As much as I love writing historical romance, you need to spice things up from time to time. That’s why, in just a couple weeks, I’m giving you a taste of a sexy, fast-paced new sports romance series published under a brand-new name—because what lady doesn’t need a second, not-so-secret identity?
My new Julia Blake book, Changing the Play, is the first book in the Game Changer series, and it comes out on August 21. It’s a second chance romance between Rachel, an agent at the top of her game, and Nick, the sports reporter trying to wheedle a story out of her biggest new client. Things are extra sticky because Nick also is Rachel’s high school crush who never paid her any attention—or so she thinks.
You can preorder Changing the Play now to make sure you’re in the game the day the book hits stores.
To give you a little taste of what you can expect, here’s the first chapter.
Rachel Pollard huffed out a breath and wished desperately for a shot of whiskey in her coffee. She’d been up all night reviewing an endorsement contract for Katerina Baranova, and now the spoiled tennis player and her equally loathsome father were tying up her office line with even more demands. Not a fun way to end a workday.
“Why does Serena get to design her own dresses?” Katerina whined, her Russian accent softened by years of training at an exclusive Palm Beach tennis academy.
Because Serena Williams revolutionized the women’s game, and you only cracked the quarterfinals of your first Grand Slam last month.
“Katerina should be focusing on her forehand,” barked Yuri. “Not dresses. Not shoes. Not visors.”
His daughter sniffed. “I’m interested in more than just hitting a ball around a grass court.”
“If you’d learn to respect the grass, you wouldn’t have lost in the second round of Wimbledon last year,” Yuri said.
Rachel pressed two fingers to the bridge of her nose and pinched. Hard. She had neither the time nor the desire to get dragged into the middle of another Baranova brawl. What she did have was a hot date with a bottle of cabernet, a scalding bath, and three contracts on her iPad. Not exactly an evening of romance, but the contracts had to be read, and doing the work at home trumped late nights in her midtown Manhattan office any day.
“Look,” she interrupted, “your contract very clearly states that you’ll be given a selection of clothing at the beginning of each season. For now, all you can do is keep winning, Katerina. Wins mean more leverage when it comes time to renegotiate with the sponsors.”
“See,” said Yuri. “Miss Pollard tells you to win. You do what Miss Pollard tells you.”
Rachel was so happy to hear a Baranova agree with her that she didn’t even point out that she went by Ms. and not Miss. Not that Yuri cared. He was more focused on grooming his daughter to be the next Maria Sharapova than he was on pleasantries. Typical nightmare tennis dad.
Five minutes later, Rachel dropped her desk phone unceremoniously into its cradle and slouched in her chair. A glance at the gold watch she always wore on her left wrist told her that Katerina and Yuri had sucked up twenty-four minutes. Much too long. It was time to start weighing whether the troublesome tennis player was worth the investment—Grand Slam appearances or not.
Most of Rachel’s clients weren’t a problem because most treated her with the same reverence a fifth grader holds for a strict but beloved teacher. In her business, reputation was key, and over the years she’d become known for finding raw, untested young athletes and grooming them into stars.
Working with her came with some caveats, of course. She operated under strict rules. You work out. You practice. You don’t fuck up. If you don’t fall in line, you get dropped.
You do not want my cell phone to ring at three in the morning because you’ve done something stupid, she told each of them. Most—if not all—followed that rule.
Rachel unplugged her iPad and slid it into her purse along with a file of loose papers. She blindly felt for the unforgiving black pumps she’d kicked off under her desk hours ago and wiggled her feet into them before gathering up her coat.
“Night, Nathan,” she called to her assistant as she passed his desk. But then she stopped. “You’re going home, aren’t you?”
The tall, skinny young man with spiked brown hair blinked a couple of times before shaking his head. “Sorry, yeah. I’m just finishing up the edits to this press release.”
“It can wait. Go home.”
He mumbled something that sounded like a yes, but the way he bent his head over the keyboard told her odds were slim he’d actually follow her instructions. She couldn’t fault Nathan’s work ethic. She’d been the same way when she was an assistant—hopeful and hungry for her break.
Halfway down the hall, the door to Emma Robbins’s office was still open. Rachel stuck her head in and found her friend on the phone, pacing the room in stocking feet.
Emma smiled when she spotted her but held up a finger. “I’ll send you all the details ASAP. I’ve got to go. Call me first thing tomorrow, and don’t even think of talking, texting, or tweeting anything. To anyone.”
She raised her eyebrows when Emma ended the call and let out a long sigh.
“What’s going on?” Rachel asked.
