It made his palms itch for a bat.
It made his gut twist as, once again, he contemplated the possible monumental insanity that had led him to buy a baseball team with his two best friends. He still suspected Alex had put something in that very good bourbon they’d been drinking when he’d gotten Mal to say yes to his crazy proposal. Or maybe Lucas. Lucas was the doctor. He had plenty of access to drugs.
Still here he was. New York. Though, right at this moment, Staten Island. Part owner of the worst team in the major leagues. The New York Saints. And currently in charge of bringing the security in their stadium up to scratch.
That wiped the grin from his face. Deacon Field was a rabbit warren. A beat-up crazy rabbit warren. Figuring out how to keep it, the players, and the people who would fill the seats safe—because if one thing was for damned sure, it was that no one was getting hurt in his ballpark—had been keeping him awake at night for months now.
Rabbit warren or not, Deacon would be safe.
There would be no repeat of the attack that had changed his life, and the life of his two best friends, now his partners in the rabbit warren and the team that played in it. No explosions and fire and death caused by deluded evil.
Not on his watch.
He’d had a practically half a squadron of contractors in here doing what they could but there were limits to what could be achieved without some major remodeling.
Which wasn’t feasible with their budget or the time they’d had before the season started. In fact, he was starting to think the only way it would be feasible to do the work that really needed to be done was if the Saints relocated to a different field for a season. A choice that wasn’t going to be popular with their fans. If it could be done at all.
Yet another thing to worry about.
And now there was only one week left until the first game and he had a to-do list that was so long, he didn’t want to think about it.
Lack of sleep wouldn’t kill him, though, and he found himself arriving for work at the crack of dawn each day, heading for Deacon Field first instead of his own offices and climbing to a different part of the stadium to sit and smell the air. Today, finally, he’d let himself into the owners’ box, sliding back the windows to let the early-morning air seep in and carry the smell up to him.
It was the closest to peaceful things got these days, these first few minutes. The rest was sheer chaos.
Good thing he liked chaos.
OOH, BABY SHAKE IT!
Music smashed through the morning silence. His eyes flew open. What the fuck?
SHAKE BABY, SHAKE IT!
Mal stalked to the front of the box, stared down at the field. Took in the twenty or so women wearing skimpy little gym bras and leggings and shorts and groaned. He’d forgotten the damned cheerleaders.
SHAKE IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT!
He gritted his teeth. Cheerleaders. Hell. Baseball teams didn’t have cheerleaders. Adam could call ’em a dance troupe and spout off about getting butts on seats all he wanted but they were cheerleaders and they didn’t belong in baseball. No matter how good they might look prancing around down there, all long legs and long hair and big boobs.
He allowed himself a moment to appreciate the view and found his eyes drawn to the woman at the front of the squad. The one in charge, judging by the way the others were following her moves as she bent and stretched in ways that were arresting despite the goddamned annoying music.
Half a foot shorter than the shortest of the others, her hair a vivid, slick of cropped scarlet—unlike the long falls of blond and brunette surrounding her—she was also built sleeker. She lacked the curves that were testing the limits of the Lycra worn by the others, but as the music changed to some sort of sinuous beat and she started to demonstrate a kind of twisting hip-shimmy thing, he felt his mouth go bone-dry.
It was surprising the turf beneath her feet wasn’t scorching with each coiling move she made.
Sex on legs.
He blinked, tried to bring his mind back to the job at hand.
Hot or not, he didn’t remember clearing a cheerleading practice for this morning. That meant he had to go down there and find out what the hell she was doing on his field.
“And five, six, seven, eight.” Raina Easton bounced to her left, expecting the squad of dancers in front of her to mirror the move. Instead, to a woman they stayed right where they were standing, looking past her shoulder, varying expressions of surprise, approval, and assessment on their faces. Uh-oh. She spun on her heel and took in the very tall man striding across the ballpark toward them, wearing jeans, a dark-gray T-shirt, a perfectly beaten-up black leather jacket, and a thunderous expression.
She knew who he was. The other one. She’d met Alex Winters—he of the shirt/blazer/jeans/GQ good looks—when he’d interviewed her for this position. She’d met Lucas Angelo—six feet plus of immaculate suit, gorgeous Italian model face, and divine blue eyes—when she’d been talking to the team doctor about the training plans for her dance squad. But she hadn’t yet met the last of the three men who’d bought the Saints.
