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Authors: Jeanette Murray

Against the Ropes

PRAISE FOR JEANETTE MURRAY'S SANTA FE BOBCATS SERIES

LOVING HIM OFF THE FIELD

“Engaging . . . Jeanette Murray writes a believable story that drew me in from the first page.”

—
Cocktails and Books

“I was pleasantly surprised at this modern romance because along with the obvious love story the author developed the characters enough that the story shone through the chemistry and subsequent steamy ‘sex scenes' between them.”

—
Open Book Society

“Well-written.”

—
Bookpushers

“The ending of
Loving Him off the Field
was everything that I hoped for.”

—
The Reader's Den

ONE NIGHT WITH A QUARTERBACK

“The heat between them is
hot
 . . . This one delivers fast and long and yummy . . . For the romance and sports lovers out there.”

—
Stuck in Books

“A real hit . . . It was a fresh idea with a tried and true genre, and I loved that. I can't wait to see what she has in store for us next.”

—
Bookpushers

Titles by Jeanette Murray

FIRST TO FIGHT

BELOW THE BELT

AGAINST THE ROPES

Santa Fe Bobcats

ONE NIGHT WITH THE QUARTERBACK

LOVING HIM OFF THE FIELD

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

AGAINST THE ROPES

A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2015 by Jeannette Murray.

Excerpt from
Fight to the Finish
by Jeannette Murray copyright © by Jeannette Murray.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY SENSATION® and the “B” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information, visit
penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18634-7

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / October 2015

Cover art copyright © Shutterstock/159790454/Alessandro Guerriero

Cover design by Rita Frangie.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

To those teachers who not only lectured, but explained; who showed, as well as told; who forced me to think, see, hear and experience in new ways, and who opened my eyes and my heart to new paths.

Thank you.

Contents

Praise for Jeanette Murray's Santa Fe Bobcats series

Titles by Jeanette Murray

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Special Excerpt from
Fight to the Finish

CHAPTER

1

A
nd now, he was officially one of the team.

Gregory Higgs turned from the list on the door of Coach Ace's office and scrubbed a hand over his face. That was that. He was officially on the Marine Corps boxing team.

Oo-rah and all that.

“Hey, is it up yet?” Graham Sweeney jogged over, beating the crowd. “The list, it's up?”

“Yeah.” Greg stepped aside to let Graham by. “I forgot to check for your name. Sorry.”

“No problem. You were checking for your crew. I totally get it.” His friend's finger slowly scanned down the list, pausing every so often as he noted a member of his own unit. “Damn, Monticino didn't make it.”

Greg wasn't sure who that was, exactly, so he said nothing.

“And . . . there.” He breathed deeply. “There we go. I'm in.”

Because he knew it mattered greatly to his friend, Greg slapped his shoulder. “Well, look at it this way, even if you'd have been cut, the commute home would have been simple.”

“Back gate, five minutes into Hubert.” Graham grinned and punched Greg's shoulder. “Congrats, man. We did it.”

“No shocker you two managed to pull through.” Walking carefully, Brad Costa ambled toward them. From one hand, a black knee brace dangled.

Just to mess with his roommate, Greg stepped in front of the list. “Pull through what?”

Brad made a face and stopped in front of him. “Move.”

“Why?” He glanced at Graham. “What's he want?”


He
,” Brad said sarcastically, “wants to see the list. Move.”

“It's like he cares,” Greg added, eyes wide. “Grandpa, are you ready for your nap yet?”

Brad bent over as if he were ready to charge and Greg sidestepped, laughing. “You're too easy, man. You've really got to tone it down or I'm going to have way too much fun poking at you while we're traveling.”

“So . . .” Suddenly serious, Brad stepped up and scanned down the list. Much like Graham, he sighed when he caught his name, then went back to find the rest of his team. “Damn.”

“Missing one?”

“Two. Or maybe one and a half.”

Greg glanced at Graham. “Half?”

“Chalfent's listed as an alternate.” Brad turned, face grim. “What the hell does that mean?”

“I think it means they send them home, but ask them to keep training while they're there. If someone on the team gets hurt or can't compete, they'll bring them back.”

Brad gave a tight nod, then headed toward the mats the team used to warm up. A few younger Marines walked in to the gym and jogged toward Coach Ace's door.

“Who else did you lose?” Greg asked, catching up.

“Tibbs. But I already knew that. There was no way they'd keep him after that debacle with the motorcycle last weekend.” Sitting down carefully, Brad began to stretch out his legs. The brace lay next to his hip, unused.

“Forgive me for my lack of a medical degree, but aren't
you supposed to be, I dunno, wearing that?” Graham pointed to the brace. Brad kicked it at him. Graham kicked it back.

