Fight to the Finish (First to Fight #3)

BOOK: Fight to the Finish (First to Fight #3)
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PRAISE FOR

BELOW THE BELT

“Characters who are simply magnetic and refreshingly multi-dimensional . . . With plenty of gritty, sensual and scenic details, and a number of intriguing, empathetic supporting characters, this is one series that readers should check out as quickly as possible.”

—
RT Book Reviews

“A series for fans of uniforms, discipline and athletic prowess . . . The core romance is strengthened by a playful sense of humor and real chemistry between the characters, as well as steamy bedroom scenes. A colorfully memorable supporting cast.”

—
Publishers Weekly

“Wonderfully entertaining . . . Fun, sexy, and the characters are so likeable you won't want to put the book down.”

—Wit and Sin

“An engaging story with plenty of humor and heat.”

—Harlequin Junkie

“A delightful read with a fascinating and engaging cast of characters.”

—The Reading Cafe

“A fun read with interesting characters and great dialogue.”

—Cocktails and Books

PRAISE FOR JEANETTE MURRAY'S SANTA FE BOBCATS SERIES

“Engaging . . . A believable story that drew me in from the first page.”

—Cocktails and Books

“Everything that I hoped for.”

—The Reader's Den

“The heat between them is
hot
.”

—Stuck in Books

“A real hit . . . It was a fresh idea with a tried and true genre, and I loved that.”

—The Book Pushers

Titles by Jeanette Murray

First to Fight

BELOW THE BELT

AGAINST THE ROPES

FIGHT TO THE FINISH

Santa Fe Bobcats

ONE NIGHT WITH THE QUARTERBACK

LOVING HIM OFF THE FIELD

TAKES TWO TO TACKLE

ROMANCING THE RUNNING BACK

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

FIGHT TO THE FINISH

A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2016 by Jeanette Murray.

Excerpt from
Completing the Pass
by Jeanette Murray copyright © 2016 by Jeanette Murray.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY SENSATION® and the “B” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information, visit
penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18635-4

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / March 2016

Cover photo of Young Muscular Sports Guy © Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock.

Cover design by Rita Frangie.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

For Nurse Geri, who watches over her school like a hawk and has magical sponges. You're awesome! Thanks for the help!

And to Jen from iHeartOrganizing for answering my blogging questions. You were an angel for taking the time to answer all my silly or serious inquiries. Thank you!

And lastly, Josayn, for being open and helpful as another awesome resource. You're a doll!

(Any and all mistakes made were mine and mine alone.)

CHAPTER

1

H
ow did someone just knock on the door of the sexiest man ever? One who sent your pulse racing, your blood pounding, your knees weakening, and one who you could never actually be with?

Kara breathed in, then out. In one more time through the nose, and out, two, three, four . . .

“Mom!”

She jerked from her yoga breathing and looked down at her son. Not as much “down” as “over.” In the last three months he'd grown nearly three inches. Her little boy was no longer so little.

“What?”

Zach indicated the door with both hands, which were still gripping the three bags of allergy-approved potato chips she'd brought so he didn't feel bad being left out of potato salad. There was always potato salad at a cookout. “Are you going to open the door? My hands are losing their grip here.”

“Be glad you aren't one of those animals whose mothers
eat their young. I'd be tempted.” With a sigh, she knocked on the door. There. That sounded like a normal knock. “Where'd a ten-year-old get such a smart mouth, anyway?”

“I come by it naturally,” he said with a grin that had her flashing an identical one back at him. The kid was incorrigible. It was one of the things she loved about him.

The door opened a moment later with her best friend, Marianne, standing in bare feet, jean capris and an oversized Marine Corps boxing T-shirt. “Hey! Why'd you knock? We said to come in.”

“I like to be polite when I haven't been to someone's house before.”

“I have,” Zach reminded her, gliding past Marianne with a curt “hey,” before dashing off to the backyard.

“He's so refined,” Kara said with a groan. “Mr. Manners, for the win.”

“He's ten. If he wasn't a little obnoxious, I'd worry.” Her friend pulled her inside and gave her a side hug while closing the door. “But you know you're welcome to walk in. Graham said as much.”

“Graham said as much,” Kara muttered under her breath. “Am I overdressed?”

Marianne surveyed Kara's sundress and wedge heels that had seemed like a good idea in her closet, and now appeared very out of place. “You're cute. It's a cute dress. Let's put that away. Zach's dessert?” she asked as she took the glass dish and walked it to the fridge.

“Says so on the label. He's got some chips he can eat, though there's plenty of that to share. Just have to—”

“Keep the utensils properly labeled for zero cross contamination. Graham's already on it. He went out and bought big plastic blue serving spoons, because that's Zach's favorite color, and has warned everyone that using them improperly is punishable by death.”

Kara had to bite back the misty tears that threatened at the sentiment. “That's . . . a little extreme, but sweet.”