Her friend flopped down in her leather desk chair and tucked her platinum blonde hair behind her ear. “Someone leaked to the press about Dante not being happy with his contract. Now this reporter from the Seattle Times is threatening to publish some bullshit story. I’m working up a press release saying—”
“Dante Helms loves Seattle and wants nothing more than to help bring another Super Bowl win to the city,” she finished for Emma.
“And the truth?”
“Dante wants to get back to Chicago so badly, he’ll burn rubber on I-90 doing it.”
“Looks like you’ve got a long night ahead of you. Are we still on for the Nets game on Wednesday?”
Emma nodded. “Wouldn’t miss it. I need to get out of this office.”
She laughed. “Don’t we all? See you tomorrow.”
In front of an office a few feet down the hall, Rachel’s other friend, Louise, was poring over something on her computer.
“Hi there,” Rachel said, stopping in front of Louise’s desk.
The younger woman slid her glasses off, rubbed one of her eyes, and froze. “Dammit. I forgot about my mascara.”
Rachel did a quick check of Louise’s makeup. “You’re good.”
Louise sighed. “That just means I rubbed it all off earlier.”
“Is Brad making you stay late again?” she asked.
“I’m doing his expenses, but I promised myself I’d break free at eight no matter what.”
A few years younger than Rachel and Emma, Louise had the misfortune of working for “Brad the Bad.” The agent had installed her in an assistant’s chair four years ago and had been coasting on Louise’s hard work ever since.
“You’ve left after me every night for the past three weeks. I wish you’d let me talk to him,” Rachel pleaded.
Louise shot her a tight smile. “It’s just a busy time.”
“Too busy to catch the game Wednesday?” she asked.
Louise’s shoulders slumped. “Probably, but I’ll let you know if it changes.”
She said her goodbyes but made a mental note to talk to Emma. They had to figure out a way to get Louise off the assistant’s desk and building a client list of her own. She deserved it.
Rachel should have been able to make the forty steps from Louise’s desk to the elevators with no interruptions, and she would’ve been home free if her cell phone hadn’t rung just as she stopped in front of the stainless steel doors.
The number was blocked. She was tempted to let it go to voice mail, but it was her job to be reachable, day or night. Sometimes, she thought as she swiped to answer, being available 24/7 sucked.
“This is Rachel Pollard.” She pushed the elevator’s down button with one red-polished nail.
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. She repeated her greeting—her voice clipped and short this time as she tapped her foot.
But just as she was about to hang up, a man’s deep voice broke the silence, “Rachel, it’s been a long time.”
She frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who this is.”
“I know a lot of Nicks.” She glanced at the elevator display. The closest car was fourteen floors away.
The man cleared his throat. “Nick Ruben. We went to high school together.”
The ball of her foot hit the floor with a sharp click and stayed there. Nick Ruben. Oh, she knew exactly who he was. The two-sport star of Prescott High School. The golden boy. She’d spent most of their sophomore and junior years wondering if he’d ever notice her, and all of senior year forcing herself to get over her crush. And now, he was calling.
“How can I help you, Nick?” she asked, putting on that little edge of professional ice she used when speaking to reporters, because while she’d grown up to become one of the most in-demand young agents in sports management, she knew Nick had become a journalist. One, it would seem, who couldn’t ignore her any longer.
“I was feeling nostalgic, so I thought I’d call and see how you’re doing.” His voice might be sweet as honey, but it wasn’t thick enough to coat the bullshit that lay under the small talk. She didn’t have the time or inclination to wheedle out why he’d called. He’d have to come out and ask for whatever interview with whichever of her clients he wanted, just like anyone else.
And that’s when Nick would learn that she was the gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper didn’t do favors.
Mashing the elevator’s down button again, she said, “Nick Ruben. Reporter and sometimes anchor of New York Sports Network’s Sports Desk. You got a job in Kansas right after college covering the Royals for the Associated Press. Then you made the move to TV in Kansas City. After that you headed to one of Seattle’s local stations, and two years later you landed in Chicago. Your work was good enough that NYSN snatched you up to cover the Devils out of their Newark bureau. Since getting there, you’ve worked your way into a general assignment and fill-in anchor position. You’ve been in the tristate area for the last three years, here in New York City for the last two. You won a Murrow Award for your reporting on sub-concussive hits on high school football players in 2014. You also occasionally land in the gossip columns. Page Six in particular seems to like reporting on your dating life.
“I’m not big on nostalgia, Nick. Consider us caught up.”
