Running back, p.1

  Running Back, p.1

   part  #2 of  New York Leopards Series

Running Back
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Running Back


  Running Back

  By Allison Parr

  Natalie Sullivan is on the verge of a breakthrough most archaeology grad students only dream of: discovering a lost city. Her research points to a farm in Ireland, but to excavate she needs permission from the new owner: the Michael O’Connor, popular NFL running back.

  On TV Mike seems so charming and good-natured that Natalie figures getting his cooperation will be a breeze. So she’s not prepared to deal with the arrogant—and adamantly opposed—man she meets in person. Or the way one look from him sends shivers down her spine...

  Determined to kick-start her career, Natalie travels across the Atlantic and finds herself sharing an inn with Mike, who has come to Ireland in search of his roots. She tells herself her interest is strictly professional, but the more she gets to know him, the harder it is to deny her personal attraction to the sexy sports star. And when Mike confides why he refuses to allow the dig, Natalie must decide if she can follow her heart without losing sight of her dreams.

  81,000 words

  Dear Reader,

  It’s possible I say this every year, but I love October. To me, this is the month that signals the start of a season of hot apple cider, evenings by the fire, and curling up on the sofa with a good book, dressed warmly in sweatpants and a comfy shirt and snuggled under my favorite fuzzy blanket. We at Carina Press can’t provide most of those things, but we can provide the good books, and this month we have more than a few good books!

  In Running Back, the highly anticipated sequel to Allison Parr’s new-adult contemporary romance Rush Me, Natalie Sullivan is on the verge of a breakthrough most archaeology grad students only dream of: discovering a lost city. Her research points to a farm in Ireland, but to excavate she needs permission from the new owner: the Michael O’Connor, popular NFL running back.

  If you’re like me, there are certain tropes in romance that you fall for every time. One of mine is the main theme of Christi Barth’s newest book, Friends to Lovers. (Gee, can you guess what it is?) Daphne struggles with revealing her longtime lust for Gib, sparking it all off with a midnight kiss on New Year’s Eve—only Gib doesn’t know it’s Daphne he’s kissed! Also in the contemporary romance category is First and Again by Jana Richards, which has a special place in my heart because this emotional story takes place in my home state of North Dakota.

  For months, this Red Cross head nurse has been aiding Allied soldiers caught behind enemy lines, helping them flee into the neutral Netherlands. It’s only a matter of time until she’s caught in Aiding the Enemy, a historical romance by Julie Rowe. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, be sure to check out the rest of Julie’s historical romances.

  We have two mysteries for readers to solve this month. British crime author Shirley Wells returns to the sleepy northern town of Dawson’s Clough with her popular Dylan Scott Mystery series in the next book, Deadly Shadows. And in Julie Anne Lindsey’s Murder by the Seaside, counseling is murder, but it’s never been this much fun.

  Erotic romance author Christine d’Abo brings us the story of Alice’s obsession with a brooding lawyer at her firm, which takes Alice on a journey of self-discovery through the rabbit hole and into the world of BDSM in Club Wonderland. Also this month, the Love Letters ladies, Ginny Glass, Christina Thacher, Emily Cale and Maggie Wells, round up five sizzling-hot stories to finish off their sexy stampede through the alphabet with Love Letters Volume 6: Cowboy’s Command.

  Edgar Mason is losing Agamemnon Frost despite everything they’ve been through—the passion, the torture, the heat. Frost’s fiancée Theodora is back, and Mason can feel his lover gravitating toward her. Every day he sees them together, it tears at his heart. Don’t miss Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers, the conclusion to Kim Knox’s male/male historical science fiction trilogy.

  Because October is the perfect month for the paranormal, we have a wide selection of fantasy, urban fantasy and paranormal to share with you. In Jeffe Kennedy’s fantasy romance, Rogue’s Possession, neuroscientist Gwynn’s adventures in Faerie continue in the long-awaited sequel to Rogue’s Pawn. And in the sequel to Soul Sucker, a powerful magic user is stealing people’s faces in San Francisco, and empath Ella Walsh and shifter Vadim Morosov have been called in to investigate in Death Bringer by Kate Pearce. Also returning with another book in her Blood of the Pride series is Sheryl Nantus, with her paranormal romance Battle Scars.

  Combining futuristic fiction, fantasy and urban fantasy, Trancehack by Sonya Clark is a compelling cross-genre romance. In a dystopian future where magic is out in the open and witches are segregated, a high-profile murder case brings together a police detective and a witch with unusual powers that combine magic and technology. But dangerous secrets, a political cover-up, and the law itself stand between them. Don’t miss this exciting new world of witchpunk!

  Carina Press is pleased to introduce three debut authors this October. Science fiction erotic romance author Renae Jones gives us a Taste of Passion when lust strikes hard for Fedni, an empath who can taste emotion, but her off-worlder neighbor is horrified by the caste system that the former courtesan holds dear.

