Acknowledgments from the Author

Sweet Rivalry

By K. Bromberg

1001 Dark Nights

Sweet Rivalry

By K. Bromberg

1001 Dark Nights

Copyright 2017 K. Bromberg

ISBN: 978-1-945920-16-5

Foreword: Copyright 2014 M. J. Rose

Published by Evil Eye Concepts, Incorporated

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments is solely coincidental.

Book Description


By K. Bromberg

Ryder Rodgers had a plan.

He was going to stride into the conference room, do the required song and dance over the next five days, and win the biggest contract of his career. But when he walked in and heard the voice of one of his competitors, all his plans were shot to hell.

Harper Denton. She was always on top. In college. First in their class. Always using every advantage to edge him out to win the coveted positions. The only one who could beat him. His academic rival. More like a constant thorn in his side. And his ego’s.

When he heard her voice, he was brought back to years before. To the bitter taste of being second best. But the woman who meets his gaze is nothing like the drab wallflower he used to know. Hell no. She was all woman now: curves, confidence, and staggering sex appeal. And no doubt, still brilliant.

The fact that she’s gorgeous and bright won’t distract him. This time, Ryder’s determined to be the one on top. But not if Harper can help it.

About K. Bromberg

New York Times Bestselling author K. Bromberg writes contemporary novels that contain a mixture of sweet, emotional, a whole lot of sexy, and a little bit of real. She likes to write strong heroines, and damaged heroes who we love to hate and hate to love.

She’s a mixture of most of her female characters: sassy, intelligent, stubborn, reserved, outgoing, driven, emotional, strong, and wears her heart on her sleeve. All of which she displays daily with her family and friends where she lives in Southern California.

In 2013, K. Bromberg decided her part time job in accounting wasn’t cutting it and decided to try her hand at this writing thing. Since then she has written eleven novels, landing over half of them on the New York’s Time Bestseller’s list and all but one of them on the USA Today’s bestseller list. She’s also a Wall Street Journal bestseller and an Amazon pick for best romance of 2013.

Her most notable series has been the Driven Series, its spin-off novels, and her standalone novel Sweet Cheeks.

Her plans for 2017 include a novella titled Sweet Rivalry, a sports romance duet (The Player (4/17), The Catch (July)) and the Everyday Heroes series (3 books: Cuffed, Combust, and Cockpit).

She loves to hear from her readers so make sure you check her out on social media or sign up for her newsletter here.

Also from K. Bromberg

Click to purchase







Slow Burn

Sweet Ache

Hard Beat

Down Shift

Sweet Cheeks

Acknowledgments from the Author

This book is dedicated to my book tribe: the women who keep me motivated to sit down and write, who keep me inspired when I don’t feel like writing, and the readers who continually pick up my books on the blind faith that I’m not going to disappoint them. Thank you for your support, your encouragement, and your trust.


Discover 1001 Dark Nights Collection One

Click here to explore






AZAGOTHby Larissa Ione

NEED YOU NOWby Lisa Renee Jones

SHOW ME, BABYby Cherise Sinclair

ROPED INby Lorelei James


THE FLAMEby Christopher Rice


Also from 1001 Dark Nights

TAME MEby J. Kenner

Table of Contents

Book Description

About K. Bromberg

Also by K. Bromberg

Acknowledgments from the Author

Discover 1001 Dark Nights Collection One

Discover 1001 Dark Nights Collection Two

Discover 1001 Dark Nights Collection Three



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Discover 1001 Dark Nights Collection Four

Discover the World of 1001 Dark Nights

An excerpt from The Player by K. Bromberg

Special Thanks



Years prior

With each step I take, my temper burns brighter.

Hmm. I don’t think they believe you, Harper.


Hmm. Can’t you make that sound more convincing, Harper?

Another step.

Hmm. Are you sure your facts are right, Harper?


He’s right behind me. I can feel him. I can smell his cologne. I can sense his adrenaline just as hyped as mine is.

But in my head all I can hear is him murmur hmm in response to every single point I tried to make during our Master’s debate. A school tradition more important to most of us graduate students than the graduation ceremony itself. One I was looking forward to for weeks but now feel like it’s the bane of my existence.

Flustered, I shove open the door of the lecture hall, thinking it leads to outside and fresh air––distance from him––but all I’m met with is the stale smell of a connecting classroom in front of me and the sound of his feet behind me.


“Don’t!” I whirl around to face him, the fuse to my temper ignited. “Don’t you dare Harper me.”

His lips slowly turn up in a lopsided smirk as he narrows his eyes as if he can’t figure out why I’m so upset.

Not just upset. Livid.

“What would you like me to call you then?”

“Go away.” I turn my back to him and begin to pace the room, cursing myself for pushing open the wrong door. Fresh air would have been better. Outside I could have kept walking across campus so he couldn’t catch up.

“You want to tell me why you’re so pissed off at me?”

“You’re an asshole.” I toss over my shoulder, knowing that’s the nicest I’m going to get with him right now.


There’s that goddamn sound again.

“Stop doing that! You’re driving me crazy.” I rage as I spin around to see him standing there with humor in his eyes. This isn’t funny. Him being an asshole is not funny. “Go away! Stop looking at me like that. I don’t want you to––I’m so angry at you that…that…”

“Why would you be angry with me?” The blasé way he asks the question makes my temper bristle even more.

