Authors: Toria Lyons
PLAYING FOR KEEPS
Book One in the Harford Scarlet series
An erotic novel
Resolutely-single career woman Sarah Evans is a big rugby fan – but she has no time for those sportsmen who stray. So when she runs into a blast from her university past who has form for playing away, despite the sparks flying, she’s defiantly underwhelmed.
Rugby player and tycoon Tom Murray is a force to be reckoned with, on and off the field. To him, Sarah isn’t just unfinished business – he wants her and nothing’s going to get in his way.
They just can’t keep their hands off each other but Sarah doesn’t want a relationship, especially not with a rugby player known for his playboy ways. And Tom rapidly finds out she’s no pushover either.
Sarah’s out of her depth and into unknown territory, defending her heart from Tom’s remorseless attack. She thinks he’ll move on sooner or later, she just needs to hold onto her heart until then.
How can Tom convince Sarah that this isn’t a game? And is he really playing for keeps?
To my mother, for believing in me. And to the Gwladers and Gwladettes for their oscillating support and ridicule, and making me WUFFS.
Tom Murray? Coming to London to play for Harford Park? Wow!’
‘What?’ Sarah’s chestnut-brown head jolted up, her heart leaping as she heard the name from her past. The one that she’d tried so hard to forget. Were they talking about the same man?
‘You know, the Scottish back row? Oh, I forgot, you were probably working abroad: you wouldn’t have seen him play.’ Her best friend, Clare, continued, oblivious to Sarah’s shock, ‘Only 22 when he got crocked against Ireland. A couple of caps and a forced retirement. Such a shame – he was really good.’
‘I can’t remember him.’ Sarah frowned, the lie tasting ashlike on her tongue, her pulse still jumping erratically. She could remember the Tom Murray she knew. Far, far too well, despite the years passed.
‘It’s the latest news, from one of the players’ girlfriends. She knows the family: his father’s a Lord or something. Very posh Scots.’
Sarah’s heart restarted a normal rhythm; the Tom Murray she’d known at university hadn’t had any titled relations. Besides, Murray was a common Scottish surname.
‘What’s up? You’ve gone ghost-pale.’ Clare finally noticed.
Sarah smiled reassuringly, her hazel eyes lighting up. ‘Just tired, I suppose. I only got back from Paris a few hours ago. It’s colder there than here.’
‘Lovely autumnal day for a winning game of rugby, though?’
‘Yep,’ agreed Sarah, ‘I love this kind of matchday.’ She beamed contentedly up at the sky: a clear, pale blue after a heavy downpour the previous night, the breeze snapping at the scarlet club flags flying above the stand they were leaving.
It had been a good match with her local team, Harford Park, winning. She’d watched it with Clare; the vivacious blonde was similarly infatuated with all things rugby. They continued chatting as they approached the warmth of the clubhouse.
‘How was romantic, ooh-la-la Paris?’ asked Clare.
‘Didn’t see much of it again – mostly the inside of hotels, restaurants, and boardrooms.’ Sarah rolled her eyes. ‘No time for romancing even if some of my associates think it’s appropriate.’
‘It’s your cool reserve, coupled with those curves on your long, willowy frame, and that lush mouth; it drives them mad. Did the sexy CFO try to make a pass at you again?’ Clare giggled.
‘Hah! He certainly won’t make moves on me again. After I reported he’d been charging gourmet meals with his mistress to his expense account, he’ll be lucky enough to have a job. How was your week?’
‘Oh, the usual civil service stuff: meetings, delaying decisions and nothing getting done. Not like the frequent flyer points you’re earning.’
Sarah laughed. ‘What about that new accountant? Have you managed to seduce him yet?’
Clare pulled a mock frown. ‘He’s proving unexpectedly resistant to my charms but I shall soon rectify that. There’s a leaving party next week where I’ll force copious amounts of alcohol down his neck and drag him off to my boudoir.’
‘Going home alone, then?’
Chuckling, they both shook their heads and several people turned to look at them as they passed by. Instead of the ubiquitous jeans and rugby shirt favoured by Clare and most others at the match, Sarah was femininely dressed in well-tailored clothes. Her almost Amazonian figure and striking face, capped by her straight and glossy brown hair, often attracted attention, and those close enough glimpsed the liveliness which danced in her thickly lashed eyes as she smiled at passing acquaintances.
‘I know you said you want to stay single, but why are you so serious about it? You’re nearly 30,’ said Clare unexpectedly.
The question caught Sarah off guard. She paused in contemplation for a moment before answering, ‘I’m not an incurable romantic like you; I learnt my lesson young. Since then, I’ve never met anyone I cared strongly enough for to give up my independence.’ She shrugged. ‘Plus, I spent years working all over Europe before moving to London. I’ve had a few mutually pleasurable affairs but long-term relationships don’t survive constantly moving.’
