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Authors: Carly Phillips

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Hot Item

BOOK: Hot Item
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CARLY PHILLIPS
Hot Item

To everyone at Harlequin—

Donna Hayes, Randall Toye, Dianne Moggy, Katherine Orr, Marleah Stout and Tracy Farrell for believing in me. And a special thank-you to Brenda Chin for pushing me harder and making me better (I hope!) with each book.

HOT ITEM
PROLOGUE

Y
ANK
M
ORGAN LEANED
back in his favorite chair and puffed on a Monte Cristo cigar. Damn, life was good. At least, as good as it could be with his three nieces sick with colds and too quiet for his peace of mind. He’d been caring for the girls since their parents died in a plane crash a little over a year ago and he’d done his best to maintain normalcy for them and for himself. Hence, his weekly poker night with the guys.

“Hey, Morgan. You folding or what?” Curly asked.

“Depends on your hand.”

Curly glanced at his cards and rubbed his hand over his bald head, a sure sign the man’s hand sucked. “What the hell. I’m in.”

“Me, too.” Spencer Atkins, Yank’s friend and business rival, tossed his bet onto the pile of chips in the center of the table and pulled a long drag of his cigar.

“Better not inhale,” a small female voice warned.

Yank frowned and turned to the doorway. His middle niece, Sophie, stood in her flannel nightgown and glared, arms folded across her chest.

“You’re supposed to be resting,” Yank said.

She shrugged. “My nose is stuffed. I want Lola,” she said, speaking of his assistant and one-time lover, not that any of the girls knew that last part. Lola was the only female influence the girls had.

Yank didn’t discourage their relationship. But the woman complicated his life to no end and reminded him of their once-hot affair. He had his hands full with three little women. He didn’t need a fourth female making demands on his time and forcing him to give up the important things. Things like cigars and poker.

“Can I call her, Uncle Yank? Please?” Sophie asked.

“Yeah, can she call her?” Spencer asked, laughing. “As if you’d say no. It’s no hardship having that beautiful woman around twenty-four/seven, is it, Morgan?”

Yank scowled. “Take some aspirin instead,” he told his niece.

“Aspirin’s no good for children. There’s a new study out that shows it can cause something called Reye’s syndrome. Lola would know that,” Sophie said in an accusing tone.

He groaned. “You wanna call her, call her. Just make sure she knows I’m tied up with the boys.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “She knows. Everyone knows Tuesday night’s poker night.” Sophie ran over and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Yank. I promise not to bother you again.”

He hugged the little girl tight. “You never bother me.”

She clasped her hands behind her back. “You mean that?” she asked in a serious voice, one too old for her eleven years.

Losing parents did that to kids, Yank had learned. Annabelle, the oldest, had taken over the mother role whenever Lola wasn’t around, bossing her sisters and making sure everyone behaved. Micki, the youngest, tagged along with him everywhere he went, never giving him time or space to breathe, obviously afraid if she did, he’d run away and never return. And Sophie lost herself in books as if she could escape into another world. But she also used the knowledge she learned to try to control everyone and everything around her.

Yank figured she thought if she orchestrated life, she wouldn’t lose people around her the way she lost her parents. When had he turned into a damn shrink? he wondered. “Go,” he said softly. “The sooner you call Lola, the sooner you’ll get some sleep.”

She nodded. “Okay.” She ran out of the room and he heard her chattering on the phone from the kitchen.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Let’s get back to business.”

Spencer lifted his glass and took a sip of the whiskey Yank kept in the bar. “Son of a bitch. I’m out.” With a scowl, he folded his hand. “I’ll just have a smoke and watch Yank take the rest of you suckers for all you’re worth.”

A few hands later, Spencer reached for his cigar, then narrowed his gaze when he came up empty-handed. “Winning’s not enough for you, Morgan? You have to stoop to stealing stogies for fun?”

