Playing to Win

by

Mimi Wells

Domnhall Cameron, the Devil of the Pitch, has come a long way from the gritty streets of Glasgow. Now an international football star, he has a new team to launch, but only one thing stands in his way: Calla Stewart. They shared one explosive night years ago that ended with him in handcuffs and her out the door…

Now that Domnhall is the bad boy darling of European football, he and his millions are stirring up trouble from Scotland to South Beach. But Calla’s divorced, down to her last few hundred bucks, and desperate to unload her house before it drags her down for good. So when Dom makes her an offer that is her ticket to a new life, she can’t refuse. Even if it means ten days at his command…

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The thing about nightmares is that eventually, you wake up.

Calla Stewart steered her aging Mercedes convertible at a crawl down the palm-lined drive toward the gates of Dolphin Point, the sumptuous waterfront home where she’d grown up.

Ten years. It had been ten years since she’d lived here, the cosseted daughter of the most successful real estate mogul in South Florida. Ten years since her wild child antics had earned her the nickname “The Supernova of Star Island.” Ten years since their last explosive fight, after which these stylized metal gates clanged shut behind her for good. Now, here she sat, sweating in her dying car’s subpar air conditioning, praying the old gate code still worked.

Calla noted the peeling paint and the frosting of rust along the backs of the arcing dolphins, the corrosion on the security keypad. Any one of those details would have resulted in a blistering tongue-lashing from her father, “Prince” Edward Stewart, in the old days. But those days were long gone, and not just for her.

She sighed and cranked down the car window, wincing at the grinding sound inside the door.

“Come on, Gretchen,” she said, patting the dashboard. “I’ve been staring at your stupid check engine light since Mississippi. Don’t you think I’ve had enough?”

Gretchen remained her usual stoic, German self and didn’t reply. Calla knew it was only a matter of time before Gretchen’s motor, and all the expensive parts in it, failed. If Calla were lucky, she’d sell this house. Then she could fix Gretchen properly, free herself from the financial vice grip she’d been in for years now, leave Miami in her rearview mirror, and never look back. But she hadn’t been lucky in a long, long time.

She leaned out of the window and punched in the numbers 7-7-4-6-2-3, PRINCE. It used to drive her crazy that her father made everything, even something as small as the security code, about him. Today she was thankful as, after a heart-stopping moment, the gates creaked open.

Calla steered Gretchen around the silent fountain in the center of the circular courtyard and killed the engine. The house, a two-story white expanse of balconies and columns, gleamed in the sun. But close inspection revealed the film of dust on the tall windows, the weeds lurking in the showy beds filled with birds of paradise and banana plants, the errant grass stabbing through the cracks in the pavers.

Oh, how the mighty had fallen. The housing market crash hadn’t been kind to Prince Stewart. Once it was clear his reputation was shot and his fortunes wouldn’t recover, he unloaded everything at rock-bottom prices and nipped off to Costa Rica with his fourth wife, a Venezuelan ex-beauty queen not much older than Calla herself. Everything except this house, which he’d kept, biding his time to make one final point.

He’d sworn never to speak to Calla again after her marriage to a father-approved candidate ended in a front-page scandal and a quickie divorce. But two weeks ago, a certified letter arrived in her California mailbox announcing an unexpected deposit into a trust fund she’d thought was dead, not dormant. Now Dolphin Point and its spectacular bayfront view was hers. And so were the mortgage, the second mortgage, and an outstanding tax bill large enough to choke an elephant.

Thanks, Dad.

Calla slipped out of the car, the thick Florida humidity enveloping her like a wet beach towel. She hadn’t missed this during her years in California, as far away from here as she could go and still stay warm in the winter. She closed the car door and headed toward the fading sail blue front door of the house.

Dolphin Point had spent two years on the market without a nibble, despite a series of price cuts designed to stir up business. Finally, though, an offer had come through—an offer that, the broker explained on the phone last week, her client would only present to Calla in person. That got her out the door and into the car. Four long days of cross-country driving and one flat tire later, here she was, late and desperate. She’d take almost anything to get rid of this overpriced anchor to her past. Anything that would set her free.