‘He must have really hurt you.’ Clare saw through her friend’s bravado.
‘No, I was stupid enough to let myself get hurt.’ And every time she thought of trusting her heart with someone, she would be reminded of that earlier mistake.
Now she was thinking of him, she saw him in every tall, dark-haired man around the club. Her head turned, body on alert, as she spotted another six-foot- plus, broad-shouldered figure facing away from her. Was that him?
‘Earth to Sarah, Earth to Sarah, you’re staring weirdly at a stranger,’ said Clare. Then she added, with some concern, ‘Are you OK? You don’t seem your normal, cool, calm and collected self today.’
‘Me?’ Sarah came out of her daze. ‘Sorry, I had a bit of a blast from the past earlier.’
‘Well, it must have been one hell of an explosion to take you off your game. Come on, we’re missing out on valuable post-match socialising.’
Clare shepherded Sarah into the clubhouse. By the time they reached the bar, Sarah had recovered most of her composure and was smiling again. They joined the other scarlet-clad Park regulars who were standing around, pints in hands, talking animatedly about the win and bantering with the opposition’s supporters.
The sun fell quickly and day turned into early evening. The talk moved on from the game to the recent signings.
‘That new, blond, scrummy scrum half looks like a decent catch, but Murray’d better show some of his form from earlier years,’ Clare pronounced darkly.
‘What else do you remember about him?’ Sarah was curious.
‘He must be around 30 now; usually plays number eight. He’s big, very strong, ruthless, and nothing stops him, short of a bulldozer.
‘There are an awful lot of eights like that. And 30’s a bit old too,’ mused Sarah.
‘Apparently, his decision making is still top class and he’s qualified to do some coaching. The chairman is hoping our young team can learn from him,’ added Clare. She gave a gasp. ‘Ooh, there’s the new scrum half. He’s headed this way. Great try today, Alex. How are you enjoying the new club?’
Alex Prince looked bemused, his chocolate-brown eyes sparkling as he ran a hand through his chin-length, dirty-blond hair. ‘Thanks – it was nice to have a run-out. The forwards did all the hard work, though. I’m looking forward to my mate Tom joining us for next week’s game.’
His Scottish accent sent a cold shiver down Sarah’s spine as her earlier apprehension grew.
It had the opposite effect on Clare; she quivered in delight and babbled an introduction. ‘Er, by the way this is Sarah and I’m Clare. Sarah’s the secretary for the volunteers’ committee; she’s also an ultra-efficient executive in the week. I’m just a civil servant.’
‘Nice to meet you both.’ They shook hands, smiling at the awkward formality.
Clare started to ask Alex about some of the finer points of scrum half play, while Sarah excused herself to go to the loo. The wind had wreaked havoc on her shoulder-length hair but the fresh air had given her attractively rosy cheeks and shining eyes. On her way back, she spoke to other committee members about a meeting that week, before returning to Clare who was still talking animatedly with Alex.
‘So, you said you knew the other new chap, Tom Murray?’ asked Sarah as she rejoined them.
‘Yeah, I was at school with him, years ago.’
‘In Scotland?’ That earlier sense of foreboding coalesced.
‘He’s a couple of years older than me. Was good to see him again – he’s been away from playing for a time and missed today’s game. Urgent business interests, apparently.’ Alex glanced over at the main club door behind Sarah. ‘He’s just walked in. Tom! Over here!’
Sarah’s stomach dropped as she felt a sensation she hadn’t experienced since those days at university: a prickling on the back of her neck. No, it couldn’t be …
‘Clare and Sarah, two lovely, loyal Harford supporters, meet Tom, rugby player and one of my best friends,’ carried on Alex, oblivious.
As Sarah turned round she heard a familiar, lightly accented burr.
‘Well, look who it is. Of all the rugby clubs in all the world, I walked into yours. Hello, stranger – run out on any men recently?’
Her eyes met a broad chest clothed in a well-cut suit. Slowly, she lifted her gaze past his strong neck and firm chin, the flaring nostrils and knife-sharp cheekbones, and met the piercing blue eyes that had haunted her dreams for nearly ten years.
‘No one that didn’t deserve it,’ she countered.
‘You’ll have to clarify your definition of “deserving it” to me sometime.’ The venom in his voice surprised her.
She fumed. ‘If you need any clarification, then you’ve taken too many studs to the head.’
‘Studs to the head? For one moment I thought you said “studs to bed”. But that’s your territory, isn’t it?’
‘Takes one to know one, doesn’t it? How dare you assume anything about me?’
Clare and Alex stood by, astounded by the lethal sparks flying back and forth. The two combatants stared each other down, Sarah’s generous chest heaving in indignation at the man towering over her. Tom’s eyes flickered to the cleavage revealed by her snug, tailored shirt. For one moment, his hands lifted as if to grab her and his blue eyes burned. Then he appeared to pull back and regain control. His face went blank for a moment, then he started smiling pleasantly at Sarah.