“Why? Who the hell do you think you are? Sitting there on that stage and questioning me with that annoying sound every single time I stepped to the podium to speak. During my opening arguments, during my rebuttals, even my closing statements. It was hmm and hmm and hmm. That’s all I heard.”

“Yeah. So?” he asks as he steps toward me, shoulders squaring and eyes challenging me.

My hands fist and teeth grit. His nonchalance only serves to irk me further. “Get. Out.”

“Why? Are you so high and mighty on that throne of yours that you think you can do no wrong?”

His words are a verbal slap to the high of winning the debate despite his constant interjecting hmms. I glare at him, my body vibrating, and throw my hands up. “So that’s what this is about? Are you that jealous I beat you out for first in class that you and your precious ego decided to sabotage me during the debate? Are you fricking kidding me?”

“This isn’t about me and my ego,” he says quietly as he takes a step closer to me.

“Yeah, right. Like I said, you’re an asshole. Thanks for nothing, Ryder.” I hate that I’m hurt when I should have known better. I hate that I cared that he was judging me.

He just looks at me with this expression on his face that I can’t quite read but don’t think I want to. “After all this time, that’s how you want to end this?”

“End what?” What is he talking about?

Emotion swims in his eyes but I’m so upset and now confused that we stand feet apart without saying a word. He opens his mouth and then closes it before chuckling a disbelieving laugh. “You know what? Forget it. Forget I even followed you back here to congratulate you on winning. Go Bruins! Yay,” he says, the sarcasm thick in his tone as he raises his fist like he’s cheering me on before waving his hands at me like he’s over me and turns to walk out the door.

“Don’t you dare leave!” I shout the words as panic suddenly fills me over the thought of him actually doing just that.

His laugh is louder this time as he stops and turns around, hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders shrugged as if to say decide. “Make up your mind, Harp. Get out. Don’t leave. What’s it gonna be?”

That slow, easy tone of his is like the scissors snipping at the final strings of my temper. Tears swim again. “Screw you!”

He tucks his tongue in his cheek and just shakes his head from side to side. And I’m not sure why I’m looking for a fight but he’s not giving it to me and that only pisses me off further. “You had no right to question me. None.”

“You’re goddamn right I did!” He’s in front of me in a flash, face a reflection of anger—eyes wide, neck strained, hands fisted—that shocks me. “And I’d do it again in a fucking second, so screw you, Harper. Screw. You.”

I stand there, a foot from him, my temper seething, my mind a mess, my emotions scattered a million places. “Ryder…”

“No. Just no. You don’t get to Ryder me either.” He steps into me, well within my personal space, and stares so deeply into my eyes that I want to look away but don’t dare. I meet him match for match. I’m not backing down. And then suddenly, his expression softens. Changes. “Why don’t you see it?”

“See what?”

“You’re good, Harper. Fucking brilliant. I’ve sat here for two years—during our entire graduate program for fuck’s sake—hating you and respecting you for that alone. You’re stubborn and smart and you know everything and you’re irritating. You’re goddamn right my ego’s bruised but hell, you deserve it. All of it. You deserved the respect of every single person in that auditorium tonight.”

“I don’t understand what that has to do with what you—”

“Don’t you get it? I wanted them to see it too. Not your stage fright. But you. Your mind. Your brilliance.”

He takes a step back, runs a hand through his hair, squeezes his eyes shut as if he’s not getting his point across, and yet all I can do is stare at him slack-jawed and surprised at the words coming out of his mouth.

And while I watch him struggle with whatever it is he’s trying to finish explaining, I want to reject what he’s saying—his reasons and his praise—but it’s all so clear now. How nervous I was, stumbling over words and not articulating my points. Then the hmms started and it was him I was fixated on. It was the feeling I was used to—wanting to beat him, prove him wrong—that owned my thoughts as my arguments strengthened and my conviction came through.

The crowd disappeared.

The nerves vanished.

Because he was the one I had focused on and was determined to prove wrong.

Just like I’ve been doing the past two years.

“Ryder.” Thank you. Why did you do that? I’m sorry. The thoughts don’t manifest themselves into words because when he turns to look at me, I feel like I can’t breathe, let alone think.

He takes a step toward me then hesitates, but before I can process anything else, his lips are on mine.

And not just on mine––not just a brush of lips against lips—but I’m talking all in. Hands on my cheeks, tongue licking between my lips, body pressed against mine, groan in the back of his throat, type of all in.

I don’t react at first. I’m stunned. Flabbergasted, my mind reeling from the anger to the surprise to now this without any warning at all.

This is Ryder.

My rival.

My supporter.

My crush.

The thoughts flicker that this is what I’ve wanted. But they soon shift to panic. To insecurity I don’t kiss well enough. That this is all a joke and I’m the butt of it.

But then I feel. Everything. All at once.

And I know this is real.

It’s like I can’t catch my breath and have too much air all at the same time.

My body is on fire. And not just from his touch but from that burn deep inside that feels like it’s exploding and imploding all at once.

So this is what it feels like to really be kissed.

It’s a fleeting thought before the sensations, the moment, the emotions, consume me whole. His hands move my face to change the angle of the kiss. His fingertips on the line of my jaw singe my skin. His lips move expertly against mine, and all I can do is feel. All I can do is want.