When he didn’t respond immediately, she was certain she’d scared him off. She talked fast and took no prisoners—not everyone’s favorite set of qualities and ones that didn’t jive with most men’s first impression of her. All they saw were a pair of legs and a lot of red wavy hair standing quietly behind some of sports’ biggest stars during press conferences. Most men weren’t prepared for her to steamroll them.
Instead of sputtering, Nick began to laugh, the rich tone filling her phone’s speaker, and all at once her stomach clenched. How many hours had they spent just feet apart from each other in their high school baseball team’s dugout? In those days, she’d just wanted a sign that he saw her as something more than the gangly manager who took down game stats. A long time ago, she would’ve paid anything to elicit that kind of laugh from him.
“Sounds like you’ve been following my career pretty closely,” he said.
The elevator doors opened and Rachel stepped inside, her grip on the phone just a little bit tighter. “It’s my job to keep an eye on the talent at all of the major broadcast outlets. You’re no exception.”
You’re not special. I’ve been watching your career because this is what makes me so good at my job.
“So tell me, Nick,” she said, forcing the chill back into her voice, “what can I do for you?”
* * *
Nick stared at his cubicle wall, unsure of his next move, which was annoying as hell. He always knew what to do—even when someone turned him down, there was always another angle to get what he wanted—but somehow Rachel Pollard had managed to put him on his ass in two minutes flat. Just like she had in high school.
He caught his producer’s eye as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He should’ve have taken the call privately, but Mindy had insisted on being there. She was as invested in getting this interview as he was, but now she hovered over him like a mother hen, knocking him off his game.
Or maybe you’ve just never had game when it came to Rachel.
No. He had too much riding on this call to start thinking like that.
He took a deep breath. Time to turn on the charm and try again. “Like I said, can’t old high school friends—”
“The most you ever said to me in high school was ‘Can I get my game stats?’ or ‘Hand me that water bottle,’” Rachel interjected.
He frowned. That wasn’t true. Was it?
He remembered her, skinny as a string bean with her long red-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and stuffed through the loop of an Arizona Diamondbacks ball cap. Quiet and closed off, she was always around, standing just a little apart. Unapproachable.
In the fall, she was never far from the football field, watching practice armed with a pad of paper, constantly taking notes on plays and strategy. The football coaches mostly tolerated her—probably because having her hanging around the bleachers didn’t really hurt anyone.
Each spring, she’d ride at the front of the baseball bus, crunching stat lines and talking tactics with Coach Callahan. The man used to brag about her knack for defensive positioning and her encyclopedic knowledge of pitchers—and how it was a damn shame none of the boys on the team ever developed a head for “that kind of advanced strategy.”
But while Coach Callahan treated her like a protégé, Nick’s teammates were ruthless, breaking her down in the locker room, where she couldn’t defend herself. They said she was weird. They dismissed her because they figured she must be crushing on someone. And then they’d try to guess who she had the hots for. As a wide receiver and a pitcher who saw a lot of game time in both of his sports, his name came up a lot. The mentions had made the back of his neck burn red because, deep down, Nick had liked her.
He hadn’t gone after her like he had Melanie Crawford, who he’d talked into kissing him in an empty hallway at Winter Formal sophomore year. Rachel wasn’t the cheerleader that he, the jock, was supposed to chase. She was the quiet girl, and somehow that made her seem cool, distant, and unattainable. He’d been so sure she’d turn those deep blue eyes on him and shut him down.
And now here he was, trying to stave off another kind of rejection a decade and a half later.
“Look, I apologize for being an idiot teenager,” he said, switching tactics and swallowing his pride. “Most teenage boys are idiots.”
“They are.” She hesitated. “An apology is a start.”
For the first time since she’d picked up, he heard something underneath the ice—the faintest hint of a smile. It wasn’t much, but Nick knew from a lifetime of experience that the moment he could make someone smile, he was in. Now all he had to do was get Rachel in front of him for five minutes, long enough to convince her to grant him the interview he needed.
Taking a calculated risk, he asked, “Meet me for a drink?”
Mindy shot him a horrified look, so he fixed his gaze on the dozens of press passes hanging on his cubicle wall.
“Like I told you, I’m not big on nostalgia,” Rachel said. “Look, I’m kind of busy right now . . .”
Damn. He’d miscalculated. She was going to hang up, and he was going to have to call back and beg.
Quickly he said, “Last time I was back home Coach Callahan asked about you. You’re right, I do have a favor to ask, but I also want to be able to tell him how you’re doing next time I see him.”
There was a slight beat—a gap in her armor—but he wasn’t expecting the warmth in her voice when she asked, “Did he really?”
