Luck isn't a LadyBy: Beth Bolden
The Portland Pioneers Series
The phone call interrupted one of the worst dates Tabitha had ever been on.
She guessed that it could possibly be called a date—Eric certainly thought it was, considering how he’d felt free to slide a palm down her back, settling proprietarily just above her ass as they walked into the restaurant. Considering her luck lately, he’d probably left a damp, sweaty palm print on her magenta silk dress. She’d ground her teeth and mentally skewered him in the left eye but since she considered this a work meeting, the skewering would have to wait until she got what she needed out of him.
After, he was definitely going to be less willing.
Eric Talbot was a bigwig agent who fell, as far as Tabitha was concerned, just inside the legal side of the profession. He stretched the rules wherever and whenever he could, showering the first cousins and best friends of many major NCAA athletes with expensive gifts, including the occasional BMW or Mercedes. At the bargaining table, he was every owner and general manager’s worst nightmare, unscrupulous and dishonorable. Tabitha might have overlooked his methods if he’d aspired to be a modern-day Robin Hood. Instead, she’d figured out the only reason he played hardball to squeeze every penny out of every deal wasn’t for his clients. It was for the generous percentage he’d claim off the top.
Eric Talbot looked out for one person and one person only—himself.
He’d also been known to have his head turned by just about every blonde he saw, so when her boss had strongly suggested Tabitha should work with him to get access to his latest client, she knew how it was going to be.
The flashy car. The ridiculous watch on his wrist, glistening with diamonds. The restaurant that nobody in San Francisco could dream of getting into for at least six months. The corner table. The glint in his eye.
He left her cold and disgusted. The money was nice. The things she could buy with his money were nice. He was not, and she’d learned that even though she craved the freedom that his money could buy, to get access to it she already knew she’d have to chain herself to him.
Hell could freeze over and Santa plus all eight reindeer could dance on Eric Talbot’s grave before she’d ever let that happen.
But he thought he still had it in the bag, even though she’d barely even flirted with him. She was looking forward to enlightening him.
Her phone vibrated in her clutch again.
She should’ve turned it off, knowing she’d need every ounce of her concentration to not slap Mr. Touchy’s hand away whenever it wandered in her direction, but she hadn’t. A small tactical mistake.
Tabitha took a sip of wine, and even though this dinner was an exercise in patience, she couldn’t help but enjoy the light fruity bouquet on her tongue. As far as she was concerned, the five hundred dollars he’d spent on this bottle of wine was adequate payment for making her endure his presence. Taking advantage of the movement of her arm, she gracefully shucked his own away from her shoulder, where he’d been trying to make inroads towards her bare collarbone.
“Tell me,” she said, lowering her voice and pasting a conspiratorial smile on her face, “all about your newest client.”
“You know all about my newest client,” Eric said, flashing back a smile that Tabitha recognized. Okay, so this wouldn’t be easy. She didn’t want it to be, right?
Just once, she wished that an assignment wouldn’t mean that she’d be exposed to another man who criminally underestimated her, patronized her, and then attempted to convince her to sleep with him.
It had gotten old years ago.
Still, it was hard to hate the job when it was one she’d obstinately created for herself.
“Right,” Tabitha said. “Ryan Flores. Baseball player. Stanford graduate. Hottest first round pick in forever. The new Bryce Harper, even?”
“That shouldn’t be a question,” Eric pointed out, reaching over to refill her wine glass.
“Great potential is still only potential,” Tabitha said.
“What did you want to know?” Eric asked.
Tabitha considered continuing to prevaricate. They could both play this game for hours. He was almost as good at it as she was. Except everything about the way Eric Talbot operated left a bad taste in her mouth and even the excellent wine couldn’t get rid of it.
Her phone vibrated again, and she mentally ticked off the second phone call. If the same person called a third time, it would trigger the emergency setting. She’d had their office IT guy jury-rig something because in her opinion, two calls from the same person never constituted an actual emergency.