Thinking isn’t an option.

The anger from before has morphed to want. The adrenaline has recharged with desire.

There is no rivalry.

There is no graduation ceremony tomorrow I’m missing to catch my flight.

There is no panic over if I’ll ever see him again.

It’s just him.

And me.

The scent of his cologne in my nose. The heat of his body against mine. The taste of hunger in his kiss.

Only when his mouth parts from mine and the word “Goddamn” is a desirous groan from his lips, does the world exist again. He leans back, hands still framing my face, thumb rubbing over my bottom lip, eyes searching mine with such an intensity that they cause chills to line my scalp.

“Ryder? You in there? I’m so ready for my night of fun!”

Her voice comes through the door and we both startle back a moment before its handle turns.

“It’s not—she’s not—we’re just friends—”

His eyes are wide but full of apology as I just stare at him, high obliterated, the feeling like I’m the only girl in the world gone.

I take another step back as the door opens and everything that is opposite of me stands in the doorway—lips painted, body perfect, bubbly personality—and smiles giddily at him.

Ryder holds a hand up to Ms. Perky in the doorway as he takes a step toward me and I take one back.

I fight the tears that threaten.

Over what I’ve always wanted and know I can never have.

Over wanting to be just like her and instead being just like me.

Over kissing the boy I’ve wanted for years and realizing he’s just as good as I imagined.

Over knowing tomorrow I’m moving back to New York. To my incredible new job. To start my new life.

“I’m sorry.” I shake my head slowly as my throat burns with unshed tears. “Thank you. For tonight—out there. For…for the things you said.”

Another step in retreat.

“Harper. Come out with us. Celebrate.”

“No.” I shake my head again. Take another step back, my pride and dignity riding that fine line of breaking right now. “Thank you.”

His eyes swim with emotion and confusion.

Because while he may have kissed me on impulse—riding the adrenaline high of the debate and our fight—I kissed him back because for that slight, fleeting moment, I thought maybe I was who he wanted too.

But I’m not.

“Good-bye, Ryder.”

Chapter One


“Mm––mm––mmm. That is one very fine specimen of a man,” the lady behind me murmurs to her friend, emphasizing every word.

“I’d welcome getting a little beard burn from him.”

“I hear that. And girl, that burn can be other places beside my neck, if you know what I’m saying.” They erupt in a fit of laughter that is contagious enough to make my own lips curve into a smile.

The lobby of Century Development is full of professionals milling around. I’m sure there are many fine men in suits for the ladies to look at while we trudge through the security line.

“And that ass. Mm, I bet you could bounce a quarter off of it,” the first lady says.

“Damn fine.”

That’s it. My interest is piqued. Admiring a hot guy is definitely a better way to pass the time than checking my emails on my phone.

Especially if he’s garnering that kind of reaction from the women behind me.

It takes me a whole two seconds to spot him. There’s not much that I can see of him through the break in the security line in front of me, but it’s enough to make me want to see more.

And they were indeed correct. Tailored pants showcase one very fine ass. A crisply starched dress shirt frames a pair of broad shoulders. His dirty blond hair with streaks of gold in it hints at time spent outdoors. From my angle, I can’t see his face but can make out that the frames of his glasses are black and he’s sporting a full beard that looks sexy as hell but doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the clean-cut package.

But damn what a fine package he is.

God, it feels good to be back in Los Angeles. In the city with its stretched out coastline, endless sunshine, and abundance of ungodly handsome men such as the one front and center.

It’s not like New York didn’t have hot guys because it did, but there’s something unique about California men that I’m drawn to. The touch of sunshine on their skin. The physiques honed by outdoor activities. Their laid-back attitudes. And it’s been way too long since I’ve had the chance to enjoy the sights or company of one.

I continue to stare his way in the hopes of catching another glimpse of all of him, but just when I think he’ll turn my way, the line shuffles forward and what little I can see of him is blocked. Impatient for the line to move again, I shift on my feet so I can steal another glance but am met time and time again with the solid back of a navy blue blazer on the man in front of me.

If I have to wait in this line, can’t the powers that be at least give me a clear line of sight for something good to look at while I’m here?

Better yet, I’ll be here the next few days. I wouldn’t lodge a single complaint if Hot Guy were to be the sight that greeted and entertained me during my time in the security line before I head upstairs for a long day crunching numbers.

A step forward. A shift of bodies. Another glimpse of him leaving me to wonder what he does here. Is he a regular with a corner office on the twentieth floor with a view of the city below, or is he like me, just passing through for a few days to get a job done before heading home to his wife and two point five kids? Scratch that. No wife and kids at home. That ruins my fantasy of him. Nah, I bet he likes to go out after work, have a few drinks, and play the field for a bit before taking someone home with him for the night. Because no doubt, a man as attractive as he is definitely doesn’t spend many nights with an empty spot on the bed beside him.

And I bet he’s a god in the sack. Has to be. A man can’t look like he does and be a fumbling, bumbling idiot who’s all hands and has little to no dick. Hot-Suit Guy is a dirty talker who likes to be in control.

I’m certain of it.

Maybe I should volunteer my services to him so I could find out for sure.

Talk about a surefire way to relieve the stress of a long day. Damn.

The line shuffles forward and yanks my overactive imagination back to reality. Given more time, I’m sure I could make up some more theories I’d like to prove or disprove about Hot-Suit Guy with the nice ass and sexy beard.

