Game for Marriage
a Game for It novel by Karen Erickson
Struggling artist Sheridan Harper never imagined she’d spend a sizzling night with Jared Quinn, the smoking-hot star quarterback of her local professional football team, the San Jose Hawks. And she’s even more shocked when Jared’s publicist offers her a proposition: a fake marriage to keep Jared out of the gossip mags. Being that close to Jared would be too tempting, so to protect her heart, she insists on secretly including a clause forbidding sex between them.
Jared just wants to keep his starting QB job and keep it in San Jose. His reputation as a ladies’ man has landed him in the headlines one too many times, but there’s something about his kind, passionate new wife that tempts him beyond reason. Any sort of intimacy between them is completely forbidden, but as their bodies fall in deep, will their hearts follow suit?
Praise for Game for Marriage:
“A sexy, witty and winning touchdown of a story!”
- National Bestselling Author Lisa Renee Jones
© 2013 Karen Erickson
Sheridan Harper flashed a quick smile, her gaze never leaving the canvas as her hand streaked across it, deftly creating the scene before her with delicate strokes of the paintbrush. “Thank you.”
“Seriously. It’s amazing how you made something out of absolutely nothing.” He had a sexy voice, her new admirer, rich and deep. And as soon as she finished capturing her friend Willow handing over a sample of blue cotton candy to a potential client, she’d check him out and see if the voice matched the rest of him.
But first, she had to work.
“It’s like a photograph,” he continued, sounding truly impressed.
Which warmed her giddy heart. It was the entire reason she was there that night: to impress people, to gain new clients, and to fill her art studio with students eager to learn how to paint. She doubted the guy beside her wanted to paint. But maybe he had a wife or a girlfriend who would be interested…
“Well, that’s why I’m here. I’m live painting the event,” Sheridan explained. She’d have a wrecked wrist by the end of the night, but she couldn’t complain. The mega-exposure at the Taste of Monterey was worth the pain alone.
The annual event featured almost one hundred booths from local businesses and drew thousands of people in attendance. It was held at the convention center, and the building was packed, people’s voices a dull roar in her ears.
“Live painting, huh? Never heard of such a thing.”
“Well, every artist live paints I suppose, but I’m trying to catch as much as I can of the event as it unfolds. Then when it’s over, I’ll give the painting to the organizers as a sort of memento.” Sheridan dabbed a quick spot of the palest turquoise blue with her brush, a satisfied smile curling her lips as she turned to face her admirer.
And stopped dead in her tracks when she saw all six-foot-plus, mouthwatering gorgeousness of him.
He slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his full lips quirked in a not-quite smile. Everything about him read easygoing confidence, putting her immediately at ease despite his gargantuan size. He carried himself like a man who truly enjoyed women, one who knew exactly what they wanted even before they did.
And she recognized him, of course. She’d have to live under a rock not to. His reputation with women preceded him, in any case—he went through them as often as he changed underwear. Maybe even more.
“You’re…” She let the word die on her lips, too frazzled to continue when he flashed a brain cell–stealing grin at her.
“I am,” said Jared Quinn, star quarterback for the San Jose Hawks, with a slight shrug. She’d had no idea he’d be at the Taste of Monterey event that evening. “Have you ever considered live painting a football game?”
“I would love to,” she said automatically, her words tumbling out in a rush. She silently chastised herself. There was always being on the lookout for opportunities, and then there was being too eager and losing them because of it.
“My coach might like one.” His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled, his face burnished by the sun. His nose was sort of big, but it didn’t detract from his handsomeness. His crooked smile gave him a boyish charm. A faded scar stretched across the edge of his chin, roughing up the charm in the most appealing way. His hair was a rich brown, tinged with gold, and a tad overgrown so it waved at the nape. Movie-star handsome with the rabid female fans to confirm it, he was a major reason women watched football. “Actually, the owner would like one even more. You’re very talented.”
Her brain racked up the potential his words conjured. “I could create a painting for whoever wanted one; that wouldn’t be a problem.” Lord knew she needed the money. Just because she had an art studio on Ocean Avenue in Carmel didn’t mean she was rolling in it. She’d inherited the studio when her grandmother died more than a year ago. The location was prime, but so was the cost to maintain it. Sheridan was constantly busy, especially with the heavy load of classes she taught, but all that business was still barely able to pay the bills.
“I’d get first dibs, though, right?” He winked at her and her heart fluttered.