A heavy realtor’s lockbox dangled from one of the twin door handles, which jiggled in her hand but didn’t open. She paused a moment, thinking, then strode down the long porch and pried open the last hanging lantern. Sure enough, there was the key she’d used multiple times to sneak in after hours. She had to work it into the stiff lock, but it turned with a click. A welcome blast of icy cold air sighed through the open doorway as she stepped through. Closing the door behind her, Calla pocketed the key and walked across the veined marble foyer.

The house reminded her of Gretchen—classic, dated, and depreciating. Everything that remained in the house, from the drapes to the furniture, was exactly as she’d left it ten years before. Here and there, a shadowed rectangle on the wall or an empty spot on the floor confessed to a removal. The valuable pieces, of course. Prince Stewart had fallen on hard times, but he wasn’t stupid.

Calla walked through the house, at once familiar and strange. At least everything was clean. She hoped the client would overlook the tired furniture and her father’s unfortunate extravagant touches, like the gold faucets in each of the six bathrooms, and take the place off her hands. The buyer would probably tear the place down anyway. Build something sleek. Modern. Something new, with none of this house’s unhappy ghosts.

She cocked her head, certain she’d hear echoes of some long-ago argument huddled in a corner like a verbal spiderweb. But all was silent, except for the low hum of the air conditioner and the persistent buzz of boat motors streaming past the dock.

At least the ocean didn’t disappoint. The spectacular view of Biscayne Bay, framed by the dramatic two-story windows in the living room, hadn’t changed. Beyond the pool and the patchy lawn, sunlight sparkled off the water like so many diamonds scattered across an azure cloth. Across the bay stood the condo towers of Miami Beach. Pushing open the oversized glass slider, she walked out into the heat once more.

A breeze swept across the lawn from the bay, carrying with it the salt tang she remembered well. She’d grown up boating the warm waters of Biscayne Bay, luxuriating on Florida’s sugar sand. Beautiful as California was, she’d never gotten used to the hard-packed brown beach, the chilly water. For all its quirks, its memories good and bad, Florida was home. She still thought of herself as a Florida girl. All the running she’d done over the past decade hadn’t killed that.

Or the memories, she realized with a pang. The blissfully ignorant childhood, the awkward tween years, the increasingly rebellious teenage period. The outbursts that screamed for her father’s attention but never seemed to work. None of the antics had meant anything. None of the boys, rich and bored like her, gifted with too much money and too little supervision. Not to her. Until one did—and that had been the end of it all.

She glanced over at the guest house. A familiar heat crawled up her spine. One had meant the world.

Or so she’d thought.

The slam of a car door and the murmur of voices brought her to herself. Calla hurried inside, patting her nose and hairline dry with the flat of her hand. Wouldn’t do for the buyer to think she was nervous.

“…Carrara marble floor here in the foyer,” a woman’s voice said.

The broker, Calla guessed. The voice had that breathy, brittle quality so common to high-end salespeople. She’d known hundreds of them over the years, a veritable flock of vultures disguised in designer feathers.

Her eyes still dazzled from the sunlight, Calla waited for the silhouettes of the broker and her buyer to come into focus. The buyer was male, tall, with broad shoulders that fit the oversized scale of the room. He moved with a soccer player’s grace, a controlled athletic power that sent a zing of awareness down her spine. A familiar zing.

Oh, God. Not this. Not him.

A cloud shifted across the sun and revealed her visitors, the overly slim, overly tanned woman in a coral-colored silk dress and leopard-spotted stilettos, and the black-haired man at her side, clad in a perfectly-tailored shirt, a custom suit the same grey as his stormy eyes, and polished, handcrafted shoes that combined probably cost as much as Gretchen was worth these days.

“Mo chridhe.” The voice was deeper, huskier than she remembered in her dreams of the past, but the Scottish lilt in his words hadn’t changed at all.

