Played ONLY
$2.99

an Elite PR novel by Clare James


Play. Or be played.

The music should be enough. End of story. But Aaron Major is finding out it’s not, and now his agent has hired a firm of suits to help launch his debut album, turning his life into a goddamn circus. Smile here. Play there. Be nice. Well, screw that. If Aaron wanted to spend his time shaking hands and kissing babies, he would’ve gone into politics.

Helping launch the career of country singer Aaron Major should be a cakewalk for PR pro Melody Sharp. Aaron is charming, sexy, and oh-so-appealing when he’s on stage. Off stage, though, he’s her worst nightmare. A stubborn, ornery, reclusive nightmare without a lick of business-or fashion-sense. The only way he’s going to make it in music is with a serious makeover-and quite possibly a personality transplant.

Soon, they’re engaged in a game of give and take, and though it’s Melody calling the shots, it’s Aaron who holds all control…
 

Information:

Title: Played
Series: Elite PR, #2
Author: Clare James
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 203 pages
ISBN: 978-1-63375-451-5
Release Date: October 19, 2015
Imprint: Brazen
 
 
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
 

 
 
 

An Excerpt from:

Played
by Clare James

Copyright © 2015 by Clare James. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Chapter One

I need to see you.

Melody Sharp read the subject line on the email and shivered in her pale blue Lilly Pulitzer. Her skin turned downright icy—no easy feat in Atlanta in August—so she covered her goose-pimpled arms with the cardigan that draped over her office chair.

How did he find her?

A familiar ache throbbed inside her chest. It’d happened so long ago, but that pain of rejection remained close to the surface. It hit her so hard, she thought she might lose her lunch, and that pissed her right off. It was beyond mortifying that five little words on the computer screen could send her into such a tizzy.

If she were at home, she’d break something. A bunch of somethings. But that was out of the question, as she sat in the fishbowl of a cubical she’d been exiled to after her recent demotion. She knew her boss’s spies were watching her as she’d slunk inside the Elite Public Relations office doors well past eight a.m., and she knew they were watching her now. Especially her nemesis, who she had affectionately named The Weasel.

Her lackadaisical attitude was to blame, but she couldn’t help it. She just wasn’t feeling it anymore. What was once a fun and challenging career had turned into a chore. Ugh, adulting. Even at twenty-five, Mel was far from mastering it. So she’d been avoiding everything, pretending her craphole of a life belonged to someone else. Of course, deep down she knew it was ridiculous to fight the inevitable, and it was so past time to grow up. But why bother when she really had no idea what she wanted to do with her life?

Then the ominous email arrived.

Not the message I was looking for, Universe.

Without a thought to what she was doing, she began ripping her brown paper bag into tiny little pieces, stacking them in neat piles next to her keyboard. Lovely. Like she needed to call any more attention to her current mental state. She quickly brushed the paper aside, grabbed the stress ball off her desk, and squeezed. Typically, she used it to pelt the interns in the head when they annoyed her, so it was kind of nice to actually handle it for its intended purpose for a change.

Mel never really had the need for a stress ball before. Before the demotion, she occupied a spacious office—with real walls—on the east side of the building, which overlooked Peachtree Street downtown. A perfectly acceptable place to have a breakdown. In private. But that was back before she lost her way. Before her best friend moved to North Carolina and left her to contend with her boss, Miranda Wells, aka the Ice Queen, on her own, and before she slid into her quarter-life crisis (yes, it was really a thing!) and began effing up her life royally.

After Mel’s third or fourth misstep, Miranda threw down the gauntlet, saying if Mel was going to contribute like an entry-level employee, then she’d be treated as such. And that meant the office space of a peon, with a salary to match.

Mel wasn’t quite sure which was worse.

She took a long, fortifying breath to steady her nerves and get her anger in check but instead gagged a little. One of her new cubical mates brought the most putrid smelling dish to his desk—some fish and egg combo that was so offensive the entire staff of interns shifted in their seats.

“Sorry, dudes.” The lunch offender responded to the gasps and complaints now roaring behind the maze of partitions. “I’m on a strict protein diet.”

Good Lord, it was college all over again. On a normal day, Mel would join them and set the kid straight. However, this afternoon had been anything but normal, and there were more pressing issues to deal with. She huddled closer to her laptop and checked the email again, just to be sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her.

I need to see you.

It wasn’t so much the subject line that had chilled her blood as it was the name on return email address: Teddy McBride. The dot-de instead of dot-com told her he was contacting her from Germany. The place he’d fled to three years ago.

