Authors: Mina Carter
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Sports
Playing with the Prop
By Mina Carter
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real in any way. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Blue Hedgehog Press
Copyright © 2012 by Mina Carter
Proofreader: Georgina DeBurca
The deafening roar of the crowd washed over the Strathstow Sharks as they ran down the tunnel from the dressing rooms. The sound of studs clattering against the floor filled the air as over twenty men headed for the pitch. Sandwiched between two leaner players, Prop Harry James squinted as he emerged from the tunnel and followed the guy in front of him out onto the turf. The noise from the crowd increased as he appeared. His name interspersed with the cry of the team name—a fact which filled him with pride.
Since his arrival on the team last year, he’d become a fan favourite within weeks, something unprecedented for the fickle Sharks’ fans. They were known to take a while, sometimes years, to warm up to a new player, and gave preference to those from the local area who’d come up through the team’s academy program.
!” A female voice screamed from behind the subs' bench.
He allowed himself a small smile and lifted a hand in acknowledgement, which got another screamed reference to God. Had to keep the ladies happy. He knew a large part of his popularity was his appearance, especially with the female fans.
Playing prop meant that physically he was powerful, with the heavy build required of the demanding front row position, but he worked at it. Fitness had always been his calling. The gym was his second home, and weights had always been his best friends. From the neck up, he was nothing to write home about, but despite the brutality of the game, he’d avoided getting busted up too much. Sure, one ear needed syringing after most games to stop blood collecting and cauliflower ear developing. Because of that he’d been forced to start wearing a scrum-cap, but since the other two on the front row did as well, he wasn’t the odd one out anymore. Besides, he liked to tease the coaching staff that he was going to wear a pink cap. The expression on their faces was worth it alone.
Reaching his designated position ready for kick-off, he allowed his gaze to wander to the side of the pitch. Searching for one figure amongst the team support staff had become part of his pre-game ritual. It didn’t take long to find the lone female figure amongst the team physical therapists. Petite and with the kind of curves to tempt a saint, he’d had his eye on Ashley Parks since his arrival on the Sharks last year. So much so, he’d developed a “cramp” problem whenever she was around to ensure he got her pretty hands on his legs whenever he could. The other players had cottoned onto him, nicknaming him “Crampy James,” but he didn’t care. All that mattered was that she was here, at every game. One day, he might even drum up the courage to say something to her.
As though feeling his gaze on her, she glanced around. Not yet bundled up against the cold of the oncoming winter, her dark hair was pulled up into a high ponytail, the ends bouncing across her shoulders. Swamped by the fluorescent tabard with ‘physio’ stamped across it, he couldn’t see much of her figure, but her brilliant smile and wave made up for that. Satisfaction surged through him as he rolled his shoulder and neck to make them crack. All was right with the world now. It was his birthday, he had game-time today, and his girl was watching him do what he did best.
“For fuck’s sake, will you just
something to her?” The voice was accompanied by a heavy clap across his shoulder, and Harry turned around to see the smiling face of the team’s hooker, Tom, as the man passed him en-route to his own position. He turned, still grinning, pure mischief twinkling in his eyes. “Before one of us has to clue her in that it’s not just your legs you get a cramp in when she touches you.”
Harry couldn’t help the bark of laughter but refrained from flipping his friend the bird. Ordinarily, he would have, but not here on the pitch with tens of thousands of eyes on them. To do so would have risked incurring their wrath, and would send Coach purple with rage. At the very least, he’d be off the line-up and on the subs’ bench for a few games, which was something all the players desperately wanted to avoid. Thanks to the brutal nature of the sport, each game they ran the gauntlet of injury that could keep them off the pitch for a game or so at best. At worst, it could kill, or end their careers. Game time was a precious thing jealously guarded.
“Seriously,” Tom carried on, jogging lightly as he reached his position. “She’s single. You want her? Make a move before someone else does.”
Harry cut a glance over to the lady in question. Last he’d heard, she was seeing another physio, not one with the team but from the last place she worked. What happened? He hadn’t noticed her looking sad… Perhaps it had been an amicable breakup? Amicable meant no broken heart to heal before he made his move. Hell yeah. A man could work with that.
A slow grin spread over his lips as the heads up was called for the kick off. The whistle blew, and then he was running, an extra kick racing through his veins. Today was going to be a good day. He felt it in his bones.
The lads were playing well. Really well. Minutes into the second half, they were just behind the other team on the score-board, but everyone had known this was going to be a close game. The Sherwood Saints were top of the league, but the Sharks had plans to knock them off the top spot.
Ashley crouched at the side of the pitch, one hand on her medic-bag, and watched the players with an eagle eye. There were four physio’s on the main team, and two in reserve for the subs' bench and replacements, then the main medical team for more serious injuries. She shuddered at the thought. She’d only had to deal with one bad one—a full knocked out, spinal board injury and rush to hospital job—but that had been years ago. She hoped that trend continued. There was no way she wanted any of the team injured and especially not her guys.
She switched her attention, seeking out the three players she was assigned to watch. Stewart, Blair and James. Her gaze held on the last, and she watched him take a pass and run full tilt at the opposition line. Three tried to take him down, but he kept on running with defenders hanging off his powerful frame. It was only when a fourth joined the fray that he hit the ground in a tangle of limbs.
She held back the wince and waited anxiously as the other Sharks piled in to defend. James was just visible at the bottom of the pile. She could see an arm, bent defensively over where his head must be. Her teeth worried at her lower lip. So many boots so close to his face. She’d never get used to patching up blood injuries from kicks sustained in the ruck.