I need help. Truckloads of it.

This whole train of thought is a stark reminder of something I’m fully aware of: how long it’s been since I’ve gotten good and off. And God, how I need to get off.

But I can’t think about sex. Or finding someone to have it with. Not yet. First I need to bust my ass, prove myself to the men in the boardroom upstairs that I can handle a job of this magnitude, that I haven’t lost my edge, and be awarded this job I’m here to bid.

While sex might help relax me, it’ll also distract me because then I’ll only want more.

And winning this bid is undeniably my number one priority. The only want I’ll allow myself to have. Leaving without winning the contract is not an option.

But once I win it, then I’ll reward myself with sex. Mind-blowing sex, in fact. And who knows? Maybe if Hot-Suit Guy is a regular here, I can chat him up in the line over the next few days, make nice with him, and then possibly learn the truths to my assumptions.

Work first. Reward sex next.

That’ll give me something to look forward to during the next few days. The ones I can’t wait to dive headfirst into that will be an ever-changing combination of stress, exhaustion, strategy, and manipulation. An unscripted dance amongst us bidders while we size each other up, calculate our numbers, and explain to the developer why we’re the most valuable candidate for the job.

It’s the game I love. The competition I thrive on. My return to the job that I’ve been desperate to make.

And there’d be no better way to make a statement that Harper Denton is back than to leave this building with the multimillion dollar contract for Meteor Development tucked securely under my arm.

And just like that, as a reward for my positive thinking, when I look up, there he is, in full view.

I take in the expensive briefcase, the venti Starbucks, and the expensive watch peeking out from beneath the cuff of his shirt. And just my luck that while I’m afforded a full view of his body, the one thing I’m the most curious about is obscured by his hand holding his cell phone up to his ear: his face.

So instead I drink him in. He really is magnificent. I note his posture and the way he carries his body when he moves forward a few steps. There’s an air about him that says he’s no-nonsense and in control, powerful, and at the same time he doesn’t seem uptight. He has that Southern California professional vibe. I can’t put my finger on it but he reminds me of someone I can’t quite place. Regardless, a man who can pull off being in control and playful has definite merits.

Like “spank me until my body aches in want, and then make a game of hitting each erogenous zone with his tongue before he’ll satisfy that ache he created and let me come” type of merits.

The mind-blowing-sex reward just became even more appealing.

I shift my legs to abate that sweet ache my thoughts of him just sparked and realize how rare it is that the hum in my veins over a man has been rivaled by the thrill I get competing in the boardroom. And for that thought alone, I indulge a bit more in thoughts of him, knowing when I get stressed upstairs, I’ll be able to fall back to them.

Use them as an inspiration and a reminder of what I get when I achieve success.

I’m jolted from my ridiculous yet fulfilling fantasy as Navy Blue Blazer Guy accidentally turns and bumps into me. Apologies are exchanged before he lifts his hand in greeting to someone he sees across the lobby and unexpectedly leaves his place in line. I move forward, my gaze naturally landing back on the bearded eye candy now two people in front of me.

“Shouldn’t be. No…I’m confident. From what I gather, the project seems pretty straightforward so…”

His voice hits my ears and breaks through my waning patience. And hell if his voice isn’t as audibly sexy as his body appears to be. It has a grate to it that sounds like what my wild imagination conjures up is akin to the feel of his hands running over my skin. Rough but smooth. Patient but commanding. A little bit of an edge to it. But it’s what he says next that holds my attention more soundly than his overriding sex appeal calling to every ounce of estrogen within my body.

“Seriously. This isn’t my first rodeo but it’s definitely a new approach. The bid list is being kept private so I’ll find out who’s competing as soon as I get in there… Dude, you know me. I’ve talked to people here and there, know some of the names being tossed around. Harry from Meteor was supposed to be a shoo-in, but now I’ve heard he’s gone. Not sure the circumstances but that’s a definite plus for us.” His laugh that follows is full of arrogance. The sound of it bristles over my skin, washing away that feeling of familiarity that tickles the edges of my mind. I inch closer, my back a little straighter now, and my attention more than piqued. “I know. Yeah. I don’t know for sure why but I heard they hired some hotshot fresh from New York, so you know what that means…a glorified assistant straight out of college they’re feeding to us wolves who has no goddamn clue what he’s doing. Good luck with that, buddy. At least I’ll have some entertainment watching that train derail.”

I clench my jaw as a person squeezes through the line in front of me, forcing me to lose my concentration momentarily. The line moves forward again, the metal detector in view, and yet my sudden urgency to get upstairs and start has waned. Eavesdropping about my assumed abilities is so much more fun.

“Nah. Nograd’s always dead middle. He won’t go low enough to take a risk and too high is a death wish. This project is out of his league. The rest are just here so Century Development can say they ran a fair bid when in the end it will come down to the usuals. Like always.” He laughs again. “I’ll play the game. Don’t worry. I’m confident. Yeah. See ya.”

My mind stutters over thoughts, eyes focused on the back of his hand holding his phone, with emotions swirling that I never allow to show. A glorified assistant? I bet my track record is more extensive and exclusive than his by a mile.


He may be hot, but he’s still a prick.