“He's a sweet guy.” Marianne popped the dessert in the fridge and hooked an arm around hers, linking elbows. “When are you going to let him take you out? The man seriously has it bad for you. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it.”

“It's not a good idea, and you know exactly why.” Feeling like an idiot because she couldn't fix what wasn't her problem to begin with, she shook her head. “I agreed to come over here because everyone else would be here and it's a get-together and I could bring Zach, not a one-on-one thing. If you think my being here is giving him the wrong impression, I'll grab Zach and we can go.”

Marianne's teasing eyes softened at that. “Don't go. I'm kidding. Not about him wanting you, that's true. But you shouldn't feel bad about it. He won't make it uncomfortable.”

That was a fact. Though he had hinted and made her very aware of his presence and desire, Graham Sweeney had not once pushed the issue of asking her out. It was as if he sensed the invisible male-repelling force field she had erected around her life and Zach's, and respected it by standing just outside of it. Every so often, his toes might bump against the edge, but he remained outside the shield.

“Guess who's here!” Marianne walked out through the back door and announced them with a flourish. “Which isn't much of a guess, since Zach came out here five minutes ago.”

Reagan, all five-foot-ten goddess inches of her, stood from the patio chair and came to give her a hug. “Yes! Now we're not outnumbered.”

“Hardly,” Graham said by the grill, hooking an arm around Zach's head. The boy put up a token protest and squirmed, but Kara saw him grinning. “Us men still have four, to your female three.”

“Sorry, I wasn't counting those who couldn't drive yet.”
Reagan blew Zach a kiss, which caused him to blush and run for a soccer ball in the corner of the yard to practice dribbling.

“Nice.” Kara settled down in a free chair and smoothed the skirt of her dress down primly. “What are we talking about?”

“First match,” Brad said. “Not for practice.”

Gregory Higgs, upon whose lap Reagan was perched, groaned. “Man, we're here for fun. Don't bring work into it.”

“But it's something we all have in common,” Marianne pointed out. “We're all connected to boxing, or the Marine Corps team, in some way.” She flushed as she looked at Reagan. “I mean, uh . . . okay sorry.”

Reagan waved that off. “I got my job back. But it's not for me. Watching you guys box sort of made me queasy to my stomach. I'll be looking for a new job after this for sure.”

“Then what else do we have to talk about?” Graham set a plate of burger patties on the table. “Hey, kid! Food!”

Kara bristled, then realized Zach liked the nickname and took no offense. He sprinted over to grab a burger, slap it on a gluten-free bun and take off again.

“Guess he was hungry,” Graham said with a smile.

“Are those—”

“They're from a peanut-free factory,” Graham assured her.

He settled in a chair beside Kara, crowding into her space without even moving close. The man was just . . . potent. That was the only word for it. Potent. It was as if he took over everywhere he was.

“He was. Hungry, I mean. I didn't let him chow down on lunch like usual. Uh, the food—” she began, but stopped short when he held up a hand.

“I made some potato salad without mayo or hard-boiled eggs. Extra relish and mustard so it's almost soupy, how he likes it. I double-checked your blog to make sure the brands were the right kinds, without any of the cross contamination stuff. And no tomatoes for the burgers.”

She stopped, stunned. “Thank you.”

“I like the kid.” He shrugged and sat back with a beer. “I'd rather he didn't keel over in my backyard.”

So many danced around her son's serious allergies, or made them something sacred they had to talk about in hushed tones, or treated them like the most annoying inconvenience in the world. Graham simply made it normal, and didn't seem to shy away from using them as a good-natured joke.

So, tally time. The man looked like a Greek god, was smarter than anyone else she'd met, had the body of a serious athlete, and was conscientious and sweet about her son's limiting allergy needs.

The man had to be stopped.

*   *   *

SHE
was fire and light. Energy, amusement. Everything a man needed to survive. Kara was everything he wanted.

Zach, Graham thought as he watched the boy spend thirty futile seconds attempting to kick the soccer ball from its wedged position in the corner of his fence before resorting to his hands, was a brilliant bonus.

Kara leaned forward, animatedly talking to Marianne about something. He caught a glimpse of the tops of her breasts, with a few freckles dusting the creamy skin. The straps left her toned, muscular shoulders and arms bare. Yoga and Pilates had definitely done her body good. And the frilly hem fluttered around her calves, tanned and toned from summer yoga sessions outdoors.

Her dress was the perfect showcase for what she was, class and femininity encased in a tough exterior that took no shit and managed to keep up with a tireless young boy by herself.

He'd been attracted from the moment they'd met. Her single mom status had given him a moment's pause—dating a woman with a child wasn't something he'd considered before—but he'd very quickly moved past that nonexistent hurdle. The fact that she was still single amazed him. Either
the men in this town were morons, or she was very good at hiding herself away.