“You’re selling a story to the highest bidder. Sell it to us.” They were bidding high, but they weren’t going to be the highest. Her boss knew that, which was why Tabitha had put on her third best dress and had invited Eric Talbot to dinner. Persuade him the money isn’t important, her boss had said. Outwardly, she’d agreed. Inwardly, she’d scoffed.
Money was Eric Talbot’s god. He was never going to pick it over anything. But she was betting that Ryan Flores held a different set of priorities.
Eric leaned back in his seat. “Why?”
“Because we’d actually respect Ryan’s story.” The truth rarely worked as a persuasive tactic, and considering what Tabitha had spent the last week uncovering about Eric as an agent, she knew it wouldn’t work here. She also believed, based on some comments made by Ryan Flores’ mother on social media, that he’d put Eric on a short leash and was insisting on running all offers through him first.
At least Tabitha hoped that was what Ryan Flores had done. It was better for him, and it would be better for Tabitha, too.
She held no illusions about herself. She often twisted and bent the truth, very frequently to serve her own ends or the ends of the people she worked for. But never had she cared so little about other people the way Eric Talbot did. He made her skin crawl and in his presence, it was harder than ever to ignore the nauseous roll in her stomach. Too many ill deeds over too many years, and she had zero intention of atoning.
Eric chuckled. “You’re way more clever than your colleagues give you credit for.”
“I certainly hope so,” Tabitha retorted tartly. She knew exactly what people thought of her. But she won. If that meant tossing her hair a little more than necessary, and playing closer to the line of morality than some people felt comfortable with, whatever. She slept just fine at night.
Most of the time, anyway.
“They think you’re just some manipulative blonde,” Eric continued, and it was physically painful for Tabitha to restrain herself. Her nails dug into the wood of the chair, but she kept her other hand loose around the stem of her wineglass and her expression casual and unconcerned. “But you’re even more than that. Definitely manipulative. Definitely a climber. But smarter than you are beautiful, and that’s saying something.”
It was so hard not to roll her eyes. This asshole acted like him recognizing she had a brain under all this great hair was some sort of validation she’d been searching for her whole life—and he was gracious enough to give it to her.
“Thank you.” She paused. “So you’ll pass our offer onto Ryan?”
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no offer.” Eric flashed his too-white, too-even teeth.
“Check your email.”
Please. This was not her first rodeo.
He pulled his phone out of his pants, and Tabitha enjoyed more than she should have that it was awkward for him to extricate it out of the slim-cut pants he favored. He tapped the screen, eyes flicking through the email she’d sent right before getting out of the cab.
“It’s very generous. Not the most generous, but it’s well-thought-out,” Eric said, setting the phone down with a decisive click on the tabletop. Damn. She’d been looking forward to seeing him figure out how to get it back in his pocket while sitting down.
“We wouldn’t waste your—or Ryan’s—time with anything less.”
“I’ll pass it onto him,” Eric said.
Tabitha was pretty good at reading people and figuring out if they were telling the truth. But she wasn’t a hundred percent sure he was. Or that she’d guessed correctly that part of Ryan’s contract included a clause about seeing all offers.
Eric was so slippery it was tough to get a good read.
Just as she was marshalling her energy for a second, backup guarantee that meant Ryan would definitely see the offer, her phone rang again.
It was the third time, and this time instead of vibrating quietly in her clutch, it blared, the sound resonating through the restaurant, unsubtly hacking through the quiet hum of dinner conversation like a meat cleaver.
Eric shot her a look. Tabitha smiled, trying not to look actually nervous as she slipped her own phone out of her lap. “Just a moment, please excuse me,” she said, simpering and laying it on thicker than he’d probably buy. But she just needed to get a look at the screen so she could figure out if it was actually an emergency.
Pulling it out of her bag, she stared at the screen. It was her sister, Maggie, who, Tabitha had made sure over the years, would never call her unless there was a genuine, honest-to-god emergency.
Tabitha knew her face had gone white and there were a series of hairline cracks all through her composure. Her fingers clenched around the phone. “I’m sorry,” she said, all artifice gone in the wake of the panic streaking through her. “I need to take this.”