She could conjure up the memory of that day so easily. Her wound was still tender; it had never healed quite right. Looking back, it reminded her of the ending of Gone with the Wind, when she cried and begged her very own Rhett Butler to stay. Told him she couldn’t live without him. But all he could say was, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” before he walked off into the sunset. Okay, it was probably more along the lines of, “Sorry, baby,” with a peck on the cheek as he left the Sweetwater Country Club, but Mel appreciated theatrics.

She had always wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara, unconventional and brave, a woman who made her own rules. Unfortunately, she ended up coming off more like Celia Foote from The Help—a pretty, ditsy caricature of a woman who was about as smart as tree bark. Which explained why she never saw it coming. Yes, Melody’s door to happiness didn’t so much close as slam in her face. No warning. No apology. Just one big FU and a kick to her fine china.

Instead of the proposal she was expecting, her boyfriend of six years had informed her that he was going to graduate school in Dusseldorf…in front of the whole damn town. Or over lunch in the Willow Room, same difference. Anyone who was anyone in Sweetwater had been there that day, and those who weren’t heard about it soon enough. It was the small town way.

Teddy said he wasn’t ready to settle down. He wanted to meet new people and experience new things. He wanted an adventure. All code for: she was boring and inexperienced…and not enough for him.

Her entire world came crumbling down with his admission. One minute she was preparing for the wedding of the decade, the next she was skipping town in the middle of the night. That was how she’d arrived in Atlanta. She moved to the city to get away from it all, to save face. But mostly she relocated in a desperate attempt to win back the douchebag. She thought if she left Sweetwater and became some sophisticated city girl, he’d find her so irresistible, he’d beg her to come back to him. Yeah, that never happened.

Now, from a flipping ocean away, Teddy McBride still had an unyielding power over her—even after all this time—and that really dilled her pickle.

I need to see you.

Her fingers hovered over the mouse. Should she open it?

She jumped when her phone buzzed. “Shit.”

Miranda.

“Bring in your notes from the Falcons meeting,” Miranda barked, snapping her out of her painful reverie.

“Right away, ma’am,” she said, biting her lip to hold back all the other responses that threated to escape. Elite—a PR firm of spin doctors and publicists for the rich and famous—was handling the kickoff to the football season. It was one of their biggest events and one Mel should’ve taken a lead role in. Instead, she was tasked with recording the minutes at all of the status meetings.

She hung up with Miranda and flipped her phone the bird. The intern sitting in the cubical across from her giggled. She was one of the only people Mel could impress these days.

Trudging through Intern’s Row, Mel still couldn’t believe that she now officed there—amid a mishmash of college kids with tiny headphones in their ears and giant cans of Monster on their desks. She glared at Smelly Lunch Guy, who quickly dropped his head to brace for an ass-whooping. She didn’t have the time or energy to give him one.

Her boss played for blood, she’d give her that. The entire situation was beyond humiliating, but Mel wasn’t about to let it break her. Not yet. Once she reached the designated Events area, where she’d once belonged, she painted on her game face and charged ahead toward the executive suite. Her colleagues pretended not to see her. Traitorous assholes.

“Here you are.” She approached Miranda’s desk with the paperwork after the requisite three knocks outside her door. Her boss preferred to have the notes printed out so she could page through them while she ran on her treadmill in the evenings. Yes, Miranda lived to work, and expected everyone else to do the same. The woman was a force of nature, and everything about her was severe, intense, and colder than a polar bear’s butt. No one would deny she was gorgeous—with dark, shoulder-length hair, the bluest eyes you’d ever seen, and just as thin as could be. She was also scary as hell.

“Next time”—she flipped through the notes without giving Mel even a single icy glance—“let’s be proactive, so I don’t have to hound you for such simple material.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Mel said, afraid to open her mouth any further. She was already rattled and raw, and so close to telling the Ice Queen where she could shove that simple material.

“And don’t forget the seminar on Wednesday,” Miranda added, turning her back in dismissal. “Frankie Fink has words to live by.”

As if she could forget. The Women in Business seminars were another requirement of Mel’s probation. But hey, at least she’d get away from the interns for the day. She had to stay positive, and just hang on until Labor Day—four weeks away. That’s when she’d be forced to go back to Sweetwater for the town’s Last Hurrah of Summer celebration. She made it back every year—her mama and daddy would be devastated if she didn’t. Mostly though, her attendance was all part of her own personal PR campaign and reputation management. She had to show the good people of Sweetwater just how fabulous her life was…without Teddy. So returning home sans her fancy job wasn’t an option, especially after hearing from the town’s golden boy. That only made her want to prove herself more.

But she had nothing to prove to him. So no, she would not open his email. As far as she was concerned, it never happened. Dang, she was good at denial. At least that was something.