Malachi Coulter. She’d wondered about him. A girl would have to be made of stone not to wonder what the last third of the trio might be like when the first two were so delectable. And she’d never claimed to be made of stone. Not in the slightest.
Though the man walking toward her might be. His expression was pretty stony. It didn’t make his face, which was angles and jaw and deep dark eyes, any less appealing. He looked, as her grandma might have said, like a big ol’ parcel of man trouble. Her favorite kind. Or rather, her former favorite kind.
Bad boy written all over him.
Pity he was sort of her boss. No. Not a pity. A very good thing. It would help her remember that bad boy was her former preference. Still, regardless of her stance on bosses or bad boys, there was nothing to say she couldn’t enjoy the view. Or the irony of his approach being backed by a song about men who drove you crazy.
She summoned her best knock-’em-dead-in-the-back-stalls smile as he reached her and extended her hand. “Hi. I’m Raina Easton, your dance director.”
He didn’t take her hand. She raised an eyebrow. He didn’t change his expression. She sighed and dropped her hand back to her side. “What can I do for you, Mr. Coulter?”
“I didn’t clear anyone for the field this morning.”
Damn. His voice fit the rest of him. It rumbled pleasingly. It made her girl parts want to shake pom-poms and she wasn’t a cheerleader. Imagine what it might do if he didn’t sound so pissed.
She squelched the thought. She wasn’t going to imagine any such thing.
“The dance practice schedule was agreed a week ago,” she said, wishing she wasn’t in practice clothes and very flat dance sneakers. With a few-inch boost from her favorite heels, he wouldn’t loom over her quite so much.
“You’re supposed to get a security clearance from me before entering the stadium.”
Oh dear. He was going to be one of those. Tall, dark, and grim. Pity. She didn’t do humorless. Life was too short for men who couldn’t make you laugh. And right now she didn’t do men at all.
“I’m sorry, nobody told me.” She tried a smile. “I swear we’re not some other team’s troupe sneaking in for illicit practice.” She was tempted to add a line about it being pretty hard to conceal a weapon in a crop top but figured that would be pushing her luck. Besides, if he announced he was going to search anyone she’d likely be trampled by the dancers behind her stampeding to be first in line.
Mal’s gaze lifted, scanned the women behind her, then returned to her, looking no more pleased than previously. “Other baseball teams don’t have cheerleaders.”
He sounded like he thought that was a very good thing. She wasn’t going to let on that she agreed with him. Alex Winters was paying her a boatload of money to whip his dancers into a lean mean cheering machine, and she was keeping her opinions about cheerleaders and baseball being sacrilege firmly to herself. She had plans for that boatload of money. Which meant she also had to make nice to Malachi Coulter. “Dance troupe, not cheerleaders,” she said, tilting her head back to meet his eyes. “Now, we’ve only got another hour of practice. Can we stay or do you need us to leave?” She hit him with another smile.
“You can stay,” he said after a pause in which the only noise was the pounding of drums and squealing guitars as the song on the sound system built to a crescendo. “But come and see me when you’re done.”
“Sure,” she said after a little pause of her own. “I look forward to it.” Then she turned back to the dancers so she wouldn’t watch him walk away.
Two hours later, Raina finished slicking on lip gloss and decided that she’d needed to stop procrastinating. She’d spent longer than she should showering and changing after the practice session and talking to the women in the squad. She’d only met most of them a week ago at the auditions and she was still trying to get a feel for their personalities and strengths. They could all dance. She’d put her foot down about that and nixed a couple of the more blond and busty candidates who had looked freaking spectacular but had been less than blessed in the coordination and moving to music with some understanding of the basics of a beat and rhythm department. But just being able to dance wouldn’t necessarily turn them into a team fast enough for her liking.
It took time for personalities to gel and right now it wasn’t helping her cause that the best dancer of them all—the truly stunning green-eyed, dark-haired Ana—was shaping up to a be a diva of the pit viper temperament variety.