“You're kidding me, right?”

At the sound of their pint-sized drill sergeant of an athletic trainer, all three men froze. The sounds of groans and cheers from across the gym—Marines who were checking the list—echoed. As one, the three Marines turned to see Marianne Cook standing just off the mat, looking surprisingly adorable in an oversized T-shirt he could easily guess was from Brad's collection, and some sweatpants that bunched at the ankles and were clearly about five inches too long. The toe of one running shoe tapped, and her arms were crossed. The scowl she sent Brad could have frozen the nuts off a bull.

And all at once, Greg was very glad Brad had been the one to catch the cute AT's eye early in training camp, and not him.

“Bradley Costa, you put that brace on right now.”

Graham snickered and bent over his knees, hiding his grin.

She turned on him in a snap. “Don't feel superior, Marine. You're on my shit list, too. You didn't come in so I could look at those two fingers yesterday like I asked.”

He held his left hand high, keeping his chin tucked to his chest. His voice was muffled as he said, “Here they are. Still attached.”

“Everyone's a tough guy,” she muttered as she marched over to look at the fingers on display. “Put it on,” she demanded of Brad without even sparing him a glance. Gingerly, she probed Graham's hand. It was only because Greg sat next to him that he heard his friend's sharp intake of breath.

“Falling apart, both of you,” Greg said cheerfully as he pulled his heels in toward his crotch and bent over.

“Figures the guy who wasn't even sure he wanted to make the team remains suspiciously healthy,” Brad muttered as he struggled to get the brace on over his shoe. After a minute, he gave up and took the shoe off before slipping the brace on.

More Marines joined them, spacing themselves out across the mat. Greg's unit—teammates now—came over as they filed in to tell him they'd made the team, except the one who had been cut. He stood to shake the man's hand, wish him luck and a reminder to add him on Facebook so they could keep in touch.

Brad gave him a baffled look as he sat back down. “You just make friends everywhere, don't you?”

“Him?”

The loud, booming shout stopped conversation cold as every Marine turned his head to look toward the door. Two men stood at the coach's door, one clearly attempting to calm the other down. The enraged one shook his friend's restraining hand off his shoulder and pointed toward the group stretching.

“Him? They kept the old guy with a jacked-up knee and let me go? Is this some kind of joke?”

“Uh-oh,” Graham muttered under his breath. Brad groaned and got to his feet. Greg stood beside him. His fists instinctively curled; his heart raced in anticipation of a fight. He forced his hands to relax, shaking them a bit.
Calm down. Calm down
. After a moment, Graham stood as well, forming a three-strong wall.

The pissed-off Marine stormed toward them, and Greg had a momentary vision of a bull charging a red cape. Right before he would have slammed into Brad, Greg dove for him. Catching the man by surprise at a diagonal, he sent the two of them sprawling over the mat. He first went for restraint, but anger lent the dude too much strength.

The other man's anger fueled his own, and despite his earlier attempt to remain calm, Greg felt his own temper snapping at the leash.

Oh, well. Practice came a bit early today.

Dodging several clumsy, if strong, blows, Greg ducked and shouldered the man back a few steps. The other Marine had strength, but if memory served, the guy was never fast
enough to keep up. His jabs were like swinging tree trunks. Potentially dangerous when he could land one, but inaccurate as hell. And Greg was too fast to get hit.

Another swing and Greg tossed the man to the ground. Arms wrapped around his waist, keeping him from going back for seconds. Graham sat on the downed man's chest,
tsking
his tongue.

“That was pathetic. No wonder you got cut instead of the old guy.”

“Shut up,” Brad said easily.

The man squirmed, but Graham found a pressure point in his shoulder that had the man moaning and subsiding quickly.

“Ease it down, Higgs,” Brad said quietly as Greg fisted his hands again, breathing heavily, and not from exertion. “That was my fight, anyway.”

“I needed the exercise. Not that he gave me much.” Greg forced his fingers to relax, mentally willing the adrenaline to die down. Knowing the way his body and mind worked together, he could do too much damage in two minutes with an amped-up system. He had to calm down.

“Oh, lovely.”

They all turned as a clicking sound echoed over the hardwood floor. And the business-suit-hottie they'd all seen lurking around the gym the last week or so headed toward them on curvy legs, hips swaying in her dark skirt.

“Testosterone for breakfast. Move over, Wheaties.” The woman paused by Marianne, who had a disgusted look on her face. “Are they done now or will there be another round?”

“They're done,” Marianne said with finality.

“Since today was an informal practice anyway, Coach Ace said I could use his office.” She pointed at Greg, or more specifically, at his still-heaving chest. “You, come with me.”