Yank tossed his cards onto the table. “I take offense to the implication. I’m winnin’ fair and square. And I didn’t take your damn cigar. Maybe you’re getting old and you forgot whether or not you lit one.”

Curly rose to his feet. “Come on, boys. We don’t need to fight amongst ourselves. Spence here can have my cigar. If my wife smells it on me she’ll douse me with kerosene and light a match.” He glanced down. “Hey, wait a second…”

Yank winced. “Yours is gone, too?” he asked, a sneaking suspicion dawning.

The other man nodded.

“Mel?” Yank turned to the fourth man.

“Mine’s gone, too.”

Yank groaned. “Sophia Francesca Jordan!” he bellowed. “Get in here now.”

“You don’t have to yell, Uncle Yank. I’m right here.” Sophie’s voice sounded from beneath the card table.

The little sneak. How had she gotten underneath there without them noticing? he wondered.

She tried to stand too soon and bumped her head. “Ouch!” Finally she stood in front of him, guilt written all over her little face. Her cheeks were pink and her blue eyes too wide and innocent.

“Give the boys back their cigars,” Yank demanded.

Her eyes filled with tears. “But…”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t take them. What else would you be doing sneaking ’round under there?”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t going to say that.”

“What were you going to say?” Spencer asked in a surprisingly kind voice considering he’d nearly strung Yank up alive for stealing his cigar. Faced with the midget culprit, his tone gentled as it always did around Sophie. He had a soft spot for the middle kid.

Sophie clasped her hands behind her long flannel nightgown. “The Surgeon General says smoking’s bad for your health. It’ll turn your lungs black and clog your arties.”

“Arteries, doofus,” Annabelle said, walking in from the doorway. “Sorry, Uncle Yank. I fell asleep and forgot to watch her. It won’t happen again.” She grabbed her sister’s hand and pulled, trying to drag her from the room.

“Stop,” Sophie whined. “I’m right and they all know it.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’re guys and guys smoke,” the third Musketeer chimed in, surprising them all by walking in from the kitchen. In her hand, Micki held the ashtray with all the men’s cigars.

“Hey, it took a long time for me to collect those without them noticing,” Sophie said.

“But they weren’t yours to take.” Annabelle walked around the room, handing each man a used cigar.

In all likelihood nobody got the right smoke and Yank cringed. “I think it’s time to call it a night.”

“If Lola had come, none of this would have happened,” Annabelle said. “She’d have kept Sophie busy in the kitchen.”

“If Lola had come, she’d be sprayin’ Lysol around all our heads,” Yank muttered.

“That’s not nice, Uncle Yank.” Micki smacked him on the shoulder with her little hand.

“See?” he said to his friends. “This is why I won’t git married ever. I already got three little women telling me what to do.”

Curly shook his head. “It’s more like with three little girls, you couldn’t find a woman in her right mind who would have you.”

“Except Lola. But Yank’s not bright enough to know a good thing when he’s got one,” Spencer said with a laugh.

“This from someone who’s already got one divorce under his belt.”

Sophie pulled the sleeve of Spencer’s sweater. “Really? You were married? To who? When? How?”

“None of your business, little girl.” He softened his words by patting her on the head.

“Like that’ll satisfy her. Sophie needs to know all details about all things.”

“What’d she look like? Why’d she leave? Or did you leave?”

Yank chuckled. At least she’d stopped harassing them about the cigars. Though given Sophie’s inquisitive nature and need to control everything and everyone around her, he should probably lock up the Cubans. Heaven help the man who had to deal with her when she grew up.

CHAPTER ONE

“A
CCORDING TO
a reliable source, top sports agent Spencer Atkins, of the recently merged firm Athletes Only and its subsidiary PR firm The Hot Zone, is gay.” Sophie Jordan groaned when she saw the line in New York City’s most read gossip column.

How would the players Spencer represented react to the news? How would Spencer handle being outed? But most importantly, how in the world had this secret come out now, well over a month after she and her family had learned the news for the first time?

