Fireworks exploded over the stadium, bathing the screaming crowd in green and white light as Ash stepped toward the podium. He grabbed the spotless trophy, pausing a moment as flashbulbs nearly blinded him, and the momentous weight of history pressed heavily on his chest. All season his team had competed against other European clubs in this new championship. He was the first rugby player to touch this trophy. London Legends would be the first team name engraved into it.
And this was the last trophy he would ever lift.
With a deep breath and a grin he couldn’t contain, he hoisted it over his head. Eighty-two thousand rugby fans leaped out of their seats and roared. His teammates looped their arms around each other’s shoulders, jumping up and down with a ferocity that made the makeshift stage shudder beneath Ash’s feet. A couple of the suits gave each other patronizing smiles as they applauded the team without giving in to the same pent-up enthusiasm the players were releasing, enthusiasm they surely had to be feeling, even if just at the sight of England’s national rugby stadium filled to capacity.
Ash lowered the side of the cup to his lips and pressed a kiss against its smooth silver finish. Victory, you taste so fucking sweet.
“Mind if I have a go, mate?”
Ash reluctantly relinquished the cup to his captain, Liam Callaghan, who just moments before had nudged Ash forward to claim the cup, generously giving him one last moment in the spotlight. The team swarmed around, and dozens of photographers pressed close to take their photo. This was how history would see the final triumph of Ash’s career—him standing next to the man who’d taken his place three years ago, not just on this team but becoming the England captain as well. After leading Legends for nine seasons, taking them from the brink of relegation to championship after championship, Ash had been shunted aside in favor of the young pup whose talents he’d been the first to spot.
Over the past three years, he’d done his best to get used to calling the younger man skipper while ignoring the pundits’ speculation about when he would retire. He’d held on as long as he could, but he’d put thirty-six years’ worth of hard mileage on his body, and it couldn’t cope with the sport’s physicality the way it used to. Better to quit now, when he could still go out a champion, than to be carted off and dumped aside with the most pathetic of headlines: Injury Ends Rugby Legend’s Career.
Damn but he was going to enjoy these last few hours of glory, and after that he would enjoy the hell out retirement. For the first time in two decades, he could get drunk. He could eat as much cheese as he wanted. Cram his mouth full of bacon butties. Scones with clotted cream. Champagne and lager and cabernet. Chocolate fudge cake. Hell, forget the cake. He could eat fudge. Boxes of it.
Tonight he could celebrate any way he chose because he didn’t have to stay in peak fitness for any summer tours of the Southern Hemisphere. Nor would he have to get back in shape for the start of the next season in September.
Because as of tomorrow morning, Ash Trenton—once the leader of some of the world’s toughest men, five-time European champion and winner of the most recent Rugby World Cup—was jobless.
One of the suits handed him and Cally each an open bottle of champagne. They grinned at each other. “Ready, mate?”
“Ready,” Ash said.
They slid their hands over the mouths of the bottles and shook them hard. Turning to face their team, they sprayed their mates with a shower of sticky-sweet alcohol. The men crammed closer, tilting their heads back and opening their mouths to catch as much as they could. Ash could never get enough of this, triumph bubbling over after a long slog of a season. All the early mornings, all the sacrifices became worth it at this moment.
He jumped off the stage, leading his team as they sprayed champagne into the crowd and applauded their fans for turning up and supporting them at match after match. The security guards along the touchline let the players’ families through, and several women ran onto the pitch to give their husbands and boyfriends sloppy kisses. This part always seemed sweet to Ash, like something he might one day enjoy.
As he walked along and waved to the spectators one final time, he cataloged the growing number of teammates who had someone permanent to go home with. Spencer Bailey, their inside center, was tossing his laughing toddler in the air while his wife tried to hide her flinch every time the girl went airborne. Cally, their captain, kissed his fiancée, who worked for the team’s biggest sponsor. Matt “Oggie” Ogden grabbed the woman he’d first introduced to Ash as his good mate and planted a more-than-friendly kiss on her lips. Even “Little” John Sheldon, who’d just played his final match in the Legends’ green-and-whites, was snogging the nurse who’d bought him at the team’s Christmas fundraiser.
Ash turned away and waved harder at the crowd. He’d married his career, and he’d never questioned that decision.
So what did he do now his career was divorcing him?
“Ash, can I have a word?” Lavinia, a journalist for the TV channel that broadcast all the team’s matches, held her microphone at her side and gave him a big smile.
