He looked good enough to eat. Crystal Peterson drew in a breath of the early spring air as desire bloomed in her. Sunlight dappled Ron Kincaid’s golden hair and played off the contours of his biceps and thighs. He advanced with the other players up the field in Atlanta, Georgia’s Piedmont Park, each ripple of muscle sending warmth twisting through her. The man might be a photographer during the week, but on the weekends, he had all the right moves.
A shout drew Crystal’s gaze from the object of her affections, calling her attention back to her own teammates. Sam Schaffer, her long-time friend and confidante, launched the football in a neat spiral. It sailed toward her. She leaped, hands outstretched.
This was her chance.
If she played this right, she’d have everyone’s attention—including Ron’s. Rough leather stung her palms and a feeling of excitement gripped her. As many times as she and Sam had been through this drill, it never ceased to amaze her when she caught the damn ball.
Ron pounded down the turf after her. Keenly aware that all eyes were on her, especially Ron’s, she kicked forward with everything she had. The makeshift end zone, marked by two park benches, yawned ahead of her, the way amazingly clear. Her heart quickened. She could make this touchdown. She could win the game.
Surely Ron would notice her then.
Someone went down with a loud thump behind her to her left, but she could still feel Ron in hot pursuit. He was close, too close.
He’s going to catch me.
A thrill raced through her. His heat pressed in behind her as her heart tripped wildly. In one swift motion, he took her down, rolling to soften the fall, cradling her in his arms. The solid planes of his body pressed into her, his chest firm against her back, his breath hot in her ear and the hard ridge behind his fly nestled in the cleft of her bottom. She turned her head, so his mouth brushed across her cheek, then whispered along her lips–
“Go right!” Sam yelled from somewhere in the distance behind Ron, yanking her from her reverie.
She swerved to the right. As always, Sam was covering her back. She had been following his lead ever since that day in the first grade, when he had helped her out-maneuver a bully on the playground. Three years of their old high school gang meeting in the park for these Saturday games had only ingrained the instinct.
If anyone could take out Ron, it was Sam.
The end zone loomed just out of reach. Her lungs burned and her legs ached. Shouts rose all around her. She could feel Ron hot on her tail. Close. She imagined him reaching out, his fingertips brushing the rolled waistband of her sweats. The temptation to let him catch her swept over her, but she shrugged it off.
With a primal yell, she dove for the end field. She hit the earth hard, clutching the football to her chest and rolling. Shouts and hoots of victory rose up around her. She fell to her back, gulping in huge drafts of air.
She’d made it. They’d won the game.
Ron moved into the patch of blue above her, breathing hard himself, his cheeks ruddy and his hair appealingly windblown. “You’re fast, Peterson.”
Euphoria rose in her and exploded in a wide grin. He knew her name.
Before she could manage a reply, he sauntered away, spreading his smile and his charm to the number of female admirers who’d watched him from the sidelines. They surrounded him now, evidently oblivious to Crystal’s double victory.
She rose up on her elbows and cocked her head, squinting against the sun to be sure he showered his attention equally on each of his companions, without focusing on any one of them. All appearances indicated he was still single and unattached. Though it rankled to see so many women pawing him, she couldn’t quite blame them.
The man had charisma.
Her teammates and friends closed in on her. A gorgeous brunette, one of the newcomers to the group, hovered near Sam. Not surprising, since she bore the long legs and sultry appearance that distinguished all of Sam’s women.
Only she wasn’t technically one of Sam’s women. She had thrown out the bait, all right, but Sam wasn’t biting, which came as a surprise. He’d never been one for serious relationships, though it seemed lately he wasn’t even going for the casual ones.
Crystal shook her head. She had been watching poor damsels fall by the wayside ever since Sam hit his stride sometime in the seventh grade. Thank God she’d built up a natural immunity by then.
She tilted her head as he approached. The wind had ruffled his sand-colored hair, his green eyes shone and, though he rarely smiled, he somehow greeted everyone with warmth. He would make some girl a good catch. If not for his stubborn streak and cynical outlook, she herself might have been interested.