In the time since they’d learned the truth, Spencer’s revelation had been put aside in favor of more pressing projects: the merger of Yank and Spencer’s sports agencies and the all-important spin that “we’re better and stronger than ever.” Enough time had passed that even Sophie, who normally covered all bases, had dismissed the possibility of the story being leaked.

“Guess I thought wrong,” she muttered. Sophie hated being wrong. It meant she’d miscalculated and the feeling sent her spiraling into an anxious frenzy, the only solution being to regain her precious control.

Problem was, she didn’t see any way to find her center. Sophie, who shone behind the scenes, couldn’t hide behind books or To Do lists now. She couldn’t even push her sisters to the forefront of the storm and handle things in the background. Chaos reigned and she was the only one available to handle the media mess sure to follow.

Annabelle was home on maternity leave with her baby girl, Sydney, and Micki was on her honeymoon with Damian Fuller, her retired center fielder husband. Their receptionist had called in sick, the temp agency still hadn’t sent anyone over to cover and the phones were ringing off the hook.

She glanced at the flashing switchboard behind the reception desk and imagined the many messages accumulating on voice mail, the reporters asking for confirmation of the story and the players they represented caught off guard by the news. She didn’t want to believe they’d turn against Spencer because of his sexual orientation. Her family felt no differently about Spencer upon hearing the news. But knowing human nature, and athletes in particular, Sophie expected a difficult transition period anyway.

Anxiety and upheaval were things Sophie understood all too well. In the past few months, her life had been drastically changed by her sisters’ marriages, followed by Uncle Yank and Lola’s reunion. Lola had even taken over dealing with Uncle Yank’s macular degeneration and postsurgical care for his broken hip.

Without someone else’s issues to focus on, Sophie had been left at loose ends. Add to that the merger of Atkins and Associates and The Hot Zone, and life as she knew it had been blown to bits. Normal was nowhere to be found.

So yes, she could relate to the players being upset by the new status quo. They, like Sophie, would just need to adapt to the notion of change.

As if willing it could make it so. She shook her head. If adapting were simple, Sophie wouldn’t be feeling so lost and out of control right now.

She glanced at her watch and realized it was already ten in the morning. Where in the world was the man of the day? Spencer always arrived at the office punctually at nine. It was one of the things she could count on in her suddenly crazy world.

His prompt nature and conservative ways were a part of what Sophie liked about him. She could relate to his methodical means of coping with life, which were much like her own. From the time she’d moved in with Uncle Yank, she and Spencer had had a father-daughter type of connection. He’d always given her the attention and respect that often got lost within her own family, thanks to her being in the middle of Annabelle, her vibrant older sister, and Micki, the younger sibling who seemed to fit right into Uncle Yank’s athletic life.

“Ms. Jordan?”

Sophie glanced up to see a woman standing before her. She had to be in her early twenties, and by her tentative expression, definitely not wizened in the ways of business.

“Yes, I’m Sophie. Please tell me you’re from the Helping Hands Temp Agency?”

The brunette nodded. “My first day actually. I’m Nicki Fielding.”

“Nice to meet you.” Sophie swallowed over her disappointment in being right since she could use an experienced receptionist. “As long as you can answer the phones, say ‘no comment’ until The Hot Zone is ready to issue a statement and take messages, you’ll do just fine.”

“No computer work?” the girl asked.

“Not today, you won’t have time.” Sophie lightly prodded her toward the front desk where the telephone still rang, the lines lighting up like fireflies, and prayed Raine would get over the flu soon.

“Okay, the main desk is covered,” she said aloud. “Now I can move on to the next order of business.”

Spencer. Just where was he?

She dialed his home number, but his answering machine picked up immediately. She tried his cell phone next but it went right to voice mail. She pursed her lips. It wasn’t like him not to check in if he was going to be late. Had the media leak sent him temporarily underground?