My heart, he’d called her once. This time, the words were the same, but the tone was a mockery. Forget dreams. She was still in the nightmare, and it had conjured up the one demon she’d hoped never to see again.

The last time he’d been in this house, Domnhall Cameron had been escorted out on the business end of a pair of handcuffs.

That night burned itself into Dom’s twenty-year-old brain. Calla’s pleas, the flashing lights of the Miami Beach police cars thronging the drive, her father’s mocking words played on an endless loop in his head in all the years since. Sometimes taunting, sometimes goading him into pushing harder, making the next million. Anything to prove to himself he wasn’t the loser he’d been branded. Why the angry words of an overblown peacock of a man had meant so much, not even Dom could say.

Looking over at the peacock’s daughter, he corrected himself. He knew exactly why.

Calla.

He drank in the sight of her despite himself, trying to ignore the stir of lust at her rounded hips and full breasts. She’d changed, the woman he once thought of as his heart. The golden perfection of her young body, so tempting and delicious, had refined over the years. Tempered. She stood in the very spot she’d been that long-ago night, all blonde fury and outrage. Now, something shadowed her pale brown eyes. Not fear—he’d have sensed that—but caution, maybe.

She had good reason to be cautious. He wasn’t there for a happy reunion.

“You two have met,” Ms. Hadfield-Jones said beside him.

His broker was a kindred spirit. Under her expensive clothes beat the heart of a mercenary, someone who’d worked her way up from darker streets than these. That quality was the sole reason he’d picked her. She understood ambition. She wouldn’t interfere.

“We have,” he admitted as he flicked some nonexistent dust off his coat sleeve. “But that was a long time ago.”

At that, Calla broke her gaze and looked at her shoes. Scuffed, he noticed. Older. Like the car in the driveway and the dated furnishings. He knew, of course, about the disintegration of her father’s business. He’d enjoyed the newspapers that wailed about Prince Stewart’s downfall on one page and shouted Dom’s triumphs on another. Served the bastard right.

Ms. Hadfield-Jones walked over to the dining room table and set down her oversized tote. She drew out a thick folder. “Your offer—”

“Later.” Dom looked at Calla. “I’d like a tour of the property first.”

The look Calla sent him in return could sour milk. “It hasn’t changed.”

He shrugged. “I never saw all of it. Mostly the pool area. And the guest house.”

Calla flinched.

Good.

Ms. Hadfield-Jones laid the folder on the table and pulled an annotated copy of the listing from her bag. “All right then. We can start in here,” she began, but he forestalled her with an upraised hand.

“I want her.” The double meaning wasn’t lost on either of them. A flush bloomed on Calla’s pale cheeks.

“Fine,” Calla said. She met his eyes and flipped a hand toward the dining room archway. “Dining room.” She swept past him toward the door on the far side of the room and pushed through it. “Kitchen.” He heard her call over her shoulder.

He took his time, letting his eyes linger on the paneled wainscoting, the crystal drops of the chandelier that was probably Waterford, before he followed her through the doorway.

“Kitchen.” She announced again once he entered the room. “And breakfast room,” she added, stabbing a finger toward a rattan table and chairs clustered at the far end of the space. The sliding doors behind the table opened onto the palm-shaded deck encircling the pool, connecting the main house to the pool house and the guest house overlooking the bay.

Oh, yes, he remembered the guest house well.

And so did Calla, because she didn’t mention it. Instead, she charged out a different doorway into the expansive living room, then a media room, then a virtual gallop through the other rooms on the first floor.

Her nervousness amused him. Their last night together, she’d been the total opposite. Confident. Rebellious. Willing to risk anything to be with him, at least until her father showed up. Now it seemed she couldn’t get away fast enough, a fact he confirmed when she stopped in the middle of the foyer, pointed toward the stairs and said, “The main house has five bedrooms upstairs, each with its own bath. And if that’s all you need, we can look at your offer.”