Stupid, reckless heart. It was a business transaction, not a flirtatious moment. And hadn’t Jared Quinn been involved in some sort of sordid scandal? She swore she’d read that recently in some gossip mag.
Not that she read gossip mags.
Okay, maybe she did, but it had been a while, since she was so busy. Usually she went to the local bookstore at least once a week with her friend Willow, where they both bought a latte and then sat side by side, flipping through the pages of the latest and greatest in gossipy news. Laughing, criticizing, and generally feeling better about themselves for at least a fleeting moment.
“Of course you’d get first dibs,” she said breathlessly. She winced. God, she sounded like a teenager with a mad crush on the captain of the football team.
“And a finder’s fee,” he added.
“Um…” She nibbled on her lower lip. Wasn’t this guy a multimillionaire? Not only did the Hawks pay him a ton of money, but he had plenty of endorsements, including one where he stood around in his underwear with the same smile he was directing toward her at that very moment.
A true panty-melter if she ever saw one.
He threw back his head and laughed, his beautiful, blue eyes sparkling when they finally landed on her. “Don’t worry, I was only kidding. I’m not that greedy.”
“Oh.” She laughed, feeling infinitely stupid. Blame it on the man—he unnerved her with his mere presence. It was much easier when she hadn’t looked at him, hadn’t known who he was.
“So, who exactly are you?”
Sheridan frowned. “What?” His rapid change of subject muddled her brain further.
He inclined his head in her direction. “Miss Live Painter, do you have a name?”
“Oh! Hold on.” She set her paintbrush on the table holding her supplies, and reached into the front pocket of her apron, pulling out a business card. She handed it to him. “Sheridan Harper.”
He took the card, his fingers grazing hers. The brief contact sent a scattering of gooseflesh over her skin, and she barely contained the shiver that threatened to take over. “Cute card, Sheridan Harper.”
Pride swelled in her chest. “I designed it myself.”
“I can tell.” His lids lifted, that stark gaze zeroed directly in on her.
A bazillion people surrounded them, the place packed and buzzing with restless energy. Yet the way Jared Quinn looked at her at that very moment, it was as if no one else existed in the room but the two of them. “You’re very talented,” he drawled.
“Thank you,” she said weakly. Why did it feel so good to hear the man’s praise? It gave her even more of a rush than when the average person admired her work. The way he looked at her, too. As if he liked what he saw…
She glanced down at her hot pink stilettos. They were her favorites, though far from comfortable. But her grandma always told her, “Beauty is pain…”
“You like them?” She held her foot out, turning it this way and that.
“Oh, yeah.” His deep voice was full of seductive appreciation. She couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he had a shoe fetish.
“I definitely want you to paint something for me.” No asking, just telling. And she really didn’t mind.
“I can do that,” she said breezily.
“Soon.” He smiled, easing the demand. “If that’s not a problem.”
He was impatient. And very charming. It was a most lethal combination. “Why don’t you call me tomorrow and make an appointment?”
“How about I come by and see you tomorrow? I’m free for the next few days before we begin practice.” When she frowned, he went on. “First pre-season game is scheduled next week.”
Oh. Her friends would just die if they saw her talking to Jared Quinn, if they knew she was going to have him come to her studio.
Her mind raced. Did she have any commitments tomorrow? It was a Saturday. A ladies’ night out class was scheduled but not ‘til the evening. Oh, and she had a private lesson in the afternoon. “That should work, though morning is best for me.”
“Good. Morning works for me, too.” He didn’t look necessarily relieved or worried she might tell him no. Had he ever heard the word “no” before? He was probably a man used to getting his way. “I should probably let you get back to your live painting.”
She glanced at the canvas. It wasn’t quite finished and there was still a lot to do before the night was over. “You’re right. I need to get back to work.” She offered him a smile. “Well, it was nice meeting you.”
“Nice meeting you, too. I’ll see you tomorrow. Is nine okay?”
“Sure, I’ll be at my studio. The address is on the card.”
“Got it. Great.” Flashing that devastating smile yet again, Jared left. She watched him go, her gaze lingering on his very fine backside. Not that she normally checked out men’s butts, but this one was particularly fine.
Everything about him was.
Shaking herself from the dream-like fog he’d put her under, she grabbed her brush and scanned the room, taking in each detail, trying to decide what to capture next. Her cell phone buzzed against her hip. She pulled it out of her skirt pocket to check the text message from Willow.
