “But I have a massive headache.”
“Shall I summon the on-call doctor? We need our favorite quarterback in good health for the big game in two weeks.”
“No, that won’t be necessary.”
Stewart gave his car a onceover. “Looks like your car could use a good cleaning. I’ll schedule it for the weekly detailing.”
“You are the man.” He patted him on the back and handed him the keys.
One of the great things about living in an ultra-exclusive condo building was amenities like doctors on the ready. But if he did need medical attention, there was a certain med school student who lived in the building he wouldn’t mind tending to his ailments. He was sure her boyfriend wouldn’t like it though. He’d long given up his romantic pursuit of Avery Reed in exchange for a wonderful friendship. But he couldn’t help screwing with her boyfriend. Wyatt had won the fight for her heart, but he was still leery of Riley. He’d tried to make peace with Wyatt. He’d invite him to watch the game or hang out with his friends, but Wyatt always turned him down. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Wyatt weren’t part of the Blake family. Like it or not, they’d become an integral part of his life and that meant playing nice with Wyatt. But there was one family member he refused to be get along with, because frankly it was too painful.
Parker Carson lived to torment him. He’d never seen the woman when she didn’t have a scowl on her face. It was like she was allergic to being friendly.
Riley smiled when he walked inside and saw the banner behind the bellman’s desk. It said “Go Tomcats!” Everyone was excited about the win. The Tomcats hadn’t seen such a winning streak in quite some time. It was more than winning for the team. It would be a big win for Texas and boost the morale of a lot of loyal fans who had hung in there for years hoping they’d get out of their slump. There was a lot riding on the Tomcats winning the championship, but Seth reminded him that it was quite a feat to have made it this far. He said a win would be the icing on the cake. Riley meant to slide the keycard to summon the elevator, but a quick pat of the front pocket of his slacks where he usually kept it revealed it wasn’t in his pocket. Oh well, he probably left it in the car. He walked over to the desk and asked George to let him up, and within a few minutes, the doors opened.
He stepped into the lift, punched the number twelve, and looked at his cell phone display. He had messages from the many people involved in running his business life. Eric, his publicist, was vetting the interview requests, while his agent Fox was getting lucrative endorsement offers now that the die had been cast and the championship was a reality. It was all exciting, but he would take Seth’s advice. He’d block it out and focus on doing his job. The perks would be there for the taking after they won the big game. He’d asked his sister to get a head count of the family members who wanted to attend the game. It wasn’t surprising everyone wanted to come cheer him on, but it still made him feel good they were so eager and supportive. There were so many things to do, but right now he just wanted to take a power nap and a run before he engaged in all the insanity.
If he’d kept to his normal schedule, he would have run into Parker this morning.
The sexy private investigator had given him the cold shoulder the first day they’d met in the stadium and hadn’t relented in her contempt for him. It was no secret they despised each other. OK, he wouldn’t go that far. But she was maddening. The last thing he needed was to be distracted by her. It didn’t matter that they saw each other often at Blake events, she kept to her guns about not liking him. Which was surprising because he’d never had that problem with a woman before. And the more they clashed, the more curious he became about the sultry brown-eyed beauty.
They jogged around the same time every day but usually took different routes. He was happy about that. That woman was hazardous to his health. He’d taken her route once and kept back, knowing she’d accuse him of following her. Friction was kind of their thing. He’d become so hypnotized by the fluid motion of her runner’s stride and more importantly, her spectacular ass, that he’d run into traffic and almost got hit by a car. After he got his bearings and continued his run, he’d smiled to himself. It was totally worth almost dying to watch her.
The ding of the elevator brought him out of his hazy daydream. He stepped into the sleekly decorated hallway and rubbed his temples as he headed to his place. His headache was getting worse. He could blame it on the wild party, but the truth was, thinking about Parker did strange things to him. He thought about her all the time these days and chalked it up to his ego feeling bruised because he couldn’t charm her. True or not, it was annoying and distracting, especially when he needed to be focused on the upcoming game of his life.