Ms. Hadfield-Jones’s bemused expression nearly made him laugh aloud. Any seller desperate to unload a property with a price tag this high typically genuflected before a client in a hurry with cash to burn. But he was no ordinary client. And Calla—

Calla wasn’t how he’d expected. Her pleas that long-ago night hadn’t translated into eternal devotion. She hadn’t come looking for him, despite having millions at her disposal. No. She’d rolled over and capitulated. Pushed him aside. Forgotten.

Dom hadn’t forgotten. Not their first meeting, at a party where he’d been three sheets to the wind and she’d sailed in with one of those rich, useless asses and eclipsed the noise and the booze like a fiery sun. Not the gradual drawing together, as if they’d been caught in each other’s orbit. Certainly not their one night together.

No, he hadn’t forgotten. Hadn’t forgiven, either. She’d learn, as he had, not to trust the promises of the rich. He glanced over at Calla and his pulse leapt in spite of himself.

Damn it to hell. He’d come here intending to crush her. Instead, he wanted nothing more than to sweep her upstairs and seduce her in whatever bedroom lay closest to the staircase.

Ten years was a long time, but it hadn’t been long enough.

“Show me the upstairs.”

Dom followed a silent Calla up the winding staircase, admiring the curve of her ass, the trim, muscular calves of her legs as she climbed. She’d changed. They both had. He wasn’t the same dumbstruck college boy he’d been all those years ago. Her worn shoes, the old car, the out-of-date house—all of those said she’d had a much harder road than he had.

He’d honestly thought it was all over, that night. He still remembered it as a series of images—the blue and red lights of the squad cars, the echoing concrete walls of the Dade County jail, the freezing air in the holding cell they tossed him in. He didn’t have a mobile phone then. It took until morning until someone came for him, and when that person showed up, it wasn’t Calla, like she’d promised.

Dom wondered what kind of life Calla had experienced since that night. The marriage he knew about. From the few pictures he’d seen, he knew the man in question was someone Prince Stewart would have found acceptable. Moneyed. Right kind of family. Charming. And yet he’d proved himself wrong in every way possible. The marriage hadn’t lasted a whole year. After that, every mention of her disappeared. She’d gone into hiding. Something.

Meanwhile, his star had caught fire, risen. He’d spent the years carving a place in the football pantheon, and he’d succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams. His name had been shouted from stadiums on five continents. His face was now instantly recognizable, thanks to a series of endorsement deals with athletic wear companies, toys, soft drinks. Thanks to his mum’s frugality, he’d saved and invested, and his fortune had grown along with his profile.

Professionally, he was on the brink of signing the last big contract of his career. A bad slide on a slick pitch had reinjured his bad knee, the one that ached on dreich Scottish nights, and he’d been sidelined for a month. His teammates understood, but they needed him during their last push toward the Champions League final.

“You can’t stay away from trouble, can you?” his teammate Alessandro De Luca said the day he limped off the field and into his car, a bag of ice the size of his head wrapped around his left knee.

“They expect it.” He’d tossed over his shoulder. There was already a girl in the car, one of the interchangeable glossy kinds he’d known so many of during his career.

De Luca shook his head. “Rest. Get back on the pitch.”

Alessandro De Luca was the youngest of five brothers, all successful, all richer than Croesus because they owned the dei Fiori luxury hotel chain. Dom was staying in one of them, the Hotel dei Fiori South Beach, on this trip. He’d earned enough money to stop feeling guilty about the amenities, the round-the-clock service.

Dom shrugged. “Dinna worry, man. I can get what I want and still rest the knee.”

De Luca scoffed and shut the door of the car. As if he had room to talk. Alessandro De Luca wasn’t the most communicative of men—nothing like his garrulous brothers—but that didn’t mean he wasn’t as driven as Dom himself when it came to football.

Or women. De Luca was the only other player on the team likely to keep up with Dom when it came to collecting female companionship.