He offered her his hand, his eyes tinged with a curious note of censure. What was bothering him? Hadn’t she just helped them win their first victory in weeks? Ignoring the look, she let him pull her to her feet.
“Good catch,” he said.
Her eyes wide, the brunette by his side plucked a tuft of grass from Crystal’s hair. “You were marvelous. My heart was in my throat. I didn’t think you’d make it, until you dove at the last minute. I could never dive into the ground like that.”
“Thanks.” Crystal smiled a tight smile.
No, this woman wasn’t the type to risk breaking one of her well-manicured nails. She seemed a bit on the fragile side, ethereal in her beauty. Crystal squelched the smidgen of envy that crept over her. What did she need with delicate beauty, when she’d just scored the winning touchdown?
Grinning, she turned toward the crowd of familiar faces. Mike Steels, their linebacker, and his wife, Paige, who’d warred through high-school, then surprised them all by getting married right after college, beamed at her, their two-year-old daughter bouncing on Steels’s hip.
“Hey, Crystal, that was awesome!” Steels, his blond hair cropped close to his scalp, high-fived her with his free hand. “We’re naming number two after you.”
Paige shook her own blond head as she rubbed the small bulge in her stomach. “I’m not sure he would like that, but you were awesome, Crystal, just like always. Where’s that sister of yours?”
Frowning, Crystal scanned the remaining clusters of people. Had she been so wrapped up in Ron, she hadn’t noticed Megs had no-showed? “She’s probably just busy with that man of hers. They spend all their free time together.”
“Tell her we missed her,” Paige said.
“Hey, quit hogging the star player.” Another of the guys in their group, who’d taken Crystal on her first car date in the tenth grade, picked her up, then swung her in a wide circle. “That’s the way to do it, Peterson. I taught you well.”
She laughed and threw Sam a glance. Had he just been glaring at the back of their friend’s head? He wore his usual guarded expression, but for a split second she’d thought she’d glimpsed a flash of anger. Though he had spent endless hours practicing one-on-one with her, readying her for these games, he wasn’t usually so touchy. He was a master at masking his emotions. Only after years of deciphering his subtle body language could she tell when something was bothering him.
She sighed. His shoulders were tense and his jaw set. Something must really be upsetting him. She’d have to soothe his ruffled feathers later.
“We’re the best!” Her friend whooped and set her down.
The rest joined in his enthusiasm, each adding his or her own victory yell. Crystal grinned, letting her gaze scan the crowd. They’d all been through a lot, the gang. Some had moved on to different graduate schools, a couple had taken off to Europe, but somehow, they had managed to keep in touch. It was great having so many of them still together after all these years.
When the noise died down and everyone started drifting apart, she finally turned to Sam, no longer able to hold in her happy news. “Ron said I was fast. He said my name. He knows who I am.”
Sam frowned. “Of course he knows your name. You and Cami are the only two women who ever play. Believe me, all the guys are very aware of who you are.”
It was true. Megs and the rest of the girls who’d cheered their high school football team through the state championship, carried on their tradition of livening up the sidelines. Crystal had never been one to sit idly during a game, though. She had to be part of the action. So did Cami. Maybe that was why they’d been friends since junior high. That and Cami appreciated her newfound admiration of Ron.
“Well, don’t be such a spoil sport,” Crystal said to Sam. “As my friend, you’re supposed to be happy for me.”
“As your friend, I’ll tell you one more time he isn’t your type.”
“And what does that mean? How do you know what my type is?”
“Please, who’s listened to you moan and groan about every guy you’ve ever had a crush on, since junior high?”
“Fine, but maybe I’m ready to change my type. I won’t know, though, until I get to know him, which you could help with. You two go way back. In fact, I’m still not clear how you knew him in high school and I didn’t. How come you never hooked us up?”
He shrugged. “We had some classes together. And I never hooked you up then, for the same reason I won’t help you now. I know him and I just don’t see the two of you hitting it off. It’s a waste of time.”
“You’re so sweet.” She patted his cheek. “But I refuse to take such a pessimistic view. This is progress.”