She worried about how he’d handle the public and the press and about his mental state. After all, he’d kept this secret for a lifetime. He’d always been vague about his prior marriage. She remembered asking him about it when she was a little girl. She’d never received a straight reply and now Sophie understood why. He must be in a panic now.

Sophie knew she had to find him and soon. In addition to being someone she looked up to and respected, he was a close friend of the family and had been for years, even before the merger. He had never let business rivalry affect his friendship with Uncle Yank and he had been there for Lola when she’d thought things were over with Yank for good. It was time the family returned the favor even if Sophie was the only family member around to do it.

She looked forward to the challenge and not just because helping Spencer spin his life story to the press would give Sophie something to think about besides being alone and uncertain of what turn her life would take next. Although she had to admit the diversion had merit.

No, Spencer Atkins was a good man with a good heart. He’d weather this “coming out” with Sophie’s help, while she’d do her best to represent the absent Hot Zone family members. He deserved nothing less.

 

S
PENCER
A
TKINS DESERVED
a swift kick in the ass, Riley Nash thought and tossed the newspaper across the den in disgust. What had started as a mention in a gossip column had escalated to the back page of all the major New York newspapers.

Big-time sports agent Spencer Atkins was gay. Who knew? Not his only son, that’s for sure.

Riley shook his head. What a sham his life had been. He’d always known who his biological father was even though he’d been adopted by Senator Harlan Nash of Brandon, Mississippi. A right-wing conservative with aspirations of living in the White House. A man whose constituents wouldn’t be happy to know that the senator’s wife had once been married to a gay sports agent—and that Senator Nash had raised the man’s son.

Riley groaned and ran a hand through his hair. Spencer Atkins and his mother had parted ways while his mother was pregnant. She’d met Harlan Nash while she was going through her divorce and from what Riley understood, it’d been caring at first sight for Anne, love at first sight for Harlan. He’d married Riley’s mother knowing she was pregnant with another man’s child and raised him like his own. Harlan could be controlling and dictatorial with his staff and on occasion with his family, but no one could fault him for his goals, his drive…or for his heart. Over the years, his mother had grown to love her husband deeply.

Having grown up in Mississippi, Riley wasn’t fond of his stepfather’s politics or of the political climate in his hometown. The recent polls had proved it was anti gay marriage. But he loved Harlan Nash and wasn’t about to see him hurt by something that was beyond his control.

Riley’s mother, Anne, had always suggested he tuck the knowledge of Spencer’s parentage away and do nothing with it, but Riley had been curious. Even more so when he’d realized what his real dad did for a living. A natural athlete from day one, Riley desperately craved the man’s approval and acknowledgment and he’d tried hard to get it.

As a kid, Riley thought once Spencer saw his son’s talent in his chosen field, Spencer would reach out to him. Yet despite being a junior-high and high-school quarterback, despite countless trophies, awards, write-ups in the local papers, nothing about Riley had ever captured Spencer Atkins’s attention. He never answered Riley’s letters or returned his calls.

Still, he’d had his biological father in mind while he’d played QB for Boston College and won the Heisman. With no reply to his request that Spencer represent him, Riley had been the first-round draft pick, with Yank Morgan as his agent. Still nothing from his old man. He’d taken that silence as the final slap.

Once Riley had accepted that the man would never publicly acknowledge him as his son, he’d told himself he didn’t care. If the man didn’t want anything from Riley, Riley didn’t need a damn thing from him. He no longer worried about what other people thought of him and had carried the same attitude over into his life, doing things his way.

Riley had started his career with Cincinnati and hoped to end it where he played now, with the New York Giants. He was a good enough player to get away with coloring outside the lines, something his coaches and his agent accepted and understood because as much as he looked out for number one, he looked out for his team as well.

Looking back at the path he’d chosen and the reasons behind it, Riley realized it was a damn good thing he loved his profession. Otherwise he’d have wasted his life pursuing a football career just so he could get the attention of a man who wanted nothing to do with him.