Still, this was a rush job and she didn’t have time to hire any more dancers, let alone give up one as good as Ana, so she was just going to have to do her best. Think of the very nice chunk of change she would be earning and give up on the idea of spare time for a couple of months.
But none of that changed the fact that she still had to beard the boss man in his den, so to speak. The tall, dark, grumpy, and disturbingly handsome boss man.
No chickening out just because he’d sent her hormones ratcheting into high alert.
He had that bad-boy vibe practically radiating for miles around him. There was the slightly too long hair. The jeans and T-shirt I don’t care outfit. Alex Winters had worn jeans and a dark-gray blazer when she’d met him, but his jeans had been 100 percent designer. Whereas she was pretty certain that Malachi Coulter’s were well-worn Levi’s that had come by their faded patches and mysterious stains honestly.
There was also the tattoo snaking down his arm. She hadn’t let herself focus on the design, only noticing the bold color and geometric black edges before she’d looked away.
And if she’d had to put money on it, she would have bet a fair portion of her next Saints paycheck that the big black motorcycle she’d spotted in the parking lot earlier belonged to him, too. He was, after all, wearing a well-worn pair of biker boots.
So the bad boy. Even if he was bad boy made good—he was part owner of a baseball team—he was still a bad boy.
And she’d sworn off bad boys.
But necessary for her sanity.
She grabbed her things, stuffed them into her bag, and headed out of the locker room—which she suspected, based on the aroma of fresh paint, hadn’t been a female locker room until shortly before Alex had hired her and held his auditions.
The next week in particular was going to be hell. By taking this job at the last minute, she’d managed to give herself the mother of all scheduling headaches. Her next big themed review at the club was starting the same weekend as baseball season. Which meant days here on Staten Island making the Fallen Angels—she hadn’t been able to change Alex Winter’s mind about the ridiculousness of that name—baseball’s next big thing in dance troupes, and then nights and any other spare seconds rehearsing at Madame R before they opened for the night.
Which left her, as far as she could figure it, maybe six hours a day for sleeping, eating, and basic hygiene.
She was going to need a lot of caffeine. And possibly a clone army.
She reached the reception desk after riding the creaky lift up to the office tower where the Saints’ management and administration operated and smiled to discover the blonde she’d met earlier in the week wasn’t there. Instead a woman with shoulder-length light-brown hair and blue eyes was sitting behind the desk. “Hi. Where might I find Malachi Coulter’s office?”
The woman looked up from her computer screen. “Does Mal know what this is about?”
“He asked me to come by,” Raina said. “The name’s Raina Easton.”
Blue eyes lit. “You’re the dance coach? Is that the right word?”
“It’s as good as any,” Raina said. “And yes, guilty as charged.”
“I’ve been hearing all about you,” the woman said. “I’m Sara. Sara Charles. I fly the team’s helicopter.”
“And man reception?”
Sara shrugged. “Just helping out while Tora has her break. Anyway, I’ll let Mal know you’re here.” She picked up the headset on the desk—which gave Raina a lovely view of the sizable diamond gracing the ring finger of her left hand, a diamond that was an amazing shimmering blue that matched Sara’s eyes—put it on, and touched something on the computer screen in front of her.
“Mal,” Sara said after a moment. “Raina Easton is here to see you. Okay, I’ll send her around.”
She touched the screen again and pulled the headset off with ease. Once again the ring sparked in the light.
“He said to come ’round. You take this corridor then the second turn right, and his office is the end of the row.”
“Thanks,” Raina said. “Nice ring, by the way.”
Sara went pink. “It’s kind of big. Lucas insisted.”
“You’re engaged to Lucas Angelo?” Raina gave herself a mental smack. She should have known that. It paid to know the people hiring you.
“Yeah. It’s still sinking in.”
“Well, congratulations. He obviously has excellent taste in jewelry and women, if not baseball teams.”
“You’re not a Saints fan?” Sara grinned at her.
“Born and bred by die-hard Yankees supporters. I think I’d have been disowned if I didn’t follow the family tradition.”
Sara laughed. “Well, at least you understand baseball,” she said. “I didn’t know a catcher from an curveball a few months ago.”
“You don’t like baseball?”
“Spent my formative years at airfields, not ballparks.”