He stopped when he spotted a gift-wrapped, pink and white polka dot box in front of his door. He bent down and picked it up. Who could have left him a present? He took his keys out of his pants pocket, swiped the key fob over the panel, and opened the door. When he wasn’t fending off football groupies wherever he went, he was evading seductive invitations from women in the building. He’d gotten plenty of smiles and a few had even tried to jog with him. Maybe it was Tanya on the fifth floor. She loved to bring him baked goods. He took a whiff of the box. It didn’t smell like her delicious cookies. It could have been Denise on the tenth floor. She had a boyfriend, but that didn’t stop her from inviting him to their apartment when he was away on business trips. No, his money was on Pilar, the pretty executive who’d shown up at his apartment in that skin-tight green dress on Christmas Eve. He’d turned her down like an idiot, but she said she wasn’t giving up until he took her up on her offer to make his wildest desires come true.
So while he’d taken a break from women and it was paying off big for his football career, he went to sleep every night with an ice pack on his crotch. He’d never gone this long without a woman in his bed. He was so pent-up, he was convinced he could bench press a forklift.
He entered his condo and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he headed toward the kitchen. He had glitter on his black dress shirt. The strippers at the club were pretty aggressive last night, but he’d kept his hands to himself. He brushed the glitter off, continued to the kitchen, and plopped the present on the center island. There had to be something in here to eat. No eating at a strip club was another rule he had. He remembered a buddy telling him a poll-dancing venue wasn’t the right setting for getting a good meal. So he settled for a glass of orange juice while he assessed whether the leftover steak fajita he’d found on the bottom shelf was edible. He glanced at the box again. Might as well open it and see which temptress was thinking of him.
He pulled on the ribbon until it unraveled then opened the wrapped box. It was a smashed alarm clock with a note tucked underneath. It had been obliterated, like someone had destroyed it in a fit of rage. Suddenly, it didn’t feel like a fun surprise. He gently pulled the folded note from under the clock pieces and opened it. It was a pasted together collage of words that looked like they were snipped from magazines and newspapers. It wasn’t a note from a spurned lover. It was a threat.
Boom. Next time you’re dead.
A lump rose in his throat as he put the top back on the box and pulled his phone out of his pocket, looking for a phone number. He’d received a few angry anonymous letters over the past few months but blew them off. As many fans as he had, there were just as many people out there who hated him. He’d toned down the arrogance and flashy behavior, mainly because he knew it was getting him nowhere. Now the team trusted him because he was serious about winning, not just landing lucrative endorsement deals and sexy magazine covers. But the more his image grew as a true contender in football, the more there were people out there who wanted to see him fail. A big-mouth washout was one thing, but someone who had the potential for greatness and to shape the league into something new, as Seth had told him, was scary to folks who didn’t like change or rival fans who took the game even more seriously than he did.
The note looked like the last one he’d received just before Thanksgiving that had been delivered to the stadium. How could they have found out where he lived and how had they managed to get on this floor? The building was pretty secure, especially since the Blake family had units here. You couldn’t get on the eighth floor unless your keycard was preprogrammed for access, and the fire exits to the stairways only opened from the stairwell side with a keycard. He’d hoped the threats were over. But whoever it was looked like they were just getting started. Riley continued to search his contacts. He’d promised the Blakes, who were aware of the bizarre letters, that he’d contact them immediately if it happened again. He stopped at Sam Blake’s number. She worked for Regency Private Security Group, the security firm that was in charge of security for the Blake family and was the wife of ex-pro football player J.J. Blake.
“Sam. It’s Riley. I found something on my doorstep. I think you’ll want to see it.”
Riley ended the call. Regency would be there in a matter of minutes. They had someone in the area at all times to keep tabs on the family members who lived in the building. A few minutes were all he needed for a quick shower. He smelled like a strip club. He unbuttoned his shirt as he stalked toward his bedroom. When he got there, he reached for his wallet in his back pocket, only it wasn’t there. He went through the house in a manic search but didn’t see it. The last time he remembered seeing it was when he’d paid the waitress for that second round of champagne for his teammates. He must have left it at the club. He closed his eyes and sighed. His day had gotten off to a spectacularly terrible start.

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