She brought the mic up and pressed her earpiece farther into her ear. “I’ve got Ash, when you’re ready,” she said into her mouthpiece.
She waited quietly for a moment, listening, then nodded and transformed into her on-air personality. “Ash Trenton, congratulations. This must be the ideal way to cap off your career.”
“It’s pretty special, that’s for sure. The whole team’s worked hard all season, and we were confident we could do it.”
“And what happens for you tomorrow? You’ve been cagey about revealing what comes next, but you’ve always been a man with vision. Can you finally tell us what you’ll be doing?”
Lounging around in my pants, scratching my delicates. “I’m afraid not. Not yet, anyway.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll be putting that certificate in coaching to any use?” Lavinia’s eyes twinkled with a teasing gleam.
Ash gave her a coy smile, despite every frustrated bit of him wanting to scream What part of no fucking clue don’t you understand! “Well, I’ve always enjoyed working alongside younger players, especially at our academy. That’s how I discovered Cally and a few of the others. But I really couldn’t say at this point. I’ve got a few offers I’m considering, but I haven’t made any final decisions.”
So far nothing his agent had sent him had grabbed him. He’d told himself he’d find something once the season was over. But finding something he loved as much as he loved playing?
Lavinia tried to gently dig more information out of him, but he had nothing to give. So after a few minutes of cheerful banter, she gave up and wished him well. As soon as the red light on the camera went out, he leaned over and gave her a big hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. “You’re my favorite pundit, you know that?”
She grinned. “Course I do. I’m everyone’s favorite pundit.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “It’s been a pleasure, Vinnie.”
“Likewise, Ash. Let me know if you need anything. You might have a face only a mother could love,” she joked, “but you have the potential for a brilliant career in TV. Just as long as you don’t take my spot.”
“Ah, that’s a shame. Your job’s one of the new careers I’m considering,” he teased. “Right up there with Cadbury’s chocolate taster.”
“Ooh, definitely go for that one. And send along anything you can’t finish.”
“Will do. Cheers again.”
The team gradually made their way back to the changing room, the only place they could all let down their guards. One after another, his teammates and the support staff grabbed him for a bear hug. He got so many slaps on the back and bum that he would probably wake up bruised.
This is really happening. This is really the end. How surreal.
“Gather round, lads! Gather round!” Cally clapped to get everyone’s attention. They all closed in and looped their arms around each other’s shoulders.
“Most of us here started playing when we were little tykes,” Cally said, “too young to remember a time when rugby wasn’t part of our lifeblood. Some of us were lucky enough to get our starts at the Legends Academy and work our way up through the system. For those of you who didn’t, well, you missed out on having guidance from one of the most brilliant players—and brilliant men—this sport has ever seen.”
Oh, Jesus. No one look at me. Ash kept his gaze firmly trained on his captain’s boots. If he let himself make eye contact with anyone, the lump in his throat would explode and leak out of his eyes.
Judging by the way Cally’s voice choked, he was fighting not to lose it either. “Honorable. Devoted. Loyal. But enough about Oggie’s dog.”
The team chuckled, and Ash slapped Oggie on the back.
“Mate, my first year on the elite squad was your first year as captain. I remember thinking even then, ‘I don’t envy the poor bloke who has to succeed this guy.’”
Fuck, I can’t take this. But he forced himself to laugh along with the rest of the team.
“Following in your footsteps has been the biggest challenge of my career, but I’ve learned more from watching you than from all the practice sessions combined.” He shot a glance at their coach. “Ruud-Boy, you didn’t hear that.”
Ruud Bakker gave Cally an evil grin. “I’ll have to work you harder come September.”
With a good-natured groan, Cally continued. “It doesn’t seem right that you won’t be here when we start our fight to defend this gorgeous cup. The lads and I have been trying to figure out how to show our appreciation for all your years of leadership and guidance. One night at the hotel, we started playing that game I Never, and it turned into Ash Never. We figured out there are a fuckload of things we’ve never seen you do, and now’s your chance.”
Spencer twisted to grab something with both hands from the floor behind him, then hoisted it in the air. A case of champagne. “I’ve never seen Ash drink, except a few sips of bubbly from the trophies he’s won. We want to see you get well and truly pissed tonight.”
Ash stepped forward and took the case. Before he could say thanks, Little John produced a polystyrene take-away box from behind his back. In it lay a portion of fish and chips. “I’ve never seen Ash eat anything fatty. Time to kiss that girlish figure goodbye, sunshine.”
