Mask of the Queen

MJ Compton

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Skye Schuyler’s business is failing because of a reporter’s lies, yet telling the truth about baseball player Tag Gentry’s injuries would destroy him. She loves him too much to betray his confidence. But his marriage proposa...
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Skye Schuyler’s business is failing because of a reporter’s lies, yet telling the truth about baseball player Tag Gentry’s injuries would destroy him. She loves him too much to betray his confidence. But his marriage proposal is only damage control, suggested by his agent, and Skye wants more from a relationship than Tag seems willing to offer.

Tag won’t take no for an answer. It’s bad enough an injury cost him his career, but now he seems to be losing his best friend, too. He can’t figure out why Skye won’t marry him when marriage to him should convince everyone she didn’t betray his secrets to that reporter. Wanting to fight every man who comes into contact with Skye doesn’t mean he’s jealous, despite what his brothers think. He wants to protect her the way she’s been guarding his secret.

But when a vicious attack on Skye’s business also threatens her life, Tag is forced to reevaluate not only his feelings for her, but also his plans for the future. Now all he has to do is convince Skye to unmask her true feelings and join his team...permanently.

Excerpt
“I get the feeling we’re not on the same page here,” he said as he forced his way into her space. He looked around, taking mental note of the kitchen. Her new used stove, not the outrageously expensive one she wanted. Butcher-block and granite counters. Intense overhead lighting to make up for a lack of windows.

“Look, I just had a really crappy meeting. Okay? I don’t need any attitude from you.” She flounced to the center island and perched on a stool. A lone mug sat on the wooden surface, its contents steaming.

Tag sat opposite her. He liked hanging with her. This kitchen, with its exposed brick walls, suited her. She was wearing his favorite teal sweater, which enhanced the color of her eyes and molded her breasts the way he liked his hands to cup her.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. He knew he’d have to pry her problems out of her. That was just the way she was. Private. Not secretive—just not forthcoming with all her business.

“I told you about the event I’m doing for the JCC,” she said. “I met with the new director today, and he’s not comfortable that I’m not Jewish.”

“You’re not Japanese either, but you make a mean California roll.”

She picked up her cup and drank, peering at him over the yellow rim the entire time. Then she set the mug on the counter. “That’s not quite it. They have concerns over security. Hate crimes have increased over the past several months.”

“What does that have to do with you?” Anyone who thought Red was a hater needed their head examined.

She hesitated. “Nothing. They’re just concerned. Do you want something to drink?”

“I’m good. So when are we going shopping?” No point beating around the bush.

“Shopping?” A vee formed between her eyebrows. “For what?”

“A ring. A diamond ring. You know, to formalize our engagement.”

Red stared at him for several seconds before answering. “You’re not serious.”

“I’m completely serious. I do not joke about things like my freedom.”

“Come on. You know I said I’d marry you just to get out of New Orleans in one piece.”

Her voice cracked. Hairline fracture.

Something else was going on with her. And he didn’t like her casual attitude. He’d been serious about marriage. Yeah, it bothered him that she apparently didn’t care about him the way he did her. “I guess I didn’t get the memo,” he grumbled.

Maybe it was time to start dating her, but what did people do on dates? He felt funny asking her out to dinner, because she was an amazing cook. Baseball season was still several weeks away, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to the ballpark if he couldn’t play. A movie? He’d never understood why someone would go to the movies on a first date. They weren’t like a baseball game, where you could talk but still follow the action on the field.

He’d never had to come up with ideas before. He was Tag Gentry. Women asked him out, and by out, they usually meant to bed. What else was there besides dinner, baseball games, and movies? It wasn’t as if he could ski, either on snow or the water. He might be able to manage miniature golf. If he had a cart and actually knew how to play, he could golf. The idea intrigued him. He’d played some in high school. A ball. A club or a bat. Green grass.

“So you don’t want to go shopping. Fine. What about a movie?”

“No, but thanks.” She took another sip from her mug. “I’m so tired, I’d probably fall asleep.”

“What do you like to do?” he asked.

Red started. “What do you mean?”

“For fun. What do you do for fun?”

“I cook. I try new recipes. I read.”

“No. For fun. Cooking and recipes and reading are work.”

“No. I like to read. Historical romance novels.”

Tag didn’t know what to say to that. Reading was something he’d done to get through high school so he could play ball.

“You don’t hike or swim or jog?” He couldn’t imagine a life without movement. Without action.

Red wrinkled her nose. “No. I told you before. My father moved me around a lot when I was a kid. I’m all for staying put.”

If he was going to date her, get to know her, he had to figure out something. She wasn’t helping at all. “Well, what do you want to do?”

“I want to finish my tea and work on my plans for the Purim Carnival.”

“The what?”

“The job I have for the JCC. Every year, they have a carnival in their gym. It’s one of the Jewish holidays.”

“How did you get that job?”

“I pitched them after I got my kosher certification. Why?”

“It just seems like a strange thing for you to do.”