“He got on my case about not having met up with you, since we live in the same city. He still thinks you could teach me a thing or two.”
That got a laugh out of her. “I’m not so sure about that.”
She had a good laugh—full and throaty. It made all of the bullshit worries about sucking up his pride and calling her fall away. Suddenly, hearing her laugh again seemed very, very important.
“Is that false modesty from Rachel Pollard?” he asked.
“It’s knowing a lost cause when I see one. You never really listened to your coaches. You just kind of did your own thing.”
He couldn’t help the urge to test the elbow he’d injured in college. Too many pitches in his freshman season and a natural weakness in a tiny tendon had landed him on the surgeon’s table. Even after months of physical therapy, his pitching arm had never been the same.
“Guilty as charged,” he said. “So what do you say? Meet me for a drink.”
“I’ve got a lot going on tonight,” she said, starting to hedge.
He took another gamble. “No you don’t.”
“How do you know?” she scoffed.
He grinned. “Because you thought about it for a split second. You were weighing whether meeting with me was really worth your time. My guess is you’re bringing work home. Maybe you have some plans to see your boyfriend—”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
His grin spread into a full-on, shit-eating smile as he stored that little bit of information away. Not that he’d ever pursue Rachel. Chasing after an agent with her client list would be as stupid as running headfirst into a wall over and over again, never mind that it would land him straight in his news director’s office as soon as word got out that he’d made a play for a high-profile woman who could also become an important source.
“The fact that the boyfriend is the thing you’re correcting me on just proves I’m right,” he said. “You’ve got a free night.”
“A better man would have let that go.”
“Good thing I’m not a better man,” he said, swiveling around and raising an eyebrow at Mindy. His producer rolled her eyes.
“Come get a drink with me,” he continued. “Unless you’re scared.”
That laugh filled his phone’s speaker again. “You haven’t scared me since I saw you wipe out into a bench of Coconino High School players.”
Automatically his hand went to his chin to rub the thin, pale scar he’d gotten that night.
“You know Artemis in Columbus Circle?” he asked.
“I’m going to be there in twenty minutes.” Without another word, he hung up the phone and put it facedown on his desk.
“Well, that was either the most brilliant or the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen you do,” said Mindy. “And I’ve seen you do a lot of stupid things.”
“No you haven’t,” he said as he stood to put on his suit jacket.
“I’ve wing-womaned all over Manhattan for you. That means I’ve seen you karaoke ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ with some blonde you were trying to talk into bed. You still owe me for that one, by the way. Your singing voice is even worse when you’re drunk.”
He remembered the night in question. Mostly.
“That was two years ago. Let it go,” he said.
Mindy smirked. “Never.”
“I’ll bet you twenty bucks that I get Rachel to agree to grant this interview by the end of the night,” he said, smoothing his lapels against his chest.
Mindy folded her arms. “Right. Because she sounded so willing to walk down memory lane with you. Are you sure she’s even going to show?”
His phone buzzed, and he glanced at the screen. It was one of his college friends asking for fantasy basketball advice.
“Got a hot date?”
He looked up and caught Mindy’s smirk.
“None of your business,” he said.
“Who is it this time?” she asked. “A hedge fund analyst? A lawyer? A publicist? Or do I have to wait until you two wind up in the tabloids to find out?”
He shot her a dirty look and put his phone away.
“Why do you think Rachel’s not going to show?” he asked.
“From right here it sounded like you were bombing pretty hard. Even if she comes, there’s no way she agrees to work with us.”
“So take the bet.”
Mindy adjusted her black-framed glasses in that way that reminded him of librarians and elementary school teachers. Only none of the teachers who’d taught him paired them with leather leggings, long slouchy sweaters, knee-high boots, and piles of wood bracelets.
“Fine,” she finally said, sticking out her hand to shake. “Twenty says you can’t convince her to let us do the interview.”
He clapped his hand on hers and squeezed. “That twenty will buy a couple of sweet-tasting victory beers.” Just barely, damn New York prices.
Nick glanced at his watch. It’d take him ten minutes to walk to the bar, which would give him another ten to settle in, order a drink, and wait. Every man had his game, and part of Nick’s was making sure that he was never the last one to show up to a meeting—whether it was a date or a drink with a source. He wanted to pick the location, the time, the mood. He wanted the other party on their toes, just a little flustered at finding him halfway through a drink.
“I’m looking forward to taking your money, Ruben,” Mindy shouted after him as he walked out.
Never going to happen, he thought as he made his way out of the newsroom. There was no way he was going to let Mindy or himself down.