Then again, let him underestimate me. If he’s so cocky he thinks he has this in the bag before he even starts, then he deserves what he gets when I beat him handily upstairs.

Screw him and his nice, Starbucks drinking ass.

He’ll learn the error of his ways soon enough. I may have purposefully kept my return under the radar, but those in the know will recognize my name once the bid list is revealed. I’m certain a few will even be a little shocked. New York is a long way from Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean they’re not familiar with the name Harper Denton or my reputation as a no-nonsense, ball-busting businesswoman not afraid to get her hands dirty to deliver a project under budget and on time.

What a pity he turned out to be an ass. I had so much hope for us.

I smile and sigh. Well, at least I’ll have something pretty to look at while I’m working.

Besides, what person is that arrogant that they talk shit about their competitors in the lobby where they’re supposed to meet for the bid? Someone is bound to hear him so maybe he’s that secure he doesn’t care?

I glance Hot-Suit Guy’s way just as he lowers his phone and takes his briefcase off the security table. It’s when he lifts his face to flash a smile at the security guard with an All-American charm I’m way too familiar with, I freeze.

…no way…

I know him.

…it can’t be…

Ryder Rodgers.

Son of a bitch.

I should have known.

And so we meet again.

This is going to be so much fun kicking his ass.


Chapter Two


I know the minute he enters the boardroom.

Yes, there are about thirty other men filling the space—my fellow competitors and some Century Development employees––and yet I can feel when Ryder walks through the doorway. I know he’s there. And without looking up, I can distinguish his laugh as it rumbles through the space and commands the attention of those in the room.

Everyone’s attention that is, but mine.

Because I don’t care that he’s here. Don’t care that he seems at ease with the guys, slapping backs and shaking hands like he owns the place. Don’t care that his charisma is palpable and pulls on every part of me and begs me to look up.

Ryder Rodgers does not command my attention.

Hell, who am I kidding? He commanded my attention years ago and then owned it again in the security line before I even knew it was him.

His laugh rings across the space again and breaks through my thoughts of him, but I refuse to look up and give him any more of my attention. Especially since he’s all I’ve thought about since he walked away from the security station downstairs.

I should be focusing on the task at hand. The bid we’re about to start. The game we’re about to play that just changed in so many ways for me.

Not thinking about a kiss we shared way back when and wondering if he’s ever thought twice about it like I have over the years. Like maybe when his name has been brought up in business conversations.

I should be writing down the names of the competitors in the room. Making a list of them so that I can research them later when I’m alone in my room.

Not wondering if beard burn is a legitimate thing and if so, imagining how damn good it would feel getting it.

Jesus, Harper. Get a grip. Shut him out. It’s just Ryder.

And therein lies the problem. It is just Ryder.

But I’ve shut him out before. I can do it again. No one knows better than I do how he can take advantage of any distraction to get an edge.

And I can’t be giving up any edges. Not now that I know he’s here—just like old times. I have too much riding on this bid to let Ryder get in the way, and no doubt of all the people in this room, he’ll be my biggest challenge.

I wouldn’t expect anything less from him.

He laughs again and my body doesn’t heed the warnings I’ve been giving myself because I glance up to where he’s chatting up three other competitors.

Now that I can see him from the front, I can affirm one of my theories. He’s definitely sexy. Add to that he’s changed from the coed I used to know––body filled out, ass definitely tighter, and that beard? Damn him for that. Let’s pray he doesn’t have tats beneath that crisply starched shirt of his or I may be sending out an SOS.

Then again, why ask to be rescued since the man sure knows how to kiss a girl so it’s forever seared into her memory?

Beards, tats, tight asses, and searing kisses? That’s a great way to start with your head in the game, Harper.

He glances over my way and I immediately look down, not wanting him to know I’m here yet. But when I do, I notice that the only competitor I’ve added to my list on my perfectly white piece of paper is Ryder Rodgers.

And right on cue, as if I’m not paying him enough attention, his voice carries across the space and demands my attention.

I don’t look.

No doubt he’s smarter now, with more experience under his belt.

I won’t look.

More polished and professional.

I refuse to give him the satisfaction later of knowing I looked.

Smoother with his tactics and less brash with his decisions.

Dammit, Harper.

My eyes are on him, appreciating not only the sight of him and the way my insides twist because of him, but also the firing of the competitive edge inside of me.

We’re going to kill each other. The thought makes me laugh because if our interaction in the past is any indication, it’s not far from the truth. And that’s why I’m sitting in the back of the room with my head down and letting them assume I’m the glorified secretary from Meteor Development. Because if blood is going to be shed, I might as well draw the first drop and use surprise to my advantage to get it.

No one knows I’m back.

This bid just became so much more than numbers. The want to prove myself just increased tenfold. To the industry that let me down as a whole, and to the boy I had a crush on who never knew.

As if he knew I needed help refocusing on the task at hand, Mason Van Dyken, Century Development’s CEO, walks to the front of the room to welcome us. And that’s all it takes for that buzz of excitement to overpower every other thought I was having and redirect it to exactly where it needs to be, the project. The numbers. The details of what’s to come.

From my vantage point in the back of the room, I listen and take notes. Thoughts of Ryder fade to the background as I ride the high of being back in my element and welcome the firing of my competitive spirit after having suppressed it for so long.

When Van Dyken asks us all to introduce ourselves, the men seated in front of me begin. I recognize the names of competitors I’ve researched as the introductions continue around the room.