Back in her cube, Mel finished compiling the Falcons’ media kit and social media pages for the event—things she hadn’t done since her first year under Miranda’s thumb. She shut down her email window so she wouldn’t be tempted by Teddy’s note. Though it didn’t stop her finger from itchin’.

What would he possibly have to say to her after all this time?

She waited until all her work was done for the day before she pulled up her email again, unable to stop herself from scrolling back to Teddy McBride and his stupid dot-de address.

I need to see you.

The words had played on a loop in her head the entire day and she couldn’t take it another second. So she placed a finger to her mouse. And then opened it.

 

am not a slut. I am not a slut. I am not a slut.

Twelve hours later, Mel beat herself up as she made the last leg of her literal walk of shame back to her apartment. The normally lively street in her trendy neighborhood was finally asleep, though the remnants of its wild nightlife remained scattered all over the pavement—cigarette butts here, beer bottles there, condom wrappers along the curbside, alleyways full of trash.

This party hotspot had been rode hard and put away wet.

Much like she felt.

Of course, Mel was a modern woman and so not into slut shaming. Still…she was walking the streets at five a.m. With her panties in her purse!

Hey, at least she got her undies back. Because Lord knows what some creepers would do with them. She’d just read an article about girls selling their unmentionables to make a few bucks—used panties were apparently in high demand, now worth more money online than breast milk. And if Mel didn’t get her shit together soon, she’d have to sell both just to make rent.

So things weren’t exactly going as planned lately…but nobody could call her boring anymore. It may have taken her three years to do something wild and crazy, but she finally did it. Who cares if she knew the guy? Or that he was her friend? The point was, boring and inexperienced women didn’t hook up on a weekday night.

Boom! Take that, Teddy.

Ow. She couldn’t go there right now. Not with her gray matter throbbing in her head, or the acid rolling in her stomach. No, she refused to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, that one pesky email from Teddy proclaiming that he had to “see her” may have been the bee sting to her ass that prompted her very first one-night stand. Not like Mel was celibate or anything, she just preferred to be dating for a few weeks before she became on a first name basis with a penis. But the little blast from the past shot that standard to hell.

I need to see you.

She must’ve read that line a hundred times before opening it. It wasn’t all it said.

Dear Mel,

I’m coming home. I’ll be back the day before the Last Hurrah.

Meet me at our spot before the parade? It’s important.

T.M

Well, what could she say? After reading the cryptic email from her ex, she panicked…and had a few too many tequila shots to take the edge off. Next thing she knew, she was tangled under the sheets with her friend.

Kevin Wallis worked in her building downtown and lived only a few blocks away. Lucky for her. By day, he was an investment banker. By night, he ran a crazy successful blog about the nightlife in Atlanta. She met him her first week in the city, during lunch, and they hit it off right away. He was smart, hot, and totally connected—the perfect person to give her a taste of what she came to Atlanta for. Though she had never really taken him up on it. Until last night. And now, he had truly given her everything.

Not that anyone would know what she’d been up to. She looked perfectly composed in her sundress and sandals. Her makeup was flawless. That was no accident—she’d stopped in Kevin’s bathroom and freshened up before she left. Just because she was acting like a harlot, didn’t mean she had to look like one. She was a Southern lady, after all. Well, mostly…

Shit, her feet ached. She stopped to release the buckle on the damn sandals, desperately wishing she’d worn her sneakers. She tried for the next best thing and let the straps flop around her ankles as she walked the last block home. Just a few more measly yards and she could get a couple of hours of sleep before she had to leave for work.

Mel dodged what might have been a puddle of pee on the side of the road, making a little jump over the curb. She’d gone looking for an adventure last night. This wasn’t what she had in mind, but at least she was out there experiencing new things.

Had he done the same?

She wasn’t so naive as to think that, after three years abroad, Teddy hadn’t sampled the local cuisine. Really, she didn’t care if he had. Even though hearing from him out of the blue struck a nerve, she’d been over him for a long time now. Of course, those first few months had been excruciating. She had cried herself to sleep every night, called home every day, and checked her phone incessantly, praying he’d call. It went on that way for so long it’d become normal, until Miranda hired her. Once she joined the Elite team, there wasn’t time for any sort of wallowing.

Really, with the exception of her lack of judgment last night, she had made a good life for herself alone in the city. Mel hadn’t known a single soul in Atlanta when she’d moved that summer after college graduation. Her apartment in Little Five Points—a bohemian area of the city that was about as far from her hometown of Sweetwater as you could get—had been her humble abode for three years now. True, she stuck out like a sore thumb with her preppy clothes and bright colors amidst the dark hipster-wear of the area, but she loved it here.