As today’s headlines proved, Riley didn’t know a damn thing about who Spencer Atkins was or what he wanted. He only knew what Atkins wanted the world to see. So in addition to “absent, disinterested parent,” Atkins could now add “fake” to his impressive résumé.

“Way to go, Pop,” Riley muttered under his breath.

“Did you say something?” Julia, a beautiful redhead who’d spent the night in his bed, strode in from the other room.

He’d been so caught off guard by the news in the paper, he’d all but forgotten Julia was waiting in the bedroom.

Coming up beside him, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed a kiss against his cheek. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you come back to bed?” She eased her body into his lap.

“Nothing important.” He turned to kiss her full on the lips, running his hand over her breasts. His body responded immediately, assuring him he was nothing like the old man.

The old man he only knew about from stories his mother had told him when he was a kid. They’d broken up because they were incompatible, she’d said. They’d wanted different things out of life. Those once vague words began to make more sense now. Had his mother known about Spencer all along? Had she found out during their marriage? Or was she discovering the truth now over her morning coffee, along with the rest of the world?

Suddenly, Julia rose to her feet. “Your mind’s somewhere else,” she chided softly.

“Yeah.” He glanced down, unable to deny the obvious.

“Well, I really need to get back to the hotel anyway. My plane leaves at noon.”

Julia was a flight attendant who traveled the world and sometimes called Riley when she was in New York. Sometimes not. The arrangement worked well since Riley had an irregular schedule, thanks to his joint-custody arrangement with his ex-wife.

His thirteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, came first on his list of priorities. Yet another way he was nothing like the man who hadn’t raised him.

He followed Julia back into the bedroom.

She strode over to the bed, unaffectedly naked and began picking up her clothes. “Did I tell you Jacques asked me to marry him?” She casually tossed the news his way.

He raised an eyebrow, not surprised the words didn’t elicit a reaction one way or another. He enjoyed Julia but he wasn’t in love with her.

“Then how come I don’t see a ring?” he asked lightly.

She shrugged. “I told him I’d think about it.” She pulled her shirt over her head, the spandex molding to her near perfect curves. “I’m getting tired of the traveling, the hotel rooms. It’s lonely. I could give up my career and not look back,” she admitted.

Riley nodded. “I hear you. There comes a time everyone has to make choices.” He paused and met her gaze. “I take it this is…goodbye, then?”

She nodded. “I couldn’t say yes without telling you. And besides I thought we deserved one last time together.” She treated him to a smile.

An easy parting, he thought thankfully. He’d been blessed that way. Even his short marriage to Lisa had ended amicably and they’d never argued over custody or money, mainly because as the mother of his child, he’d denied her nothing and even increased her monthly payments as his career had soared. Just a case of marrying too young and expecting too little.

Similar to his own parents, or so he’d always thought. Once again he caught himself wondering about Spencer Atkins. Had Spencer’s marriage been a ruse? An attempt to live a so-called normal life? Had Riley been conceived out of love as he’d been told by his mother or as the unfortunate result of a lie on the part of his father?

So many questions. He wished he didn’t give a damn, but Riley could no longer deny his curiosity. And if he wanted to know more, so would the reporters who’d gotten wind of this story. They’d dig and dig deep. They’d find the marriage certificate that bore the names of Spencer Atkins and his mother and they’d discover that she’d had a child.

In no time the scandal would reach his stepfather, who was running for the United States Senate as a representative of the great state of Mississippi. A lifetime’s worth of hard work and dedication, and aspirations of living in the White House would go down the drain. Riley wouldn’t let that happen.

Of course he’d be a liar if he didn’t admit some self-interest in the matter, too. If the press found out the relationship between Riley and Atkins, Riley’s life in the locker room would be a living hell. The guys would question his masculinity and not even his marriage and kid would save him. Like father, like son the guys would say. Riley could hold his own with his teammates and he knew the scandal would blow over with time, but his teenage daughter didn’t need the hassle from the fallout.

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