“That much, I understand,” Raina said. “I spent most of mine in dance studios and auditoriums. But with three baseball-mad brothers, it’s hard to avoid it completely. Listen, I should get going, but you’ll have to tell me about helicopters sometime.”
“You like to fly?”
“Never been in a chopper. Did a bit of ultragliding back in my misspent youth.”
Sara’s smile widened. “I prefer something with a nice solid motor keeping me up in the air.”
“These days, so do I,” Raina said. Not that she’d had time to fly anywhere in anything lately. Madame R kept her pretty busy. “But I’d better go or the boss man will be cranky.”
“His bark is worse than his bite,” Sara said.
“Oh, I figured that part out,” Raina said. “But he’s still signing the paycheck.”
She smiled a good-bye and headed off in the direction Sara had given. In the minute or two it took her to find her way, the nerves returned, a fleet of butterflies apparently trying out their step-ball-change skills in her stomach.
Malachi Coulter’s bark might be worse than his bite but she had the feeling she didn’t want to really see him growling.
She wasn’t sure that she wanted to see him in a good mood, either. Add a smile to the chiseled lines of that face and a girl might be in serious trouble, anti-bad-boy resolutions or not.
The door to the office at the end of the hall was open. She took a breath and stepped into the doorway.
Malachi was sitting at a desk, but his chair was turned to face a bank of monitors showing what she assumed was security footage of the ballpark.
“I thought security offices were always down in the basement,” she said. “They are in the movies.”
The chair swung back around to her. She tried to ignore the tiny curl in her stomach as she took in that face again.
“Ms. Easton. Done with your practice?” Mal said.
“For now.” She walked into the office, not waiting for his invitation, and put her bag down near the desk. She jerked her chin at the bank of screens, feeling a little bit of tech envy. She had security as good as she could afford at her club but that was still limited to cameras on the main floor, with a few others covering strategic points in the building and the entrances and exits. The twelve monitors behind Malachi’s desk each showed views from four cameras, and she suspected they rotated through even more than that. “Nice setup.”
His eyebrows rose. “Just the key feeds,” he said. “Our main monitoring room is on one of the lower levels. Close enough to a basement, I guess.”
“I can’t imagine having to run crowd control for a place this size,” Raina said. “Must take a hell of a lot of people.”
“Yes, it does.” Malachi said. He tilted his head at her. “Security isn’t a subject I’d expect a dancer to know a lot about.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I ran away with a rock band when I was a teenager and spent my formative years hanging out with roadies and security teams.”
He shook his head. “According to your background check, you spent your teenage years in a number of different schools around the country until you landed in New York for Juilliard. Where you lasted a year before you started working on Broadway.”
They’d done a background check on her? Well, she shouldn’t be surprised. Alex Winters wasn’t the kind of guy not to obtain all the information he needed. And Malachi didn’t strike her as any more easygoing. “Busted. No rock bands for me. Well, not the kind with arena tours. But dancers spend their lives in theaters and other venues. And these days, those come with security. I pay attention.”
“I guess burlesque clubs come with security, too,” he said.
“Yes, they do,” she said. So he knew about the club. And what she did these days. She waited to see what he said next. A lot of people assumed burlesque meant stripper. Mal said nothing. “But not like this,” she added, nodding at the monitors as she tried to figure out what silence meant.
“That might be a good thing,” Mal said. Then he waved a hand at the chair. “Please, sit.”
She waited for him to say something else, but he didn’t. Man of little words, this one. “So, you asked to see me?” she said as she sank into the chair. The dark brown leather was old and soft and she ran her hand over the arm, appreciating the feel of it. “Is there a problem?”
“Just thought we should get things straight about the security protocol around here.”
“O-kay.” She leaned back in the chair. “I’m sorry, no one told me that I had to do anything about security. I sent my practice schedule to Alex days ago.”
“It’s probably still sitting in his in-box,” Mal said. “He’s been flying back and forth to Florida every other day with the end of spring training.”
“So I should send it to you as well?”
He nodded. “Then you’ll be in the system and we can leave passes for you all at the gate for next time.”
She rummaged in her bag for her phone and then opened her contacts. Held it out to him. “Fine. Give me your email and we’ll be all set.”