And this time I take notes.

“Brandon Tennison with Nograd.”

There’s silence as the rest of the room nods in greeting while silently scrutinizing him. The mental warfare has begun.

“Alan Danks with Developmental Solutions.”

More silence, more nodding of heads, as the introductions weave through the tables in the room from front to back.

“Ryder Rodgers, R Squared Management.”

I fight my own smile over how surreal it is to hear that name right now. And with the anticipation of what his face is going to look like when he realizes I’m not really that glorified assistant he has assumed me to be.

I’m the last person in the room for introductions and when it’s my turn to go, I keep my head down while all eyes turn my way. I can feel the weight of their stares as they look at the top of my blonde chignon. I wait a beat, allow them to assume I’m intimidated by this room full of powerhouse men that’s causing the pause…being the assistant and all.

They couldn’t be further from the truth.

And it’s going to be so fun rubbing their noses in it. Little do they know I’m not intimidated in the least. I live for this shit—proving those who underestimate me wrong. And the one person who knows that better than anyone in the room is the one this little show is intended for.

Surprise, Ryder. Look who’s back.

I clear my throat, slowly lift my face with a slight smile curling the corners of my aptly painted pink lips, and introduce myself.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. I’m Harper Denton. Meteor Development.”

Chapter Three


“Mr. Van Dyken,” I say as I cross the room and reach my hand out in greeting. There’s no way I’m letting Harper carry on her one-on-one conversation with him without stepping in to interrupt.

And damn straight, I want to turn to her, stare at her, and ask her what the hell she’s doing here when last I heard she was kicking ass in New York, but I don’t give a glance her way. I see her scowl though, know she’s pissed I’m cutting into her schmooze time with Mason, but I couldn’t care less. She had plenty of time to come up and say hi to me before Van Dyken started his spiel. But she didn’t.

And why not? Is the game that important to her she can’t say hi to an old friend? Typical Harper. She looks like heaven but is still cold as hell.

So she wants to start off like this and set the tone? She better bet that very fine ass of hers I’m going to follow suit. Difference is, this is my turf now so if she wants to play, she’s going to have to step into the ring first.

My ring. My rules. Not hers.

I’ll even be a gentleman and lift the ropes for her to climb in between.

“Ryder. So glad your company had the wherewithal to send their very best for the job.”

Hear that, Harper?

“I wouldn’t pass up this opportunity for the world. You have the lot of us on pins and needles waiting to find out why there’s so much secrecy over this project. We’re all eager to find out the face behind the mask that’s pulling the strings.”

“In due time,” he says with a knowing smile that hints he’s enjoying this little power play a bit too much, but he’s allowed. He’s the one in the know.

“I was excited at the chance for this project given how well we’ve worked together on projects in the past.”

“You definitely know my favorite words, Ryder.”

“On time and under budget,” I say as his laugh booms around the room. Heads turn and competitors take note of who he’s speaking with.

Exactly my intentions.

“Just what I want to hear. How can I—excuse me one second,” he says as he’s summoned away by an employee across the room.

“Still great at kissing ass, I see,” Harper murmurs the minute he’s out of earshot.

And she just stepped into the ring. I didn’t doubt she would for a second. Let’s see if she wants to play with the gloves on or off.

I turn slowly to face her, the disbelief that she’s here still as real as when she lifted her face to meet my eyes with that smirk playing at the corner of her lips like she did earlier in the conference room.

“Still great at being hostile, I see. Hello, Harper.” My greeting and smile are a mixture of cautious sincerity. “And after all this time I thought you might have changed. So refreshing to see you haven’t.”

Ding. Ding. Ding. Round One.

“Hello, Ryder.” She gives a subtle lift of her brow as our eyes hold longer than they should. A nonverbal challenge that’s welcome and terrifying all at the same time.

“Such a pleasure to see you again.”

“Well, at least I know you’re still good at telling a lie. We both know you’re far from happy I’m here.” Her laugh is throaty, her lips distracting.

God, she’s gorgeous.

I reject the thought the minute it hits me but how can I fucking argue that she isn’t? She’s all curves and confidence and sex appeal wrapped in that sophisticated, damn business suit. Her expression may say drop dead, but her body screams make me feel alive.

“Think what you will. I’m glad to see I still bring out the best in you.”

She snorts. It’s such a contradiction to the completely put together woman before me and yet the sound of it tells me a bit of the old her I used to know remains. The one from before.

“True,” she muses nonchalantly, eyes focused on the other side of the room. “I mean look how the last competition ended between us…” The comment is left open-ended but the lift of her eyebrows and purse of her lips say the words for her: I won.

“Good thing I’ve learned the error of my ways since then.”

We hold each other’s gazes, our lips fighting back smiles while unspoken challenges war between us.

“I’m sure you have, but we both know you’re standing here sizing me up, asking yourself who is this woman who sounds like the Harper Denton you once knew but looks nothing like her and is ten times smarter now…and then you’re wondering if your best is enough this time around?” she says, a coy smile on her lips and my own mouth falling lax as she makes her mark and hits the nail directly on the head. She lowers her voice as if she’s going to let me in on a little secret. “The answer is no.”

She’s good. Damn good.

The Ice Queen returns.