But this—this was different. He was with Calla Stewart once more. He’d never gotten over their one night together, but she’d stopped thinking of him the moment the squad car cleared the drive. She must have. In all these years, she could have found him if she’d wanted. Clearly, she hadn’t. He’d make her regret that.

Calla paused at the top of the stairs as if considering where to take him first, then set her mouth and moved to the right. “The master suite,” she said, and pushed open the double doors.

The room was huge, spreading from the front windows of the house to the back, where French doors led to a veranda overlooking the bay. Like the other rooms in the house, it had a picked-over quality, as if raiders had swooped through and grabbed all the best pieces for themselves.

But a big bed was still there, large and inviting. A fan on the ceiling stirred the cooled air leisurely, a total counterpart to the racing thrum of blood in his system.

Ten years. A bedroom. Calla.

Almost as if she could hear him, she darted across the room to fling open the doors of the huge closet, the bathroom that was nearly as big as the council flat he’d grown up in. Gaudy, all gold-veined marble and gilded taps.

“Show me the rest.” He prompted, and she nearly fled.

They looked into a series of rooms, all nicely appointed, until they reached the end of the hallway. Calla hesitated near the last door. Her room, he guessed. He’d never seen it. Not good enough to bring into the main house.

He shouldered past her into the room. It lacked the palatial size of the master on the other end of the hallway, but its situation was the same, its French doors overlooking the tiled roof of the guest house toward the water beyond.

Dom glanced around the sterile space. “Yours?”

She nodded.

He looked again. If he hadn’t known where they were, he’d have a hard time telling this place apart from a sterile room in a bland hotel.

“So this is what I missed,” he said softly.

She closed her eyes and swallowed. He watched the ripple of her throat and wanted to touch it.

“Right. So that’s the house,” she said as she bolted for the door.

He caught her arm and turned her to face him.

The look in her golden eyes changed from fury to something far more complicated. More interesting. “Why are you here?”

She’d find out in due time. He’d waited, after all. Ten long years. So could she. “I can’t just want to see you?”

She shot him a skeptical glance. “It’s been a decade. You’re on the top of the world. Why now?”

He shrugged. “They’re putting a new expansion team in Miami. I’m the designated player.”

“That doesn’t mean anything to me now,” Calla said. “Lots of water under the bridge since that night.”

He recognized hunger in her eyes and did what he’d been aching to do since he first saw her downstairs.

“Not enough,” Dom said. He closed the distance between them in one stride and hauled her to him.

Calla had a split second to realize what was happening before Dom’s lips descended on hers.

Heat. Instant fire sparking from their joined lips all the way to her toes. Limbs she’d written off as dead bloomed to sudden life. He gripped her chin, his lightly callused hand rough against her skin. She shuddered as her breasts flushed fuller, her nipples tightened. She was keenly aware of the transparency of her light cotton shirt, the crisp tailoring of his fine suit. Never had she felt more an opposite. Before, she’d always had the upper hand, been the one in control. She’d lost the feeling after the eleven-month disaster of a marriage and its fallout.

But this wasn’t Quint, her ex, this was Dom. A miracle. And the greater miracle was the roaring, aching need at this single touch. She melted against him as their tongues met, clashed, the hunger building until she felt she could burst out of her skin. She wove the fine silk of his tie through her fingers, pulling him closer to her, closer still.

Dom broke the kiss with a gasp, as if he, too, were unsure what he was unleashing in her, in himself.

“Mo chridhe—”

“Don’t call me that.” She wasn’t going to pretend there was anything between them except a transaction. She couldn’t. She had plans, and they didn’t involve Miami.

“I want you.” His voice was rough. Maybe a bit shaky. Not the eager voice of a boy she remembered, but a man’s. Someone who’d spent the intervening years doing nothing but work. Striving for the next goal. Making that goal and setting the next. Calla knew this would end up the same. Whatever Dom actually wanted, she figured he’d get.

And if that goal was her, her body, she didn’t think she had the power to resist. How different from before, when she was in control. She felt vulnerable. She hated feeling vulnerable.