“If you think that, then you don’t know me at all.”

“Not for lack of trying,” he muttered.

But that wasn’t quite true. Their relationship to this point had been about him. Red taking care of him. Watching out for him. Oh, he’d been able to stop Drake Dixon’s attempted rape of her, maybe even twice. But of all the hours they’d spent in each other’s company, most of them had been about him. Or sex.

Sex was good. He nearly always wanted sex. Especially when the sex was with Red. But there hadn’t been much of that lately either. Nor was he sure he could maneuver two flights of stairs to her apartment. So unless she was willing to head out to his penthouse in a much nicer part of the city, there probably wouldn’t be any sex today.

He eyed the counter. Too high, unless he leaned her over it, and even then, he figured she might protest about how unsanitary fucking in her kitchen would be.

“So you want to grab a bite to eat?” Okay, he was desperate.

“What is up with you?” she asked. “Why are you acting so weird?”

“What’s so weird about asking you out?”

“We hang. We have sex. We don’t go out.”

“Well, maybe we should.”

“Why?”

“To get to know each other.”

“We know each other just fine.”

“Yeah? What’s my favorite color?”

“Columbia Gem teal. Like my sweater.”

Yeah. Of course she knew that. She’d gotten him a cane with teal pinstriping on it. He’d really liked the cane. But it had been stolen and destroyed in New Orleans.

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Sky blue pink,” she replied. “Tag, what has gotten into you?”

He arranged his face into a leer. “It’s more like what I’ve gotten into, and that would be you.”

Her shoulders slumped, as if she’d been tense and could finally relax. Since when was Red uptight around him? She was supposed to be at ease. Happy. Secure.

Something was wrong. Not as wrong as things had been in New Orleans, but still not the way they’d been before pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. Before she’d gone to Florida with the rest of the team.

“Do you want to see if there’s a spring training game on TV?”

“I don’t have cable or a satellite dish,” she said. “No time to watch, remember?”

That and her strict budget. She was really good at denying herself. Like denying herself him.

He reached for her hand. He’d never noticed how finely boned her fingers were. He’d watched her wield a knife, watched her beat the hell out of raw chicken with a mallet, but had never paid attention to the hand that gripped the tools.

Something so fragile shouldn’t be as strong and capable as Red was.

He’d never noticed anyone’s hands before. Baseball players wore batting gloves or fielding gloves. He couldn’t help but smile when he thought of Red in her oven mitts.

“What?” she asked.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your goldfish?” He’d been teasing her about having a goldfish almost since he’d met her.

“I don’t want you to corrupt her,” Red replied.

He couldn’t tell if she was returning the grief or if she was serious.

“She’s getting nice and fat, just in time for Passover, when I’ll turn her into a gefilte fish. Stress will make her lose weight.”

That went over his head.

“Besides, I doubt you can climb to the third floor.”

“You’re right.” He was better than he’d been, but he was nowhere near 100 percent. And he never would be. When he’d left New Orleans, he’d left behind the most innovative physical therapy in the country for his type of injury. But Hector Michaud, genius physical therapist, had been blunt at their last session. Tag would never regain full use of his leg. He would never play another major-league baseball game. His limp was never going away but would stay with him forever, like a pungent, never-ending fart.

Not that he’d shared that information with anyone, not even Bluto, his therapist in Columbia.

“The fact that I’m here, knowing full well I can’t manage the stairs to your bed ought to tell you something.” He practically grumbled the words. He shouldn’t have had to point that out to her.

“That’s why I can’t figure out why you are here,” she replied.

“Why can’t you believe I miss you?”

Her lagoon-colored gaze leveled on him, as calm and bright as a day on the beach. “We got home yesterday. I’m trying to regroup from New Orleans.”

He could understand that.

“I’m trying to forget that Drake Dixon has quite possibly destroyed any chance I ever had at being a successful caterer or anything else, for that matter. That your pal Noah Nash helped him.”

“Nash was never my pal.” But Red didn’t seem to hear him.

“And that your girlfriend played a major part in that destruction. You can prove you weren’t doping. I can’t prove anything.” Bitterness dripped from every word.

“Terra wasn’t my girlfriend. I fucked her once in a while.”

“And you fucked me once in a while. And now it’s over.”

“Over?” The word was a physical blow. If she’d kneed him in the balls or taken a cane to his bad knee, he couldn’t have been more surprised. “Since when do friendships end unless one person betrays the other?” There hadn’t been a moment when he’d believed she’d sent the e-mail containing a photo of a packing slip for anabolic steroids to the press. He’d even seen the e-mail, and not once did he entertain the thought that Red was behind it.

Her wonderful, luscious lips thinned. “Unless the friendship itself becomes a betrayal.”

Another body blow. He nearly staggered. “What are you talking about?”

The brightness in her eyes was the sheen of unshed tears. He saw that now. “I’m talking about this whole friends-with-benefits thing. Turns out it wasn’t very beneficial to me at all.”

Copyright © MJ Compton

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