Broken noses were common, as were lacerations, some real deep. It made her tense just thinking about it, especially when James was in that position right now. Fear for him held her in an iron grip, but then Peters, the scrum half, was in place to dig for the ball. She breathed a sigh of relief as it came free and was passed on.
Ignoring the fact play had resumed, she kept her eye on the men on the ground as they rolled away from the pile. She only had James in her sights, but like the other physio’s with marked men in the altercation, she needed to make sure he got back to his feet and didn’t need treatment. He was slow to move. A frown creased her brow. Crap. Lying like that when the rest had moved wasn’t James’ style. Normally, he was up and running like some freakishly big Jack in the box. Her hand tightened on the strap of her bag. Those few extra seconds could mean he was winded, or worse, had taken a kick to the head.
Shit. Squinting, she tried to make out some details. No blood that she could see, but she’d always told James he had thick skin. He tended to bruise rather than get cut. And he had a thick skull. She’d seen him take blows that would have knocked a lesser man out. Her chest tightened, easing slightly when he sat up.
He didn’t get to his feet though, instead he dropped to the ground, lifting his leg and grabbing his foot.
Before she could think, Ashley had her bag in hand and ran across the pitch, weaving between the running players. When she’d first started working with the team, running out in the middle of play had freaked her out. The guys, even the smaller ones, were huge and fast as all hell. But she’d learned to read the pitch, and these days it was second nature to avoid getting squashed.
She made it to his side in record time. Her knees hit the grass, her kit at her side, and she fit her shoulder under his raised ankle. Hands replacing his on his foot, she stretched his calf out.
“Hey, James.” She smiled at him. “The usual, handsome?”
The relief that flittered over his face when he saw her fed her ego. She’d struggled to get accepted by the players at first. They’d seen her gender first and her abilities second, and she usually had to play the same game with new players until they realised she was damn good at her job. But not Harry James. He’d taken one look at her and nodded, the same little smile on his face that curved his lips now.
“Hey, sweet stuff. Yeah, bastard thing locked up right in the middle of the ruck. About brained a Saint with my boot flailing about like a muppet.”
She nodded and leaned into him, using her weight to stretch the leg out more. A big guy, he often had trouble with his calves, more so than any of the other players. It felt like she always had her hands on his legs. Not that she was complaining. He had great legs. Just a pity she couldn’t get her hands on the rest of him.
Not letting a hint of her inappropriate thoughts show on her face, she massaged the back of his leg. Shit, his calves were solid.
“Hard as granite here.” A frown creased her brow, and she flicked a glance over the rest of him. His shirt was already mud-stained, and the side of his head was blue where he’d rolled over the advertising painted on the turf mid-field, but apart from a darkening bruise over one cheek, she couldn’t see any other damage.
“Not all that’s hard, sexy.”
“I’m sorry?” She blinked, unsure she’d heard what she thought she had.
His voice was deep and low, and the roar of the crowd as a try was scored the other end of the pitch almost drowned it out. She looked up and caught his gaze. The normal amusement lurked in his hazel eyes, but interest hid behind it. Butterflies hit her stomach at light speed, a frantic, delicious fluttering that woke everything feminine inside her. Crap, did he… Was he?
“Never be sorry, not with me.”
Pulling his leg free from her grasp, he dropped it to the ground, big boot hitting the turf next to her feet. He sat up, thighs either side of hers, and she realised she’d been caught. The smile slipped from his face, so close to hers, as he gazed deep into her eyes. Up this close, he was almost overwhelming, but not in a threatening way. Instead, even as muddy and wet as he was, she had the urge to get closer, to wrap herself around all those hard muscles.
“Just a try behind now.” Lifting a hand, he tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “If we win, do I get a kiss?”
Her heart stuttered, both at the gentle touch and the words. The butterflies burst into overdrive, alternating between doing a wall of death around her stomach and sending shivers over her skin.
“Think about it, eh?” He smiled, rolled away, and bound to his feet, then held a hand out to help her up. “We’ll be out tonight... Symphonies in town. Come and find us. Find me? It’s my birthday as well, you can help me celebrate. Perhaps see you there?”
With that, he winked and ran off to re-join play, leaving her wondering what the hell had just happened.
Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear
Harry snorted into his pint as the traditional birthday ditty degenerated into filth and abuse by the third line.
“Yeah, yeah. Love you guys too.”
The Sharks were out en-masse. Even Tom and Will, both currently hooked up with their respective ladies and totally useless when it came to nights out, had cut the apron strings to help him celebrate. That they were also celebrating knocking the Saints off the top spot was just the icing on the cake.
No, he amended, tipping his head back and draining the rest of his pint. The icing on the cake had been the expression on Ashley’s face earlier. He’d expected her to smile and brush him off. Deflect his advance as slickly as he’d seen her deal with others. But she hadn’t. Not at all. And as far as he was concerned, her stunned silence wasn’t a no. Far from it.
Reaching out, he snagged another drink from the horde lined up waiting. Four in and he was working on a happy buzz. Had she noticed that the other guys had stopped trying to hit on her? He smiled to himself. He doubted it. Nor would she suspect he’d had to have more than a few locker-room conversations before the rest got the message that she was his girl and to back the fuck off.
For saying she was older, early thirties to his twenty-six, and worked around Rugby players on a day-to-day basis, she was a little naive when it came to her effect on men. Especially him. He lifted his glass. That was something he intended to put right—if she showed tonight.
God, he hoped she did. Even bruised and battered as he was after a hard game, his body hummed with triumph. Both from the game and the fact she hadn’t slapped his face and told him where to get off earlier. Good job they’d been on the pitch, in front of everyone, because if they’d been in the privacy of a treatment room, he’d have made a move on her right then and there.