The goddess wore a rugby shirt with the wrong number on it.
John Sheldon watched the woman walk through the door of the stadium’s hospitality suite, where he and his London Legends teammates would soon be auctioned off for charity. Outside, snow blanketed the rugby pitch while green and white Christmas lights strung around the stadium blazed with the team’s colors. Inside, rich people were getting pissed on mulled wine and whisky he’d never be able to afford under normal circumstances. John had been trying not to yawn when the woman entered the room.
Her height drew his notice first. How could it not, when the next-tallest woman in the room came to her shoulders? She was the only woman here who wouldn’t make him feel like a towering giant. Her face was angled away from him, and her wheat-blond locks of hair had been twisted and clamped behind her head in one of those casually elegant styles that begged to be undone, mussed up by big, clumsy fingers. Her neck was slender, her shoulders broad, and her rugby shirt had the number ten on it. His captain’s number.
An elbow jabbed him between the ribs, jostling the tumbler of Islay whisky he held and splashing the amber liquid across his hand. “I count three for me, a dozen for the skipper and nil for you, Shelly. What do you make of that?”
John set his tumbler on a table, tempted to lick the alcohol off his hand so it didn’t go to waste. Opting instead for a classiness he usually failed to achieve, he wiped his wet hand on a cloth serviette and looked down—a good eight inches down—at Matt Ogden, who’d recently become the team’s starting fullback. “Nil what?”
“Bidders.” Oggie raised his brows and nodded at the crowd gathered in the suite.
John scanned the people who’d paid five-hundred quid each to be here tonight. They’d come to raise money for several charities by bidding on a player to do pretty much whatever they wanted for a day. Last year John had been “won” to teach a kid rugby skills. That was a lot better than the year before, when he’d had to show up at a stockbroker’s office and pretend to be his best mate. How he’d got through it without lamping the arsehole was a mystery.
And Oggie was right—not a single person wore his number. At the start of the evening, guests received a replica Legends rugby shirt, and they pinned on it the number of the player they intended to bid for. It was an ice-breaker that gave the players a chance to change people’s minds before bidding started. A good dozen guests, including the goddess, wore the number ten—not surprising, since his captain Liam Callaghan was one of the best-known rugby players in the world. But why in God’s green England would three people want to bid for Oggie when he’d barely played until last month, while John had started every match?
Okay, so Oggie was a little above average height, while John was six-nine. He could see how that might intimidate people. And Oggie was apparently good looking—if you asked him—so that explained why all of his bidders were female.
“Fucking hell,” John muttered, the potential for humiliation sinking in. “I’m not standing up there and having no one bid on me.”
“Looks like that’s exactly what you’re doing. Meanwhile, I’ll have to let those three ladies down gently,” Oggie said, his voice betraying the fact that he might be here physically but mentally he was back home, shagging his best friend Libby.
The specter of a crushing defeat loomed over John, and his determination to come out on top finally kicked in. “I may not get as many bidders as you, mate, but I bet I can raise more money.”
“Really?” Oggie laughed and stretched out his hand. “You’re on. What does the winner get?”
“Pride. Bragging rights.” He held up his tumbler. “And a bottle of this whisky.”
“Done. Now go do what you do best. Knock some heads together.”
John knew right where to start. The goddess might’ve started the evening wearing his captain’s number, but by the end of the night she would be calling out his.
Wonder if I could wedge those windows open enough to throw myself out, Gwen Chambers thought as another of the women standing near her droned on about her stock portfolio. Gwen had never considered investments a weapon before, but after five minutes she felt like she was being battered into a long, tedious death.
She’d only joined the group so she didn’t look like a loser, standing alone in a corner or hovering by the drinks table. This definitely wasn’t her crowd, though. After she’d spent a twelve-hour shift sprinting from one end to the other of East London’s busiest Casualty department, inserting IVs, shifting patients from gurneys to beds, and dealing with a suspected addict who refused to take no for an answer, these women’s conversation about their retirement funds had the same effect as chloroform.
The women barely glanced at her as she excused herself and turned away in search of a different anesthetic—alcohol. She hadn’t gone far when the air around her sizzled to life. Tingles shimmied down her back, as if the pin her sister had used to attach the number ten to her shirt was rubbing against her skin. The sensation rose, though, from her back to the base of her skull, stroking along her neck and skimming the top of her head.
Someone was watching her. Someone whose gaze could reach over her head.
She fought the urge to hunch her shoulders, make herself smaller. Disappear before she became the arse of someone’s jokes. But she’d battled that instinct for years and refused to give in to it now. As nervous energy bubbled beneath her surface, she carefully focused on composing herself.
A man cleared his throat behind her. Above her, actually. The sound had her turning and—oh, my God—brought her face-to-shoulders with the tallest man she’d ever seen. She actually had to look up to meet his warm brown gaze, a gaze made even more brown by the bruises shadowing the delicate skin under one of his eyes.