He took the phone. As his head bent as he typed, his hair fell forward over his face and she had another flash of Oh Lord, he’s attractive. In a perfect world he’d be giving her his details for a whole ’nother reason . . . but this wasn’t a perfect world, and she’d learned over the years that men like Mal were among the least perfect things in it.
“There.” He passed the phone back to her and his fingers brushed hers. Brushed and lingered. Just for a second or two. Then she pulled her hand back, resisting the urge to shake it to get rid of the tingle in her skin.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll send you that schedule.”
“Good. And I’ll send you where you’ll be practicing.”
“What do you mean where?”
“You can’t use the main field every time.”
She sat up a little straighter. “Why not? It’s best for the girls to be familiar with where they’re going to be performing.”
“Sometimes it’s not available. The ground staff will be doing things to the field or the team might need to use it. They’ll be back from Florida this week. Which reminds me, I’d appreciate it if you’d tell your dancers that the players are off limits.”
“You heard me.”
“How about you tell your baseball players that the dancers are off limits?” she said. “In my experience it’s more likely to be the guys hitting on the girls, rather than the other way around.”
Mal shrugged. “Well, in my experience when the guy comes with a nice fat bank account, that’s less likely to be true.”
“You did not just say that,” she said. “You think that my dancers will be panting after your baseballers?” She had to admit it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility; a couple of the girls on the squad were single. Still, in her experience, professional dancers were just that. Professional. They wanted to dance. And they wanted the paycheck.
“This is Major League Baseball. Girls are always after the players.”
“Poor things. Obviously they’re incapable of resisting the wiles of evil women?”
Mal shook his head. “I didn’t mean that. I just meant it’s not unheard of for women to go after rich athletes for their money.”
Raina narrowed her eyes. “This is New York. There are two other baseball teams in town where the guys are a lot better paid than the Saints players.” The Saints were just about the worst team in the league. She knew that much. Her mom’s dad had been a Saints fan.
“True. But our guys are still earning more money than a lot of people. Things will be simpler for everyone if everyone just keeps their distance.”
“Which brings me back to how about you give this speech to your guys. They can keep it zipped.” She was starting to think that she’d been right in her initial assessment. He was tall, dark, and grumpy. Which was a good thing, she told herself. It would make his exterior much easier to ignore if he was going to be cranky all the time.
“Trust me, I will be,” Mal said.
“Good,” Raina said. “I’ll tell the squad, too.” Her phone buzzed in her hand and she glanced down at the screen. Message from Luis. Damn. That meant something was going on at the club.
“Something wrong?” Mal asked.
She shook her head. “No. Just business.” She stood. “Was there anything else? I’m sure you have a lot on your plate.”
He studied her a moment, dark eyes inscrutable. She wondered, because she was clearly an idiot, if she’d see any other colors in that very dark brown if she got up close. Which she wasn’t going to do. Ever. Though even as she thought it she felt the first tiny move of her muscles swaying toward him.
Not going to happen. Dancer’s instinct saved her and she froze before she could make the movement for real. Feeling heat rise in her face, she took a step back, then bent to grab her bag again to disguise both the retreat and the blush.
“Nothing else. For now.”
There was a world of interpretation that could be made of those last two words and the deep rumble of the voice saying them. Her cheeks went hotter, and she forced herself to hang on to the most sensible version. That he really did have nothing more to say.
She made herself smile as she straightened. Tried to look like she wasn’t thinking illicit thoughts. Professional—that was what it was all about. He’d made his views on dancers mixing with his team pretty clear, and no doubt those views extended to himself. No mixing business with pleasure.
Apparently he didn’t take after his partner. Alex Winters was dating Maggie Jameson, the daughter of the former owner of the Saints. She still worked for the team. And, having met Alex a few times, Raina was damned certain it wasn’t his money that Maggie found irresistible. The man had charm by the bucketload. After all, he’d talked her into taking on this crazy job after he’d seen her at Madame R at a friend’s stag night. Convincing her that she was just what he needed to train a squad of baseball cheerleaders had taken a lot of charm.
Maybe he should lend some of it to his partner. Then again, maybe not. The man had way too much dangerous charm of his own even when he was being cranky. Which meant the only sensible thing to do was to stay out of his way.