  Two urban fantasy authors debut with us this month. In Kathleen Collins’s Realm Walker, a realm walker hunts a demon intent on destroying both her and the mate who left her seven years ago. Also debuting in urban fantasy is Joshua Roots with his book Undead Chaos. When warlock Marcus Shifter performs a simple zombie beheading, he soon finds that the accidental framing of an innocent necromancer, falling in lust, and burning down a bar are just the beginning of his troubles.

  Regardless of whether you’re discovering these books in October or in the middle of summer, any time is the perfect time for reading, and I hope you enjoy all these titles as much as we’ve enjoyed working on them.

  We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

  Happy reading!

  ~Angela James

  Executive Editor, Carina Press

  www.carinapress.com

  www.twitter.com/carinapress

  www.facebook.com/carinapress

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Epilogue

  About the Author

  Copyright

  Chapter One

  Three archaeology p
rofessors sat before me, frowns on their faces as they decided whether or not to give me the most important grant of my life. Hidden behind my back, my forefinger beat steadily against my hand.

  The woman on the left looked up, eyes sharp behind wire-rimmed glasses. “Why Ireland? I see you’ve done your most recent fieldwork in Latin America.”

  The male professor beat me to the punch. He leaned closer to his colleague, but not so close that I couldn’t overhear him. “She studied under Jeremy Anderson.”

  All three professors eyed me with interest, and I struggled to keep my smile in place. Fake smiles usually came easily to me; I’d been doing them ever since my mother first toddled me out to charm her friends. But with the stakes so high, everything about me shook. I tried to minimize the damage as I spoke. “While I did study with Professor Anderson, this proposal is based off my own research about the most likely site for an Iron Age harbor.”

  She nodded, and then looked at the others.

  If they granted me this money, I would be the best behaved grad student in the world. I wouldn’t write snarky comments in my field diary and I would map units correctly and I would be a better daughter and I would, I don’t know, contribute to charity and recycle more.

  The woman turned back to me. Her smile looked genuine, but she could be the kind of person who thought happy faces softened bad news. “We’ve decided to fund your proposal.”

  The clenched fingers around my chest unfurled, releasing my heart so it could beat wildly. My lungs flailed with the increased oxygen. I took a startled gasp, and giddiness rushed through me, starting in my heart but quickly pumping through my arms and legs until every extremity tingled with relief and delight. It swirled in my stomach, brushed the back of my neck, and settled behind my eyes, bright and heavy and gleaming. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

  This time when I smiled, it was real.

  * * *

  Ireland.

  I danced all the way down Broadway. New York in May was always beautiful, if heavily perfumed by sewers and smoke, but now the warm stone buildings near Columbia University were extra lovely, and my green-tinted vision turned it into the Emerald City. In Ireland, it would be past 10:00 p.m., so I shot off an email from my phone instead of calling Jeremy.

  My best friend worked in a sports bar one long block away. I skipped past men hosing down the sidewalks and mothers picking up tiny children in navy uniforms. White flowers bloomed heavily on the trees that lined the street, and petals tumbled off in the light breeze. I dodged past the angry Laundromat woman and the same four men who sat on the stoop of 402 and harassed students every afternoon, and then I reached Amsterdam and Cam’s bar.

  A heavy curtain draped over the entrance, keeping the air-conditioning trapped inside. I pushed past it and nodded at Charlie, the middle-aged doorman who nominally checked IDs. He took in my beaming face and grinned. “Take it it went well?”

  I laughed.

  Inside, two-thirds of the patrons turned. Behind the bar, Cam poured a shot of preparatory vodka and placed it beside a foil-wrapped bottle of champagne, apprehension clear on her face.

  I sent a cheek-splitting grin clear across the room. “I’m going to Ireland!”

  “Congratulations!” my friends cried in rapid succession. Hands thumped my back, arms encircled me. Someone slapped my butt and another kissed my cheek. The champagne popped and frothed.

  It took twenty minutes of laughing and gesticulating as I regaled the other grad students with my tale, exaggerating the good bits, minimizing the paralyzing worry. I made my way over to Cam. She shook her head, the light from overhead lanterns sliding across her shiny black hair. Pride suffused her entire face. “Look at you. I knew you could do it.”

  “Thanks.” I came around to the swinging entrance and hugged her. “Oh God, Cam, I’m so happy.”

  “Me too.” She squeezed me tight. “You deserve it. You’re going to prove them all wrong. You’re going to find Ivernis.”

  Two hours and a keg of celebratory Guinness later, my phone vibrated. When I saw the caller, I grinned widely and hitched myself up on the bar. “It’s Jeremy!”

  Cam shook her head as she muddled together a mojito. “You are a hot mess. Don’t answer.”

  I stuck out my tongue. “I have to answer.”

  “That’s a bad life choice.”