Were you just talking to star QB Jared Quinn??!!
Shaking her head, her fingers flew over the keyboard in reply.
Yep. He wants to buy a painting. An original work.
Less than a minute later came Willow’s response:
OMG that’s fantastic! Better share the deets later
Sheridan glanced up to see Willow giving her the thumbs-up from her booth down the aisle, which she returned with a subtle gesture. Willow ran a unique catering company, providing cotton candy and a few other sweet treats for birthday parties and small events. It was just starting to take off, her large variety of cotton candy flavors the biggest hit, especially among the younger set and at weddings.
Hence Willow’s appearance at A Taste of Monterey. With the various local vendors showcasing their stuff, Willow had jumped at the opportunity to grow her clientele.
Sheridan had been working her way around the event from the moment she arrived and her feet were killing her, especially in her ridiculous high heels. Scheduling a full day of classes on top of the event had been poor planning on her part.
She’d kill for a glass of wine and a foot massage. Could probably get both, considering the variety of businesses here. Didn’t seem people were too restricted by the “taste” aspect of the yearly event.
Enough daydreaming. Standing straight, she grabbed her paintbrush, taking in everything in front of her. The doors would close in little over an hour, and the crowd was starting to thin. She caught sight of Jared Quinn not too far down the line of booths, and he wasn’t alone.
It appeared he’d brought another teammate with him, if his sheer size was any indication. They were both huge, built like…well, football players. And of course, they were both terribly handsome.
The other one couldn’t hold a candle to Jared in her eyes, though. He really was gorgeous. Like, out of her league gorgeous.
The people of Monterey County were pretty blasé when it came to celebrities, since there were so many who came to the area. Quite a few lived there as well, occupying the large, sprawling, beachside estates on 17-Mile Drive, or the quaint cottages with exquisite ocean views in Carmel-by-the-Sea. So no one really paid the Hawks players any mind, only an occasional glance in their direction here and there.
Deciding to include them in her painting, Sheridan got to work, knitting her eyebrows as she went into full concentration mode, chewing on her lower lip. Her hand dashed across the canvas, the brush stroking the thick paint onto the blank space a satisfying sound.
Follow your bliss, her grandmother had always told her. Sheridan was lucky she loved her job so much. Painting was her life. She was consumed with her business, working hard to help it grow, and determined to become a huge success despite her mother’s doubts over her non-practical profession. Sheridan knew her mother thought she lived in a dream world, and would’ve preferred Sheridan sell the studio in such a lucrative neighborhood. That way, they’d make an enormous pot of money and they’d never have to worry again.
So not going to happen. At least, not yet.
Soon, she was caught up with her creation, carefully adding all of the minute details that helped make the painting that much more active. Trying to capture everything that unfolded all at once was tough, but she’d honed her skills over the years, becoming quicker with the brush, more observant of her surroundings. She didn’t do as many live paintings as she used to, but they were fun, if exhausting work.
“You look thirsty.”
A whispered shiver shot down her spine at the sound of the now-familiar voice. Arching her neck from side to side, she turned to find Jared standing before her once again, clutching a drink in his big hand.
Willow’s cotton candy cocktail was quickly becoming a major hit among the wedding reception customers. Sheridan had been lucky enough to help her create the cocktail, sampling one after another one late summer evening not that long ago, until they’d been more than a little tipsy. She smiled at the fond memory.
A particular drink she had a mad fondness for, luckily enough. He lifted it toward her as if he were toasting her.
“I really shouldn’t drink any alcohol while I’m working.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t.” The devilish expression on Jared’s face was irresistible. As was his offer. She was pretty thirsty, and though it wasn’t her earlier wished-for glass of wine, it would certainly do…
“It’ll be our secret.” She reached for the drink, their fingers brushing when he handed over the martini glass, and yet again, her body reacted. A jolt of awareness shot through her, making her extremely conscious of how close he stood to her. How big and muscular he was.
He watched her drink, his gaze seemingly locked on her lips as they curved around the rim of the glass, and heat suffused her. Could he be flirting? Was he interested? Hard to believe, considering he could have any woman he wanted, and he surely knew it.
Yet again, she was reminded that he’d recently been in the news. For something bad. Right? She wished she could remember. That was what happened when a person read too much gossip: it all got lumped in together.
“You like it?” he asked after she took a healthy sip.
“Love it. My friend makes these.”