I chuckle and shake my head. I shouldn’t be surprised that just like that, we’re picking up right where we left off. And just as I’m about to speak, her smile widens and tells me that Mason is on his way back.

“Sorry about that. A few details needed clarifying.” Mason interrupts as he returns and looks from Harper to me and then back to Harper. It’s not hard to sense the tension—competitive and sexual––that always seems to be a constant between us. “You two have met then?”

I nod. “We’ve competed a time or two in the past,” I respond, trying to play nice.

“Hm. I wasn’t aware. Sometimes familiarity can be an advantage. Or a liability. I’ll enjoy being the benefactor of both.” He glances between us again, momentarily lost in thought before he rubs his hands together in front of him. “Now, what was it we were discussing?”

“I was just letting Ryder here know what other projects are coming up for bid in the vicinity. I figured it’s only kind to give him his options since I’ll be winning this one.” Harper’s smile is sweet and genuine to match the playfulness of her tone and yet I know she means every word.

Mason’s laugh rumbles through the room. His quick grin tells me he respects her for having the balls to make the comment. Who doesn’t respect a woman making a definitive play in the male-dominated world of construction management?

“We’ll see about that.” My smile is tight as I meet her eyes, my own warning fired off in the silent exchange.

Mason looks between us again. “This is going to be fun to watch. Nothing like a good, clean fight between colleagues. Excuse me again, but we’re going to get the presentation back under way shortly and I need to tend to a few details first.”

We both turn to watch him retreat, and I swear I hear Harper mutter under her breath, “Who says I don’t like things a little dirty?”

The minute the words register, my mind immediately goes there.

To dirty.

And with Harper.

I full-on stare at her to question if I heard her correctly, but her face is the picture of innocence. All but the tiny little quirk of the corner of her mouth that tells me I heard her right, and that she’s fighting like hell not to smile.

I’ve got to give it to her. The woman’s got chops.

“Dirty, huh?” I can’t resist. Challenge accepted. The murmur is off my lips without thought, my body already wanting to find out just how dirty.

She clears her throat and gives up the fight, letting her lips spread into a slow, knowing smile. “Wouldn’t you like to know…” she says with a glance my way, eyes lit and eyebrows raised before she walks away without another word. Well, unless you count something she mutters that sounds a lot like fucking beard burn while leaving me the very fine visual of her hips swaying in her gray pencil skirt and pink heels as her way of driving the suggestion home.

And there is no driving it home needed. Her point was made loud and clear, and with a fuckton of room left there for my imagination to improvise. Like how I’m reliving my grad school fantasies of taking the shy girl with the mesmerizing eyes and intimidating intellect on the desk in the empty classroom, and at the same time dreading the fact she’s been invited to bid.

And round one goes to Harper.

Damn. She always did have a way of boiling my blood and getting me hard all at the same time. Seems like she’s perfected that skill of hers over the years.

I’m not sure if I should be happy about that or fearful. Fuck if I don’t love a strong, confident, intelligent woman. The feistier the better. Talk about sexy as hell. But when it comes to that self-assured woman being Harper, it means this bid isn’t going to be as in the bag as I thought it was going to be an hour ago.

Good thing I like to be challenged.

I lift my bottle of water to my lips and wish it were a beer. I think I might need it or something stronger. Can this situation get any more fucked up?

Only if I were to sleep with her.

And with another look over to her, I hate myself for wanting to but can’t blame myself all the same.

I haven’t felt this conflicted since that last week of school.

Well, shit. Hello, Harper Denton. So we meet again, Ice Queen.

At least Van Dyken was right about one thing—knowing her can have its advantages.

Like knowing she’ll go straight for the jugular without a second thought.

Best to keep that in mind so I don’t get caught flatfooted staring at those legs of hers.

Chapter Four


High heels.

What the fuck is she doing here?

Bare legs.

And not just here in the office, but in Los Angeles altogether.

Sexy calves.

Wasn’t she off in New York conquering the world or something?

Pencil skirt.

Maybe I like it a little dirty.

Shoot me now because the damn view in front of me is enough to distract me from paying attention to Mason as he points to where the facility will be laid out on the land before us.

“…in an unprecedented move, Century Development has changed the way it’s doing its bidding process for this project. In lieu of our typical sealed bid, we wanted to control the bidding environment in all aspects of the process…”

I should be turned on by the sight before me: a vast amount of undeveloped land. A rarity in southern California these days. The one thing someone in my career can’t wait to get their hands on. Get dirty in.

Dirty. There’s that word again. And of course when I think of getting my hands on something and the term dirty, my eyes veer right back to Harper.

To the curve of her hips. The square of her shoulders. The tight knot of hair at the base of her neck that fits expertly beneath the yellow hard hat on her head, an item every person here no doubt hates wearing in the warm sun, and yet somehow she makes look sexy.

Jesus, Ryder. Remember who she is. Competition. Sexy competition with sharp claws she won’t hesitate to use.

Not like I ever complained about scratch marks before though.

“…the renditions back at the office you saw before we headed out will be available to you for reference during the bidding process, but I felt it was important to visit the site to see the magnitude of the project in person…”

She’s probably doing this on purpose. Wearing the skirt and the heels when she knew we were going to be headed out to a dirt site. Totally impractical. Sexy as sin. Fully distracting.

And I’m losing my mind.