Camille Everett slung her arm around Crystal’s shoulders, her blue eyes sparkling, her short, bottle-black hair spiking out in fashionably odd angles. Cami had worn “bed head” long before it’d become popular. “That’s my girl. Taught her everything she knows,” she said to Sam, winking.
“Right, Cami,” Crystal teased. “That’s why I fumble so well.”
“At least I have an ass.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be a bubble butt to qualify. Parker likes my ass just fine.”
“Sam,” Crystal demanded, “Do you think I have a bubble butt?”
“Let’s see.” He turned her. “It’s hard to tell in those sweats and without a more in-depth assessment….”
She glared at him. Of course, he’d teased her like this hundreds of times in his dry, humorless way. He didn’t mean anything by it, but the lanky brunette’s hurt look drew a spurt of empathy. Poor thing. Sam would have to find a way to let her down easy.
He shrugged as if to say, “Can’t blame a guy for trying,” then said, “It’s nicely rounded, but bubble butt doesn’t do it justice. How about bountiful butt?”
She shoved him.
A lock of his sand-colored hair fell over his eye. He swept it aside and came as close to grinning as he ever came—a slight tightening of his lips. “It was a compliment. I think you have a great ass.”
“Thank you. And I like my sweats. How the hell would I play in anything else? A girl’s got to be able to move.”
His gaze swept over her rumpled T-shirt and sweats and her tousled ponytail. “I’ve always liked the way you dress. You don’t worry about what anyone thinks. It shows a certain confidence.”
“That from the Publisher of Edge, the trendiest men’s magazine in the southeast. You should be flattered,” Cami said to Crystal.
“You’re right. The magazine is doing well, isn’t it? Tell Cami about the award you’re up for,” Crystal urged Sam.
“The National Magazine Awards. It’s great that we’re in the running. I don’t see us winning this year, but I really think we’ve got a shot at next year’s, if I can find a new columnist. Someone to give a woman’s point of view on some of the more weighty issues.”
Cami’s silver laughter filled the air. “You mean people actually read the articles?”
Stiffening, Sam stared at her. Her eyes rounded. “I would read articles on women’s issues…probably.”
Crystal groaned. He’d been hedging about this for weeks. If she’d known what he was really after, she would never have done that piece on fantasy dates for him. His readers had eaten it up. She still received fan mail on it. “I’m sure you’ll find someone. There are lots of female writers out there who’d give anything for the opportunity.”
“You could do it.” His voice held such certainty that for a second she almost believed him.
Then she came to her senses. “I’m on a deadline right now, then I have that makeover series Woman’s Day is interested in. It’s a whole new area for me.”
“Sooner or later you’re going to get tired of writing all that fluff.”
“Award-winning fluff,” Cami clarified.
“All the more reason to try something with a little bite. What ever happened to the girl who was going to change the world with the stroke of her pen?” Sam’s green gaze pinned Crystal with a challenge.
Everything in her wanted to rise to that challenge. The memory of a long ago campfire flickered in her mind. The night had been clear, the stars bright. At fifteen, everything had seemed possible. Somehow sharing her dreams with Sam had made them feel more attainable.
But she’d tried her hand at a few serious articles in the past. They had all been rejected so fast it had made her head spin. She could certainly use the steady income Sam’s columnist position would pay, but did she have it in her? Besides, Cami was right. Her fluff pieces did well, well enough to pay the bills.
She finally turned to him. “She grew up and wised up.”
“You could start with the lighter content, like that last piece, then work your way into the heavier stuff.”
Again, the prospect tempted her, but ultimately he wanted the meatier articles. She’d built a reputation on diet dilemmas and decorating disasters. Would readers, let alone editors, accept anything else from her? Maybe she was meant to fulfill the world’s fluff quota.
Rather than argue with him, she opted for a diversionary tactic, one that had always worked well in the past. “Look, I’m parched. Who’s going to buy me a beer?”
* * *
Sunlight streaked in a slant through a side window, casting long shadows across the scarred table. The Red Hot Chili Peppers rocked over the hubbub of the crowded bar. The smell of cigarette smoke and beer invoked memories of countless other Saturday afternoons.