“You know her?” Jared glanced over his shoulder, as did Sheridan. Willow wiggled her fingers at them both, a silly grin on her face, her slightly oversized black-framed glasses borderline ridiculous on her pretty face. A giant of a man stood nearby. “She’s cute. I think my friend likes her.”
Jared’s words piqued her curiosity. “A teammate, I presume?”
“How’d you know?” He sounded genuinely surprised.
“It’s not normal for two testosterone-charged men with finely muscled bodies to come wandering through our small town event. You kind of stand out.” She took another sip of the drink, the tart sweetness delicious on her tongue.
“You think we have finely muscled bodies, huh?”
He was teasing, she could tell by the tone of his voice, and she rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.” She waved a hand, as if she could dismiss her words. “Thank you for the drink.” He really should go. He was a huge distraction, just standing there, looking handsome, making it hard for her to concentrate. She needed to finish painting.
“You’re welcome.” His deep, rumbling voice set her nerve endings on fire. “So, when does this thing end?”
Hope rose in her chest despite the warnings going off in her head. Clearly, he was a player. A man looking for a female to conquer. She needed to remember that. “Nine o’clock.”
Jared glanced at his watch. It was beautiful…and probably cost as much as she made in a year. Maybe more. “About an hour, then.”
Panic rose within her, clutching her heart in a stranglehold. She drained her glass in one long swallow then thrust it into Jared’s hand. “Oh my God, I need to finish! I’m almost out of time.” Bending her head over her painting, she concentrated on finishing the scene, her hand moving even faster than normal.
“Maybe we could get together when it’s over,” he suggested. “Have another drink.”
Her heart leapt, but she kept her gaze trained on the canvas. Meeting up with him afterward wouldn’t be smart. He’d most likely use her for sex and then forget all about her.
So why didn’t that sound like such a bad idea? The use-her-for-sex part?
“Are you coming on to me, Jared Quinn?”
He chuckled. “That you have to ask means I must be doing a terrible job.”
“I’m not into one-night stands.” She looked at him, gaze narrowed, a little on the defensive. Okay fine, a lot on the defensive. But there was something almost too friendly about him in person. She swore the media portrayed him as constantly up to no good.
“You don’t hold back, do you?” He didn’t appear fazed whatsoever. Which kicked her suspicious radar straight into high gear.
So she decided to ask the question that kept rattling through her. “I swear I read somewhere you’ve been involved in…unsavory business. Of the female kind.” God, it must be the booze talking, even though she’d only had one, with a heaping teaspoon of stress on top. Normally she wasn’t so blunt or bold. And “unsavory business?” She sounded all sorts of crazy.
He shrugged those impossibly wide shoulders, but she saw the mask that settled over his face. Neutral, on guard, and impenetrable. “Don’t believe everything you read.”
“Hmm.” She frowned. Jared Quinn was definitely famous enough to be constant tabloid fodder. If she went out on a date with him, even for a measly few hours at a local bar, would she become tabloid fodder?
It was a most sobering thought. “So you really want to buy me a drink?”
“I really do. There’s a bar next door to the convention center. We could meet there after.” He sounded sincere. And hey, it could be a story to tell her grandchildren when she was an old lady sitting in her creaky rocking chair. Once upon a time, my children, I went on a brief date with a very famous, Super Bowl–winning football player. It was magical. And boy, the man could kiss, though that’s another story for another time…
Ha. If she personally discovered that particular skill of his, then she’d consider herself lucky. Not that she was looking to kiss famous football players.
But she certainly wouldn’t protest if it happened.
She was smokin’ hot, the quirky little artist with the clean paintbrush tucked behind her ear and a streak of white paint smeared across her cheek. She wore a black skirt that showcased a great set of legs and her hair was thick and wavy as it tumbled past her shoulders, a light brown color woven with varying shades of gold. Bubbly, like a glass of champagne, her smile easy and bright. She damn near sparkled.
And she’d caught Jared’s attention the first moment he spotted her.
Nick was busy chatting up other women at the event, which was fine by him. Not that he’d come that night to seek out women. But he’d been drawn to the artist from the start.
He wanted to take her for a drink. And if she was agreeable, maybe take her back to his place.
Yet again, he cast an appreciative glance over the very shapely and very pretty Sheridan Harper. Yeah, she’d sort of called him on his shit, which he appreciated. People rarely did, with the exception of those in his very small inner circle. Plus his image hadn’t been the best in the media lately, so he’d been avoiding public appearances at all costs. Not that anything they printed was completely accurate.