  Deliberately turning my back, I raised the cell to one ear and covered the other with my free hand. “Hey! Jeremy! How are you?” I maneuvered out of the bar, grinning and waving at my friends as I squeezed past and through the doors. Outside, a breeze cooled the air considerably. “Sorry, what was that? I didn’t catch it.” Almost bursting with pride, I prepared for more congratulations.

  His steady tenor came clear from three thousand miles away. “I said, Patrick O’Connor is dead.”

  When I was six years old, my father left on a two-week business trip, and I asked every night when he’d be home. And even though Mom kept giving me the same answer, I kept asking, because it didn’t make sense, and it didn’t stay in my head.

  This didn’t make sense.

  Patrick O’Connor? It had taken me three months to persuade the crotchety old Irish man to grant permission to dig on his land. Three months of pleading and proposals and gradually increasing the amount of money we’d give him. He couldn’t be dead. “How dead?”

  “Natalie.”

  On the other side of Amsterdam, people spilled out of bars. A young couple laughed. The girl leaned forward and sparked her cigarette off the guy’s lighter. The ember burned dully in the growing dark.

  I should be panicking. Or hyperventilating, or at least feeling icy tendrils closing over my heart. Instead, I just watched the flirtation play out without a hitch. The girl twisted a lock of hair, the boy leaned closer and they both laughed again. “How’d he die?”

  “Heart attack.”

  “When?”

  “Yesterday. I just got off the phone with his executor.”

  I felt slow and stupid. “But—he signed the contract.”

  During the long silence that followed, I was unable to form a single thought. “Natalie,” my old professor finally said, “it doesn’t matter. It’s invalid.”

  My legs felt floppy, and I frowned at my knees and tried to lock them. Would it be weird to sit on the sidewalk? It was kind of gross, and darkened with gum stains—not to mention smears of dog poop. I leaned against a metal lamppost instead. “But I just got the grant. Everything’s set. We’re digging at Kilkarten.”

  Jeremy sounded grim. “Not unless we get the new landowner to sign the contract.”

  I swallowed. Inspected under my nails for the ever-present dirt. “Okay. Yeah. Of course.” The rights to the farmland hadn’t just disappeared into the nether with O’Connor’s death. His wife would surely agree to the same terms. Or maybe even agree to sell the land. “So I just get in touch with the widow?” I swallowed my groan. I didn’t want to interrupt Mrs. O’Connor’s mourning with business, but the excavation was set to begin in just over a month, and we couldn’t do anything without her signature.

  Jeremy cleared his throat.

  I’d studied with Jeremy long enough to recognize the sound of the other shoe falling. “What? He didn’t leave it to her?”

  “She got the house and the money. The property went to his late brother’s son.”

  Great, so now I’d have to track down some long lost heir. I dug into my purse for a pen. After I sandwiched my cell between my ear and shoulder, I positioned the pen above my hand. “What’s the nephew’s name? Does he live in the village—Dundoran?”

  “It’s Michael O’Connor.”

  Well, I didn’t need a pen to remember that name. “Like the running back?”

  “Actually—it is the running back.”

  My fingers loosened a
nd the pen slipped down to clatter across the pavement. I’d fallen into some surreal world where clocks melted and famous football players inherited my lost city. “No.”

  “Yeah.” Jeremy let out a hassled breath. “Think you can deal with this before your flight at the end of the month? I’m emailing you the forms that need his signature.”

  I closed my eyes. Michael O’Connor. Running back for the New York Leopards. His image formed beneath my lids. O’Connor’s strong, Roman nose, his habitual grin and his curly, dark-red hair. His warm, brown eyes that squinted when he smiled. A mish-mash of dozens of screenshots and photos flashed though my mind. Of him in his uniform, the black and red of the Leopards. Of him on the bench, his auburn head in his hands, skin gleaming with sweat. Of him in a group hug after a win. Of that amazing touchdown last year. My throat worked but nothing came out for a good minute. “Okay. I’ll take care of it.”

  Did this mean I would actually meet Michael O’Connor?

  “Great. Oh, and good job on getting us the funding. We can retroactively use that for the past ninety days, so can you start that paperwork? See you soon.”

  I lowered my phone. One did not just get in touch with a starting Leopard. Did he have a PR person? Or an agent? How was I supposed to talk to him without fangirling?

  How could a contract I’d worked my ass off for be invalidated in a heartbeat?

  In the lack of a heartbeat.

  Oh, God, I was a terrible person. I’d better order some flowers for the widow.

  I took one more deep breath. And then I started searching for O’Connor’s contacts.

  * * *

  When I entered middle school, I shot up several inches higher than any of my peers. My mother, who had abandoned her own modeling career before I was born, decided my height meant she should introduce me to some of her old fashion contacts. When the magazine spread of me in weird flowy dresses came out, it further cemented my classmates’ opinions of my freakiness.

  Now, I thought those pictures were cute. At the time, they were the instrument of my unpopularity. I refused to ever stand in front of a camera again, and I still twitched uncomfortably when friends corral me into group photos.

 
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