“I can’t,” she finally said, hating the slight quaver in her words.

“Say what you want, but we both know that’s a lie.”

Damn it, he was right. She did want him. The old Calla would have taken what she wanted, too, without a moment’s hesitation. Why was she pausing now?

Her hand flexed against the bunched muscle under his suit jacket. She could only imagine the rest of him was equally hard.

As if reading her thoughts, he pressed more fully against her. She felt the long, hard ridge of him against her belly and her inner fires ignited. Who was she kidding? She wanted nothing more than to rip off that beautiful suit and jump on him.

But it wouldn’t be wise. Wouldn’t be smart. And she didn’t have money or time for foolishness right now.

“Let go, mo chridhe,” he murmured against her ear.

“I told you not to call me that.”

“Let go.” He repeated.

“Your broker is downstairs,” Calla hissed.

Dom shrugged. “She knows how to be discreet.”

“Apparently, you don’t,” Calla said, stepping away. She fought down the panic rising in her throat. It was all falling apart, just like usual. But she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “If you’re just here to humiliate me, then maybe it’s time for both of you to leave.”

“I thought I was here to make an offer on a house.”

“Fine. Let’s go look at the offer.” Calla tried to push past him, but he grasped her arm again and forced her to look at him.

“I want ten days.”

“What?”

“I left Miami because of you, and it’s taken a decade to get back.”

She stared at him, not comprehending. She’d offered everything to him—given everything. He’d left her.

“Ten days, Calla,” Dom continued. “One for each year I’ve worked to rebuild my life. Give me those ten days and your problems are solved.”

He wasn’t making sense, but now wasn’t the time to get it all figured out. She could feel the deal slipping out of her grasp. “And if I refuse?”

“My sources tell me you don’t have much of a choice.”

A chill shot through her.

Dom straightened his cuffs, as elegant and deadly as a predator. “But I’m no heartless bastard like the bastard who raised you. Do what you like. Find another buyer. Marian, downstairs, has a list of properties as long as my arm.” He flicked a desultory glance around the room. “They won’t need the work this one does.” He shrugged. “It’s your call.”

Damn the man, he had her boxed in like a brilliantly executed defense. The house had been on the market since the day Prince Stewart boarded a jet for Central America. No inducement had worked, not with superstitious buyers afraid of the house’s notoriety, its owner’s spectacular fall from grace. The bargain hadn’t yet outweighed the baggage.

She didn’t have the time to wait much longer. If she couldn’t sell, the house would go anyway, with little to no benefit for her. Dade County and the bank would split most of the money. The lawyers would suck up the rest. And any plan she’d had to finally put this nightmare chapter of her life behind her would die.

“Ten days?”

“Ten days.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Nothing you don’t choose to. Act as my personal assistant. Accompany me when I ask. Introduce me around.”

“I haven’t lived in Miami for years.”

“Rich people don’t change. They love a good scandal as much as anyone—better, even.”

He was right about that.

Dom looked out the window toward the water. “I’ve never had an assistant before. I think it would be fun.”

“Your definition of ‘fun’ and mine are probably quite different.” Calla ground out.

He walked back to her, and a shiver thrilled down her arms. “I bet we could discover something fun together.”

The shiver intensified into something darker, more primal. She stepped away before she did something rash. “We’ll see.”

His only response was a low, rough chuckle.

“So you expect me to—”

“As I said, it’s your choice. But I think we both know how that will go.” He tightened and smoothed his tie, one raised eyebrow sending an elegant message. He hadn’t clawed at his clothes just a moment ago.

Calla grit her teeth. Arrogant bastard. He had her where he wanted her. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t squeeze whatever she could out of the devil’s bargain he was proposing. She hadn’t grown up a bad girl for nothing.

“Ten days?”

“Ten days from now, I’ll hand you a pen. All you’ll have to do is sign and walk away.”

She raised her chin and met his eyes. “Deal.”

Let the games begin.

End of Excerpt

Playing to Win is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

March 3, 2016