Jared frowned. Well, some of it was. But the majority of the time, it was all a bunch of made-up bullshit.
“She’s perfect, you know.”
Jared stiffened. Bringing the Hawks’ publicist with him to the Taste of Monterey that night had been a mistake, not that he’d had a choice. Harvey Price was a man on a mission—one that Jared didn’t necessarily agree with. But he’d insisted on accompanying Jared and Nick and they hadn’t the heart to protest.
Plus, if they did, they’d feel the wrath of their new owner, who treated them like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.
“Who’s perfect?” Jared feigned ignorance.
Harvey chuckled. “You know exactly who I’m talking about. The pretty little artist you were talking with. Sheridan Harper.”
How did Harvey know her name? He’d probably been lurking in the shadows, listening to every word they’d said. “Perfect for what?” Jared sounded ridiculously innocent, even to his own ears.
“Please.” Harvey snorted. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Whatever you’re about to suggest, don’t bother. I’m not interested.”
“Tough shit. You need to be interested. I heard you ask her out for a drink. Let me go with you two.” Harvey crossed his arms in front of him. “I can question her. Figure out if she’s right for you or not.”
Harvey’s expression went from easy to stern in two seconds flat.
Jared hated the new team publicist. Hated even more that he’d started shadowing Jared’s every move. Nick could hardly escape him, either. “I forbid you from trying to get in this girl’s pants. Seriously. You need to change your image, not make it worse. I’m not going to put in all this time trying to straighten you out just for you to ruin everything for a quick fuck with a down-on-her-luck woman.”
“Jesus, who the hell are you, telling me what to do? You really think the first woman I chat with tonight I’m going to automatically take somewhere and bang her brains out?” Never mind the fact he’d already considered taking Sheridan somewhere and banging her brains out.
Jared strode away, anger simmering low in his gut. He did not need that shit. Not then, not ever. So Craig Wallace’s wife sat in his lap at a club—so what? That someone had snapped candid shots with their cell camera and sold them to the highest bidder irritated him to no end. That the media tried to portray him as some womanizing pig, hell-bent on destroying a marriage set his blood to boiling.
It felt like he’d been set up; he’d actually wondered more than once if he had. Craig always had a hate-on for him. When Craig had been traded to another team, Jared certainly hadn’t shed a tear. He’d practically cheered and danced in the locker room, truth be told.
He still didn’t understand the media massacre, their instant and now incessant fixation on him. Who the hell had he pissed off so thoroughly?
“Listen, we need to get this handled and quick. They’re breathing down our necks.” Harvey followed him, persistent as ever, until they both stopped in a mostly abandoned corner of the cavernous room. “I’ll accompany you and the artist and we’ll go to a small, quiet bar. Somewhere discreet. We’ll feel her out, see if she might be interested, and if it’s a go, I’ll set up an appointment with the lawyers.”
Lawyers. Shady bastards, every one of them. “You are not coming with us tonight. And do you really think she’ll be interested, Harvey? Give me a break. No woman would agree to something like what you’re suggesting.” Jared crossed his arms in front of him. What sane woman would? It was the craziest shit he’d ever heard.
Harvey waved his phone in Jared’s face. “I did a little Google research while you were chatting her up. She’s broke as a joke and in desperate need for some free advertising for her business before she loses it all.”
Snagging Harvey’s phone, Jared glanced at the screen and read the article, which was more of a compilation of happenings in and around Carmel from a local blog. It included a mention of Sheridan’s tiny studio in downtown Carmel, and provided rampant speculation that it might be up for sale by the end of the month.
Jared frowned. Well, that sucked. He wondered if she really was in bad financial shape. He could sympathize—it hadn’t been that long ago when he and his dad lived in a crappy apartment and struggled to pay for necessities, let alone luxuries. Thank God his dad had always viewed football—and all the expenses that came with it—as a necessity.
“I don’t want to discuss this here.” He thrust the phone back into Harvey’s hand. Crowds of people swarmed inside the building and plenty of curious glances were sent in his direction. That Harvey wanted to talk in public was risky as hell.
If anyone got wind of what the new owner of the Hawks wanted him to do—what Jared’s entire publicity and management team wanted him to do—he’d look like the laughingstock of the entire NFL.
The look on Harvey’s face said it all. “Quit playing games, Jared. Any woman under the age of thirty would kill for this chance. And I think Sheridan Harper is an excellent candidate to become your new wife.”