Ash set the booze at his feet to take the fish and chips.
Oggie held up two small boxes of condoms, and Ash burst out laughing. “I swear to you, that’s definitely one thing I have done.”
“Really?” Oggie grinned. “Because most of us can remember you being hit on by women, but none of us can recall you taking them up on their kind offers.”
“That’s because I’m more discreet than you mangy dogs.” And because he’d always felt the need to set an example. Sex was great, but never so great that an hour of pleasure was worth risking the reputation he’d spent years building.
“Well, now you can do it six more times.” Oggie handed him the boxes. “Or three. They’re the cheapest brand I could find, so you might want to double up.”
Cally’s face scrunched up in confusion. “I thought you were getting a mega box.”
“You only gave me five quid. Condoms must’ve gone up in price since the last time you had to buy one.”
Cally’s fair cheeks flushed dark red. He was getting married this summer. Being engaged must have its perks.
“Anyway, we hope you enjoy your retirement, old man. We can’t wait to see what you do next.”
“Neither can I,” Ash half joked. “I think I’ll start with this.” He raised the fish to his mouth and took a big bite. Still chewing, he bent to uncork a bottle of bubbly. “And some of this.” He swallowed the fish and raised the bottle to his lips. One, two, three, four, five…his team cheered as he glugged as much as he could in one go. When his mouth overflowed and he was in danger of chundering, he lowered the bottle and flicked a condom box in the air, catching it. “And maybe some of this, but not around any of you.”
“Thank fuck for that. Everyone, there’s a trolley with glasses in the corner. Grab one and let’s raise a toast to Ash Trenton—pensioner!”
The toasts continued through dinner and on the bus back to the hotel. They continued as Ash, his teammates and their families and friends partied at the swish bar on the penultimate floor of the hotel. For three hours, his glass was never empty. His brain got fuzzy and he’d never grinned or snort-laughed so much in his life. As alcohol filled his belly, love filled the rest of him. This must be what pissed felt like, but he didn’t give a shit. These people, every single one of them, meant the world to him. He scanned the room. Most of his teammates were chatting up women. A few were chatting up their own wives and girlfriends. Young punk Sean Castells was trying it on with a dark-haired woman sitting at a small table, but even from across the room Ash could see her brush Castells off and turn her focus to him.
Awareness kicked to life, making his whole body go taut. The bar’s lighting was dim, but bright moonlight and streetlight poured in from the floor-to-ceiling windows and cast half of her in shadows. She watched him intently, her hands trembling as she raised her glass to her lips. She never broke his gaze, even though she took a sip that bordered on a gulp.
He could practically feel the condoms vibrating through the pocket of his suit trousers. Use us. Abuse us.
He mumbled excuses to his teammates and stood, making his chair scrape against the dark wood floor. The woman stiffened, her gaze skittering away before coming back to him. He crossed the bar, feeling her stare everywhere. She drank him in the way she had done whatever was in her glass—with a thirsty, nervous gulp that said I need this. I need you.
He made it to her table and rested his hand on the back of the empty chair. He’d been about to ask if it was free, but familiarity struck him dumb. Where did he know her from? His brain cells took their sweet time firing up. Her fingers played nervously with the nearly empty glass, her gaze focused downward into the cola-brown liquid. Dark brown hair tumbled over her shoulders to rest against the tops of her breasts. He couldn’t make out the shape of her, but her breasts had a lovely curve that made his palms curve in response.
She lifted her gaze to meet his. Jesus, her eyes. A clear green that knocked the breath right out of him—just as it had when he’d seen her on the beach in Barcelona half his life ago.
“Fucking hell. Camila?” Camila Morales. Her name had lived in his memory all this time. Ca-mee-la. A name common in England, but with a twist of the tongue it became foreign, intriguing, beautiful, arousing. Everything this woman was.
Her eyes flickered with surprise. “Y-you remember me?”
Remember? He’d lost his virginity to her.
No, not lost it. He’d thrust it at her with an eagerness that would’ve been embarrassing if he hadn’t already given her a leg-trembling orgasm—he hoped.
“Of course I remember you.” He held out his hand, palm-up in the empty space between them. Giving it a hesitant glance, she placed her hand in his and he helped her stand. She was barely on her feet before he wrapped his arms around her. His whole body sighed with relief at the feel of her pressed against him again.
At least, pressed against him for about two seconds. Then she shoved him back and punched him square in the jaw, knocking his pride and his equilibrium straight out of him as he toppled over and landed on his arse.