Sam took a long draw from his bottle of Corona. Crystal had looked good out there today. He let his gaze drift over her as she sat beside Cami, opposite him in a booth. Next to him, the brunette whose name he couldn’t remember said something about a sale at Phipps Plaza, but he found himself too distracted to listen.
That old familiar hum started low in his gut at the sight of Crystal’s flushed cheeks and bright eyes. Never had he seen eyes so blue. Sometimes, such excitement and clarity filled them, it almost hurt to look at her.
He gripped his beer as she glanced two tables over at Ron Kincaid, her eyes filled with longing. Sam shook his head, biting back a curse. The guy had distracted her today on the field, too. This was one crush that seemed to be more than a passing fancy. Even Kincaid, as jaded as he was, was destined to appreciate the treasure he’d have in Crystal. Was Sam so wrong not to help her connect with the man?
Kincaid was a decent guy, one of the best freelance photographers Sam knew. He had used him a number of times on shoots, but the guy changed women as often as he changed socks. Crystal was so different from other women, Sam couldn’t imagine the guy not falling for her unique beauty. Even with a guarantee Kincaid wouldn’t hurt her, would Sam hook her up with him? Just the thought of it sent a wave of possessiveness over him.
He tamped down on feelings he’d long ago suppressed. Feelings he’d revealed to Crystal in his misguided youth. It had been the summer he’d turned fifteen. They’d gone camping, the group of them–Cami, Steels, Crystal, Sam and the rest. Crystal had recruited him to go foraging for firewood with her, while the others explored a nearby lake.
He and Crystal had talked while they gathered the dry wood, then built the fire, Crystal going on with her plans for college. She’d had a cousin who’d attended Florida State, so she’d set her sights on enrolling there. By the end of the trip she’d convinced them all, enticing them with the lure of “out-of-state.” She’d instigated the exodus to Florida and Sam, missing the grand variety and international flavor of Atlanta, had led the migration home again after graduation.
That day in the woods with Crystal had started their future together, though it hadn’t quite turned out to be the future he envisioned at the time. As she’d shared her dreams about her life in college, then her career as a journalist, her eyes had glowed. Her face had taken on a radiant flush.
She’d never looked more beautiful.
“I’ll have a syndicated column where I’ll keep the American public informed of all the important issues. I’ll get an apartment, one of those sky rises in Buckhead, where I can see the heart of Atlanta from my twentieth story window,” she’d said.
Crystal had turned to Sam, her hair, still that rare white-blond, held tame in her usual ponytail. “I’m going to make a hell of a journalist. Communication, that’s what’s really important.”
He’d been so moved by her enthusiasm and he’d wanted to communicate–to share the secret that burned in him. The words spilled out, before he’d had a chance to form them in his head. “I’m in love with you.”
A bird cawed somewhere above them. The wind, pungent with the scent of pine, caught the treetops, rattling their leaves. Crystal sat silently beside him, her speech halted by his irrational confession.
He hadn’t known what to say, his heart bleeding and exposed. He sat staring at the ground, wishing desperately that it would open up and swallow him.
“But we’re just friends…besides we’re too young to know what love is,” she’d said at last. Then she’d laughed and punched him in the shoulder. “That’s funny, Sam. You really had me going.”
He’d swallowed past the lump in his throat, past the unbearable ache in his chest. Hadn’t he learned not to expose his feelings? Growing up with his single dad hadn’t been easy, but the hardest part had been watching his father pursue women, his heart on his sleeve, only to have them cruise quickly out of his life. The man hadn’t learned with Sam’s mother, but Sam had taken note.
He hadn’t been that certain someone for Crystal and in all this time, it didn’t appear as if he’d ever be. Still, sometimes he felt like he was just biding his time with the different women he’d been involved with, always careful never to make promises he couldn’t keep. Generally, that made for short relationships, but he’d never minded any of them walking away.
“Hey, Parker. What were you doing working on a Saturday? Trying to make the rest of us look bad?” Crystal’s voice dragged Sam back to the present as Parker Scott, Cami’s accountant boyfriend, slid into the booth across from him.