‘I’m sorry. Peace? It’s been years and a lot of water has passed under both our bridges. I’m sure you’re a different person now.’
‘Years?’ echoed Alex before Sarah could leap in again.
‘Sarah and I knew each other at uni,’ Tom explained.
‘He used to coach me – I mean, he was my rugby coach.’ Sarah corrected herself, still wound up.
Different person? The cheek!
‘We didn’t really know each other at all. Barely even to say hello in passing.’
‘Oh, so when you said “blast from the past” earlier, you meant him?’ Clare concluded.
‘Well, not for certain.’ Sarah frowned quizzically at Tom. ‘I didn’t know it was
Tom Murray. If what I heard earlier about you having family in high places is correct, you must have gone up in the world.’
‘Just a technical matter, really; doesn’t mean anything.’ Tom dismissed her comment hurriedly. ‘Now, where can I find the chairman? I need to have a very quick word.’
‘I’ll take you to him,’ said Alex. ‘Nice to meet you, girls – I’ll be seeing you around.’ He smiled at them both, his gaze lingering on a blushing Clare who whispered a faint farewell.
Giving Sarah an unreadable glance, Tom walked away with Alex. Clare turned to her. ‘Well, what the hell was
about? I think we need to go and sit down for a quiet chat.’
‘That sounds like a great plan, but I’ll need a stiff drink first.’ Sarah felt ultra-sensitive, her body buzzing with energy from the confrontation.
Within minutes, the two had visited the bar and grabbed some seats in the corner. Sarah opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, and took a huge gulp of her drink.
‘Well, the short story is we went to the same university, and on my last night out I helped him back to his, and things went from there.’
‘I think I want a slightly longer version. With naughty bits.’ Clare leant forward.
‘OK. He coached me for one year. He was rude and insufferable. Like now. We had a bit of a drunken fumble and fell asleep on his bed. I woke up first and heard him calling his ex’s name, plus she arrived shortly afterwards. I managed to sneak out and departed for Wales.’
‘Still messing around with his ex and he dallies with you?’ Her friend’s faint South Walian accent strengthened in disbelief. ‘Absolutely unforgivable, although we all made mistakes when we were younger.’ Clare shrugged. ‘And you never saw him again until now?’
Sarah shook her head.
‘Looks like he still bears a small grudge. Or he did – that was a quick turnaround in mending fences. Are you sure that was all there was to it?’
Sarah contemplated her drink. ‘He was such a tart in uni; he had countless girls after him. I think it’s more likely that he’s annoyed that I got to have the last word instead of him. Or the last action, as the case may be. We didn’t go all the way, you see – just fumbling.’ Her eyes glazed in recollection. ‘It was incredibly hot, though, and fast; I’ve never experienced anything so scorching since. Even drunk or asleep, he really knew what he was doing.’ She giggled. ‘Definitely not one who suffers from brewer’s droop!’
Clare giggled along with her. ‘Well, if he’s single now, perhaps you’ll have a chance to have the full experience?’ She winked saucily. ‘You know, and then perhaps we can double-date with Mr Sexy Scrum Half?’
Sarah looked over to where the two had gone. ‘I somehow doubt that’s going to happen – have you seen the sharks circling the new blood?’ Tom and Alex, having returned from a back room, were surrounded by a group of girls wearing very little, tossing their hair, and coyly peeking from under fluttering eyelashes. ‘Anyway, I thought you said you were staying single too?’
Clare followed her gaze and visibly deflated. ‘Oh yes, I momentarily forgot about that. And them.’ One started caressing Alex’s arm and he placed a hand on her waist. ‘Yup, he’s taken. Come on, let’s get out of here, get dolled up at yours, and move on into town for a bite to eat.’
They drained their drinks, said goodbye to the remaining supporters, and departed the club. Sarah glanced back as she passed through the double doors and, above bobbing blonde heads, caught another unreadable stare from Tom.
Despite the change in location and outfits, a few hours later she couldn’t get away from him. There it was again: that tingle on the back of her neck. Sarah resisted the urge to look around the bar, knowing exactly who had his intense blue eyes focused on her. She could pick out his rumbling voice even with the chattering din all around.
She tried to edge away and out of his sight behind a column, but, after only seconds of respite, he must have manoeuvred around to view her again. Why was he doing this to her? Was he trying to annoy her on purpose? She’d had enough.
‘Clare, do you fancy moving on now?’ Sarah asked quietly.
Clare’s eyebrows rose in surprise. ‘It’s early yet – we don’t usually move on for a while. And we’ve the rest of this bottle of red to drink. What’s wrong?’