At six-one, she’d never felt anything but massive. Overgrown. Freakzilla, as the kids at school had not-so-affectionately called her.
This man gave her a brief taste of what it must be like to be normal. Dainty, petite and feminine. This must be how her sister Tess felt around everyone she met.
The man stuck out his hand. “John Sheldon. Number five.”
She placed her hand in his. Currents of adrenaline made her fingers pulse with a sensation bordering on pain. “Gwen Chambers. Bidding on number ten.”
“Let me get you a drink and tell you why that’s a terrible mistake.” Before she could respond to his flirtatious words, he snapped his fingers. “Chambers…are you related to Tess Chambers?”
“She’s my little big sister,” she said automatically before noting the deepening confusion on his face. “I mean, she’s my older sister but she’s a lot littler than me. It’s something we always say to—you know what? Never mind.” Oh God, just shut up, you fool.
John Sheldon smiled. “Our sponsor’s sister. Very nice to meet you, then.” He gestured toward the number on her back. “And you’re bidding on her boyfriend—why?”
That won a little laugh from Gwen. “She’s making me, actually.”
“She doesn’t want anyone else to have him. Said she has big plans for him.” Gwen raised both hands and grimaced. “At that point, I stopped asking questions. But since she’s the auctioneer, she said it wouldn’t look right if she bid on him herself. So she gave me some money and asked me to do it for her.”
John’s brows shot up. “And you’re going to be a good girl and do as she says?”
“Well, of course. It is her money. Otherwise—”
“Otherwise I wouldn’t be here at all. This isn’t really my scene.”
“No? Why not?”
Too many virile men. Her blush deepened as she recognized the corner she’d painted her into. “My dad and sister watched a lot of rugby when we were growing up—”
“Wait—I’ve met your dad. Your sister’s brought him to some of our events. Blonde bloke. Scruffy beard. Short.”
Gwen laughed. Her dad was six-foot six. Only this guy could consider him short. “Yep. Short and hairy. At home, we call him Ewok.”
John had the misfortune to be taking a sip of whisky at that moment. He made a horrible choking sound, bending over and covering his mouth and nose as Gwen patted his back. His broad, strong, warm back. God, she could feel every single muscle. She could outline them with her finger and name them for him, if he let her.
Grabbing a serviette from the table next to him, he wiped his mouth and hand, and stared at her with amused, watery eyes. “You’re having me on.”
“Yeah, we don’t call him Ewok. Mostly we call him The Doctor because, well, he’s a professor of history, so if he could time travel he would.”
“Like Doctor Who.”
“Got it in one,” she said. “Anyway, I never watched rugby with him and Tess. I’m more—”
He waited a few seconds, but when she couldn’t find a less pathetic way of saying a cake-decorating enthusiast he had mercy on her. “More…of a doer rather than a watcher?”
She blinked. “Um, are you asking if I play rugby?”
He wouldn’t be the first.
He grimaced. “Actually, I was trying to flirt. Didn’t come out right.”
Flirt? With me? She caught herself before she said it but blurted out instead, “Are you taking the piss out of me?”
He reared back. “What? No! Why?”
Because he also wouldn’t be the first to do that. When she was sixteen, a boy from the school swim team had bet his teammates he could get a blowjob from her. She’d given him a hell of a lot more than that before finding out he’d won a hundred quid in addition to the dubious prize of her virginity. Her sister had got revenge by distributing a humiliating picture of him getting out of the pool with an unimpressive erection, but the wound he’d inflicted had never truly healed. Every attractive man who flirted with her in the decade since then had paid for that boy’s sins.
John looked so horrified by the question that she immediately felt awful about doubting him, for both their sakes. “I’m sorry. Ignore me.”
“I don’t want to do that, Gwen.”
The sound of her name in his deep, throaty voice gave her shivers. A waiter passed by with a tray of full champagne flutes. John grabbed one and handed it to her. “Let me try again with the flirting,” he said. “Imagine you bid that money on someone other than my skipper. What would you want him to do?”
“Someone other than Liam?” She took a long sip of the champagne, trying to wet her suddenly parched throat.
“Me, for example.” His eyes sparkled with mischief. “Imagine you bid on me. What would you have me do?”
“I’d get you for a whole day?”
“Mmm hmm. A whole day. All yours.” His voice caressed her as seductively as a physical touch. The seed of temptation he’d planted sprouted. If he were hers, what would she have him do? Ruck me, she wanted to joke, but she kept quiet for fear that she might see a flash of revulsion on his face before he was able to cover it.
A gavel tapped a piece of wood three times, and everyone turned their attention to the front of the room, where her sister’s boyfriend Liam leaned over a podium to speak into a microphone. “All right, everyone, we’re ready to get started. Could I have all Legends front and center?”
One of John’s hands skimmed the sensitive skin inside her elbow. He leaned down—what a novelty—and nudged the shell of her ear with his nose. His voice sent shivers of longing through her as he whispered, “All day, Gwen. All yours. Whatever you’d like. Anything at all.”