Greg—and probably every other Marine—watched as she spun on pinprick heels and sashayed across the floor toward the office.

“Anytime,” he breathed, shaking Brad's grip off before following.

*   *   *

REAGAN
sat down in Coach Ace's chair, grateful to be alone for a moment while her hands were still shaking a little. “Stop that,” she ordered, but they didn't quite hear the order. There was no way she'd be able to take notes like this, let alone type on a computer in the borrowed office. And let's not even mention appearing to be a professional in front of a bunch of hardened warriors.

Because nothing said
I'm a professional who has it all under control
like limbs quaking like a tree branch in a wind storm.

A quick rap on the door made her jolt. She glanced over to see the dark blond with moves like lightning looking in. “You rang?”

“I did, yes. Please come in.” She motioned toward the only other chair in the small, cramped office that smelled like six-day-old sweat socks and must. Lovely. To hide her trembling hands, she smoothed her skirt down, then folded them in her lap. “Your name, please?”

“Higgs. Gregory Higgs.” He settled his body down into the chair and smiled easily. “Yours?”

“Reagan—sorry, Ms. Robilard,” she corrected quickly.
Keep it together, Reagan.
“I'm the athlete liaison for the team, and will be handling all PR, travel, and outreach efforts for you gentlemen.”

He relaxed back a bit, as if knowing her name made the entire thing less formal. One ankle crossed over his knee, and his hands rested comfortably in his lap. No tremble, she noticed with a little resentment. “That sounds like a fun job.”

No, not really. “It's fascinating, I assure you.” Putting on her best I'm-an-adult voice, she added, “You know fighting outside the ring isn't a wise decision, right?”

“A fighter's a fighter. And anywhere can be a ring.” He
grinned. “Back alley, barroom, living room . . . gym. All it takes is two sets of fists and a reason.”

“That right there will be our second problem to tackle with this team.”

“What's the first?”

She grimaced. “These acts of vandalism. The last one was threatening. It's a concern, especially as we don't know the motive.”

“I'd say motive isn't really the problem when the message is ‘Eat shit and die' written on the walls of our practice area.” Greg leaned forward a little, as if imparting a secret. “But it wasn't really the most creative threat, nor was it the most violent. Probably kids.”

“Maybe, but nonetheless, Mr. Higgs, I—”

“Greg.”

She blinked. “No, I really—”

“Normally I'd say Lieutenant Higgs, no mister about it. But we're not really playing the rank card here. So Greg's good enough.”

She had to admit calling him
mister
, or by his rank, didn't seem to fit the situation. “Fine. Gregory, first I would like to—”

“Greg.”

Her ears flushed with annoyance and she puffed out an exasperated breath. The man was impossibly stubborn. But bonus, her hands had stopped shaking enough to grab her notes and leaf through them. “Greg,” she bit off. “I'm compiling a list of the current roster along with any potentially interesting snippets I can give to media outlets that might come calling or could be used in the future. Any experience you have with boxing outside of the Marines, for example. Anyone famous you trained with, any little personal anecdote you might have to add to the more factual bio I have. Any fun stories about why you joined the Marines. The media loves a human interest piece.”

He snorted at that. “Nobody gives a crap about the Marine boxing team but Marines . . . and maybe the other branches'
boxing teams. We're not exactly professional athletes here, Mrs. Robilard.”

“It's miss,” she corrected absently, glancing through the biography the program director had given her. Like the others, it was mostly details. Important dates, FITREPs, any awards given, and a list of the numerous deployments and TDYs. Unlike the other bios, though, where he'd had the option to fill in personal information himself—hometown, family, interests outside of boxing—he'd left it blank.

“I'll need you to fill this out all the way.” She slid the paper toward him, doing her best to avoid touching him at all. “You left the bottom blank.”

He glanced at it, then passed it back. “I filled out all the necessary stuff. Nothing more to say.”

“There's always something more to say. If you could just—”

“Look, Miss Robilard,” he said, standing abruptly, “I didn't sign on to be a talking figurehead. I came here to box and have some fun with my new teammates. That's all. If that's not enough for the Corps, then I can just as easily head back to my home base and be done with it. It's no skin off mine.” With that, he slipped out of the office like smoke.

“Well,” she muttered, noticing her hand had begun trembling again. “That just about sucked.”

*   *   *

AN
hour later, Reagan's heart rate had returned to normal and her hands had calmed down enough to sort through all the Marines who had been cut and the ones who had made the team. Those Marines who had stayed for the impromptu, off-the-books workout had been called in one by one to evaluate potential PR gold mines, and there was a list of the few she hadn't seen yet. She was in control. A force of organizing nature. A professional, competent, capable woman. She was a cool cucumber who—

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