It was a place known for its restaurants, bars, and shops, but at the ass crack of dawn, you’d never know it. Except for the stench. The pungent stink of stale beer and quite possibly vomit made her own stomach turn. She needed to move fast or she’d find herself hurling on the side of the road like a freshman during rush week.

Finally, she rounded the corner to her place—an older home that’d been converted into three apartments. A place she might not have for much longer unless she seriously turned things around. The pale yellow house stood proud on the corner with its wrap-around porch. It was that porch, with its colorful Adirondack chairs, that had captivated Mel initially. She envisioned hanging out there after work and having cocktails with friends, kicking back on those chairs on a hot evening while reading a book, even serving sweet tea to her parents when they came up to visit.

Two out of three wasn’t so bad.

She couldn’t blame her parents; they had the business to take care of. Not to mention her sisters (and their families) were all in Sweetwater, so there wasn’t much need to leave. Strange how things turned out. Who would’ve ever thought that Mel would be the one to move to the city and land the big job? Or be the last to get a ring on her finger?

She was so focused on that depressing thought that she didn’t notice the moving truck parked in front of the house. So when she opened the door that led to her apartment, she wasn’t exactly expecting to see a guy dragging a mattress up the stairs.

“What in the ever-loving hell?” she screamed, stumbling back into the door. Her mind flipped from one scenario to another to explain the scene in front of her. Thief? Squatter? Deliveryman?

“Oh, hey there,” a deep voice said from behind the puffy white Select Comfort on the flight of stairs above. “Don’t mind me. I’m just moving in.”

“Just moving in?” she mocked. Meanwhile, there went ten years off her pathetic life. She didn’t like being caught off guard, and she definitely didn’t like surprises. It only made her ornery. Combine that with her current state of exhaustion and Mel didn’t exactly show well.

She couldn’t get a good look at the guy. He was hidden in the darkened hallway, but the door across from her upstairs apartment was propped open. Shit. He must be her new neighbor. She might’ve known that if she answered any of her landlord’s calls. But she had her reasons for avoiding him.

Still, who moved at this time of day, unless you were running from the law or a woman? Either way, she didn’t need the drama so close to her own living quarters when she had her own mess to deal with.

“A little early for moving day, wouldn’t you say?” she snapped.

“And a little late to be coming home”—he peeked around the mattress—“dressed like that, wouldn’t you agree?” His voice was smooth, low but clear, almost musical. She ignored what the sound did to her insides and absorbed his words instead—his condescending and judgmental words.

“Daddy, is that you?” she sing-songed. Who did he think he was, talking down to her? She had enough of that at work. She certainly didn’t have to put up with it at home, too.

“Barking up the wrong tree, little lady,” he said with a smile in his voice, not letting her stop him from his work. “Not really into role-play.”

Hmm, role-play. Now that could be something to explore. Somewhere between shots four and five last night, Mel decided that she was going to try this adulting thing—for real this time. She was on a mission to make a life here and to finally have the adventure she left home for. And whether she decided to meet Teddy or not, she’d return to Sweetwater this year a new woman. She was ready to embrace her inner Scarlett and live a life without regret.

“It’s okay,” her new neighbor said, interrupting her dramatic internal monologue. Heck, she was just about ready to break into song. “Whatever floats your boat, hon. I’m not here to judge.”

Right. He was still talking role-play. She didn’t bother to acknowledge him. Instead, she walked up the flight of stairs, squeezing against the wall of the hallway to slip past the mattress. She was not going to let this inconsiderate a-hole keep her from—she checked her watch—the hour and fifty minutes she had left for sleep. She had the world to conquer in the morning.

In front of her door at the top of the landing, she reached into her bag for the keys. But as she did, her panties fell out of her purse. Not yet accustomed to her new adventurous side, she completely forgot they were in there. Shit, this was not the first impression she wanted to make with her new housemate.

Maybe he didn’t see.

She quickly bent down to grab her underwear, not daring to look back, but the man’s amused chuckle told her all she needed to know. He was definitely a witness to her little humiliation.

“Not what it looks like,” she lied, finally pulling her keys from the bag. She squared her shoulders and, despite the ticking clock, she took her time with the lock. She would not be shamed for…okay, yes, it was called the walk of shame for a reason. Still, she wouldn’t be humiliated for her choices. Damn it.

“Whatever you say, princess,” he said. “It’s no crime.” And for a brief second, she wanted to turn around. One, to see who this velvety voice belonged to, and two, to give him one of her death glares.

She resisted, opened her door, and let it slam behind her. Maybe not what Scarlett would do, but she needed her sleep first. Yes, sleep. Then she’d make her mark on the world.

And she had just four weeks to do it.