“We’re getting into tax season. If I don’t get caught up now, I’ll be buried in a month’s time. Then I won’t get to see my squeeze.” He scooped Cami to his side and kissed her thoroughly.
Sam shook his head at the blatant display and Crystal sighed.
“Must be nice,” the brunette beside him murmured and gave Sam a speculative look.
He set down his beer. He hadn’t done anything to lead her on, but somehow she hadn’t gotten the hint. Maybe he’d have to be less subtle.
Cami and Parker finally emerged for air. She stabbed her finger at his chest. “You’d better make time for me, tax season or not.”
“Of course I will, honey.” He glanced around the table, then grinned at her. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“You do? What?”
“It’s what we were talking about last night.”
“What were we talking about last night?”
Her eyes rounded. “The makeover?”
“You still want to do it?” He placed an envelope in her hands. “It’s a gift certificate for Allure Imaging, where they fix you up, then take your picture. I figure it’s a place to start. They do wardrobe, makeup and hair consultations, so you can decide exactly what the new you will be.”
“Oh, I’ve done that.” The brunette pressed her hands together. “They did a fabulous job. Just as good as any I’ve seen in Cosmo. You worked for them, didn’t you, Sam?”
“I interned in the fashion deparment.”
Crystal turned to Cami, a frown marring her brow. “What new you?”
“Cami’s tired of all the guys thinking of her as…well as one of the guys.”
“No, I’m not. I don’t mind them treating me that way. I just don’t want you to forget that I’m all woman.”
Parker put his face so close to hers, their noses rubbed. “There is no way that’s going to happen. All your womanly traits are very obvious to me, no matter how you choose to camouflage them.” He plucked at her oversized T-shirt.
“What do you mean camouflage?” Crystal glanced down at her own clothes.
Sam shook his head, smiling inwardly at her look of dismay. One of the things he loved about her was that she’d never been self-absorbed.
“No offense, Crystal,” Parker said. “You two do dress alike. It doesn’t bother me one bit, but she brought it up. I just agreed.”
Crystal swung her gaze to Cami who threw her hands up defensively. “You gave me the idea when you were talking about pitching that series to Woman’s Day.”
“But I wasn’t talking about you.”
“Still, you got me thinking. We do kind of dress…”
“We dress like the guys?” Crystal finished for her.
Her stunned look nearly had Sam laughing. How anyone could mistake Crystal for one of the guys was a mystery to him. As far as he was concerned, nothing she could do would detract from her feminine allure. “You dress for comfort–jeans, sweats, T-shirts.”
“Like the guys,” Crystal repeated, a look of amazement spreading across her face.
The brunette pressed her lips together.
“So, what’s shaking?” Mike Steels pulled a chair up to the end of the table, then dropped his bulk in it.
“Steels.” Sam toasted him with his beer. He and Steels went back almost as far as he and Crystal. They’d swept the local T-ball league together way back when. “The girls are talking make overs.”
“No we’re not.” Crystal folded her arms across her chest and slumped in her seat.
“No one said you had to do it too,” Cami argued. She grinned at Parker. “I think it’ll be fun. Wait until you see the new sexy me.”
“Hey Cam,” Steels leaned forward, his hair spiked to a hard edge. “You having a sexy make over?”
She waved the gift certificate. “Looks that way.”
“Awesome, maybe you can be one of Kincaid’s calendar hotties.”
“What calendar hotties?” Parker asked.
Steels glanced over his shoulder, toward where Kincaid sat flanked by a blonde and a brunette. “He’s shooting a lingerie calendar. He’s looking for twelve hot babes to model sexy lingerie for it.” He shook his head. “The guy has got one tough job.”
“No thanks.” Cami snuggled closer to Parker. “This makeover is for my honey only.”
“That’s right.” Parker wrapped a protective arm around her. “She’ll be modeling her new lingerie for me and me alone.”
Steels shrugged. “I don’t think he’ll have any trouble finding the models he needs. He’s always got plenty of them making over him.”
Crystal bristled on the other side of Cami. A small growl of discontent escaped her. Sam followed her glare to where two more beautiful brunettes had planted themselves at Kincaid’s table.