“Any new yoga stories?” Marianne asked, settling down on the bench with her legs draped over Brad's thighs, a plate of the trifle-like dessert Kara had brought balanced on her knees. She brushed one hand over the back of his neck, as if she couldn't help herself. The Marine looked like he could slide into a puddle at her feet. Very different from how he'd been two months earlier . . . the stick-up-the-ass guy nobody wanted to hang out with because he was too intense for his own good.

“No new yoga stories.” With a secret smile, Kara sipped her water and crossed her legs at the ankles. A delicate silver ankle bracelet winked in the fading evening sun. “I've been dealing with these guys too much. Well,” she added, tapping a finger to the corner of her mouth, “there was that one . . .”

“Gimme!” Marianne leaned forward, upsetting the balance until Brad wrapped an arm around her waist and righted them again. “Spill. You know I live for these.”

Her finger tapped once more, and he had the urge to press his lips against that corner. As if she knew tapping there would draw his attention. “I really shouldn't. Client privileged information.”

“That's for lawyers and shrinks. Tell her, Sweeney,” Greg prompted.

“That's for lawyers and shrinks,” he repeated, deadpan, and they all laughed.

“Well, have I told you all about . . .” She looked up, scanned the backyard to see where Zach was, then ended on a whisper, “Shrink Wrap Man?”

Most shook their heads. Greg grinned and rubbed his hands together. “This is gonna be good.”

“Okay. So you know how when you get hot dogs, they're all smushed together in a pack of eight? And the plastic is pulled tight over each of the hot dogs?”

Graham started to grin slowly.

Kara sat back and waved a hand as if she were telling a classy joke in a cocktail lounge. “His penis looks sort of like that in his skin tight leggings when he does Downward Dog.”

Marianne burst out laughing, and Reagan gasped, eyes wide. “No!”

“Yes,” Kara said solemnly, taking a sip of her water. “I wish not, but very true. I've actually considered having Marianne make one of her famous pamphlets about the importance of wearing clothes that breathe during yoga, so he stops wearing those pants.”

“I'll do it,” Marianne said with a gasp. “I'll do it, just for you.”

“What's so funny, Mom?” Zach called out from the corner.

“Nothing!” she answered quickly, waving him off to keep him from coming closer. “You're doing great!”

Zach ignored that and ran closer to the group, scooping up a hot dog and taking a bite. Marianne burst out laughing, managed to squeeze out, “I'm gonna pee my pants!” and ran inside. The door slammed shut behind her.

“You should get a dog, you know,” Zach told Graham around a mouthful.

“Zach, manners.”

He shot his mother a chagrined look, swallowed, then said it again. “You should get a dog.”

“Why's that? I've got you coming over here often enough to run around the backyard and eat my food. What do I need a dog for?”

Zach snorted and kicked the soccer ball into the back corner, sitting down beside him. Kara looked anxious, as if she didn't want her son to be a bother. To ease her mind, he slung an arm over Zach's chair.

“You need a dog 'cause you've got a backyard and you live alone. No mom or whatever to say no. Why wouldn't you have one?”

“I'm gone a lot,” Graham reminded him. “Especially with practice. Probably better if I wait on that.”

“I'd come take care of him for you.” Looking to his mother, Zach continued. “Couldn't I? I'm responsible.”

Graham glanced at Kara, who had a stricken look on her face. “Bud, it's just not the time for a pet right now.”

The toes of Zach's tennis shoes scuffed the concrete pad of the patio. “Yeah. Okay.”

“Hey, Zach, could you run back out to the car and see if I left my sweater?” Kara rubbed her upper arms and shivered. “I'm getting a little cold.”

“Sure.” With a shrug, Zach held out his hands for the keys she dug from her purse and took off.

“I'm sorry,” she said to him softly after her son let the door bang on his way in. “He's been asking for a dog since, I don't know . . . he could say the word ‘dog.' I said we couldn't because we don't have a yard, and you do, so . . .” She lifted her hands in silent confusion. “I guess he assumes anyone with a yard should have one.”

“It's fine. Really. He's a boy, of course he wants a dog. I'm not offended.” And if he thought for one minute Kara would let the boy claim ownership when he couldn't care for it, he'd go out to the pound tomorrow and pick up the ugliest son of a bitch mutt he could find. He loved dogs, too. But without someone around to care for the animal when he was gone, it wasn't fair to the animal.

“You didn't have a sweater in the car, Mom. But I found this sweatshirt on the couch so, here.” Zach thrust the oversized red-and-gold hoodie into Kara's lap. She stared at it, a little horrified. “You said you were cold. Put it on.”

“Zach, you can't just take people's things without asking.” She glanced between the three men. “I'm sorry, whoever he stole this from.”

Graham bit the inside of his lip to keep from smiling. He knew for sure she'd sent Zach to the car just to get him out
of earshot. Now he'd have some fun with it. “It's mine, and you can wear it.”

BOOK: Fight to the Finish (First to Fight #3)
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