“Come on, Crystal, you’re a hottie,” Sam couldn’t help but assure her.
Both Crystal and the brunette beside him turned wide-eyed looks his way. He lifted his hands in appeal. “It isn’t the clothes that make a woman. It’s the woman who makes the clothes.”
“Really?” A note of exasperation punctuated Crystal’s voice.
Sam held her gaze. How could she not know she was one of the world’s sexiest women? “Yes.”
“Great. I must do wonders for my low riders.” She popped up in her seat and turned to Cami and Parker. “I’m going shopping. Could you guys let me out?”
“Come on, stick around.” Sam reached for her hand.
The brunette nudged him with her elbow. “She wants to shop. Let her go.”
He blew out a breath as Crystal freed herself from the booth. Shopping? Though it wasn’t unlike her to set off at the drop of a hat, she never shopped. She must be upset.
She turned and saluted them. “It’s been great. Catch you guys later.”
“I’ll walk you out.” Sam started to rise, but the brunette clutched at his arm, her eyes issuing an ultimatum.
“Sam, don’t, or…”
“Or I won’t be here when you get back.”
He gave her a long, appraising stare. Well, at least this time he was doing the walking away. “I guess I’ll have to take my chances.”
With a nod to Cami, Parker and Steels, Sam strode after Crystal. He caught up with her in the parking lot. She looked upset and forlorn. Shoving his hands into his pockets to keep from reaching for her, he called to her, “Hey, want some company?”
She stopped with her hand on the car door. Her gaze met his and all the confusion and hurt in her eyes drew him another step closer. She said, “I’m going shopping.”
Was she that shook up over Kincaid? Sam stared at her for a long moment, the desire to pull her into his arms and comfort her overwhelming. He’d never been able to deny her wishes, though, and he couldn’t now.
“I heard,” he finally said. “Call me later if you need me. I’ll be around.”
“Hey.” Her eyes narrowed on him. “You okay?”
She nodded. “You seemed a little…peeved today. Everything all right? Nothing new with your dad?”
“No. He’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Sweetheart, I am the last person you need to worry about.”
“Okay. I’m off then.” She gave him a quick hug. She stepped into her car, then drove away.
* * *
The sun dipped low on the horizon. A breeze stirred through the open car windows, bringing with it the sweet scent of honeysuckle as Crystal pulled into the mall parking lot. A horn blared in the distance. She frowned and slammed her car into park.
Ron had shown up at their weekly games around six weeks ago. To her surprise, he and Sam had known each other, but with an uncharacteristic belligerence, Sam had refused to help set her up with his old acquaintance.
In spite of her own efforts in all that time, the man had barely spoken to her. Humiliation burned through her. He’d hardly noticed her because he saw her as one of the guys. Why hadn’t she ever realized it?
Because she never gave her appearance a second thought. The most she used her mirror for was to make sure her ponytail was straight. Usually, she did that by feel.
She got out of the car, then smoothed down her T-shirt. Her hair was still damp from the quick shower she’d taken after leaving the bar, so she’d left it loose for a change. She just hadn’t been able to sit there and watch those women fawn over him.
Now that she understood the problem, the solution was easy. Cami may have been on to something. Maybe this makeover idea wasn’t so bad, after all. Crystal could certainly use the experience in her upcoming articles.
All she had to do was help Ron to see that she wasn’t one of the guys. And the best way to do that was to show him she was every bit as sexy as any one of his calendar models.
In fact…she slowed as she approached the mall entrance…she could be one of his calendar models. The idea hit her with breathtaking force.
She’d make herself over–do up her makeup and hair, dress in something sexy, then she’d have dinner at the restaurant Jules said Ron frequented. She’d eat there every night if she had to, until she “bumped” into him. Once he noticed her, she’d seg into the subject of the calendar and they’d schedule a trial shoot.
How could she go wrong? There she’d be, the focus of his attention, while he snapped his pictures and encouraged her to pose different ways. The man would be hers.
She could do it. She could be one of Ron’s calendar hotties.