Those heels, though. I laughed when she climbed out of the car with them still on because I was sure as shit that she was going to wobble on the uneven dirt surface. That she was going to pull the I-can’t-walk-in-these card, and yet of course she hasn’t. But I should know better by now not to underestimate her. She’s been nothing but sure-footed. Smooth as silk. Completely competent with both her questions and her spiked heels in this rocky terrain surrounded by men.

It shouldn’t surprise me...

Mason continues on, pointing out the approximate locations for the five different buildings that make up the whole of the facility. I listen passively because I’ve already plotted them in my head from the full-scale renditions we were able to study back at the office.

I glance around to my competition. To Brandon from Nograd, with his Lacoste obsessed wardrobe and his too-tight pants that are so representative of his uptight temperament. He won’t bend, isn’t good with having to adjust, and is no doubt bursting a blood vessel right now because he doesn’t have the rest of the details of the project yet to obsess over.

To Alan from Developmental, with his half-tucked dress shirt and messed up hair, and I know that his socks are probably mismatched—both gray, but definitely with different patterns––because he gets dressed in the dark of his bedroom to let his wife, who works the graveyard shift as a nurse, catch up on her sleep. A good guy but sometimes so distracted by his kids and wanting to be a good dad that he does his math a little too quickly or overlooks a line item and comes in at a number too good to be true and therefore is often disregarded.

To Patrick from Lux, with his slicked back hair and smug smirk that I know rakes in the ladies and yet I want to wipe it off his face because I know after he reels them in, he treats them like shit, and that’s unacceptable. But it’s representative of how he treats his projects: thrilled to get them but then mishandles them once he does.

There are others around me but I don’t bother to study them because they’re here simply for the experience. Century needs to prove to whomever they’re running this project for that they’ve gotten the best of the best. And that means having a multitude of qualifying companies compete so they have more numbers to show fairness.

But not Brandon, Alan, or Patrick. I’ve worked with all of them before. Have bid against them. Have done the mandatory social bullshit required to be a part of the building industry. I know them well enough to know where they’ll fall in line with their numbers, what their bosses demand and dictate in a profit margin, and how they react to the unpredictable, such as this situation.

I can read everything about them. That’s what I do. I study. I remember. I use it to my advantage when I package my bid together.

And yet when I return my focus to the land before me—Mason talking in the front and Harper just off to my left—I hate that I can’t read her. I know she’s just as important competitively—if not the most important one—and yet her edges seem sharper, her demeanor hardened from what I remember it to be.

I may be a take it as it comes type of guy, but fuck if the unknown isn’t unsettling.

“…let’s head back to the office now and I’ll get you the rest of what you need so you can get started.”

There’s a murmured consent among all of us as we all follow after him toward the waiting cars. I walk a few feet and then swear at my mother and her inherent need to hammer manners into my head as a little boy. But I listen to her silent voice nonetheless, and even though I have a feeling Harper’s going to be pissed I’m calling her out as a woman with the gesture, I turn around to let her pass and go ahead. Ladies first.

But just as I turn, I’m met with a small yelp split seconds before Harper’s body collides squarely into mine. Already off balance, I stumble backward a few steps the same time as my hands tighten in reflex to prevent her from falling farther.

Seconds feel like minutes. Her hard hat slips off and clatters to the ground when she tilts her head up with eyes wide and lashes fluttering to look up at me.

Our eyes hold. A solid punch of too many things hits me—the heat of her body pressed against mine, how tiny and fragile she seems in my arms when she’s always strong and in control, and the flicker of vulnerability that flashes through her eyes.

It’s gone just as quickly as I see it but in that second, we’re back in the darkened classroom. My lips are still warm from hers, my body reeling from her taste, and she’s looking up at me with that mixture of shock, desire, and vulnerability that I was probably too young to understand and too stupid to appreciate at the time. The one that should have led me to chase after her when she ran out the door instead of question the consequences first and never get the chance to later.

But there was more there. I know there was. And right now, the look in her eyes when they meet mine—with the dirt beneath us and the sky above us––brings it all back.

Déjà vu like I’ve never experienced before.

As quick as the memory comes, it’s gone. And I know she must have thought it too because within a beat, we’re a sudden mass of hands pushing off, eyes averting, and throats clearing so we can erect that professional wall back between us. I step away and pick up her hard hat while she smoothes her hands down the line of her skirt.

“Are you okay?” I hand her hard hat to her. Watch her throat move with a swallow. See the flush of embarrassment in her cheeks.

Does she think all these same things when she looks at me?

“I’m fine. Thank you.” Her voice is tight, movements determined, as she takes the helmet and strides past me without another word.

Curious yet cautious thoughts start to spin out of control in my own head, that I can’t allow myself to think. I turn on my heel to follow her just in time to catch her shrug off the other men asking if she’s okay. She strides right past them with a laugh but determination in her gait.

We climb into the waiting town cars ready to bring us back to the office tower and pull out of the dirt lot with a billow of dust around us. She refuses to look my way the entire return trip. And even though Alan’s presence in the front seat prevents me from asking more, I have a feeling even if he wasn’t here, she’d still refuse to acknowledge what happened.

But my unfinished thoughts prevail. What if I had chased after her that night? How would things have been different, or would they have at all? And when I tell myself what-ifs aren’t worth dwelling on, my mind shifts to the look that was in Harper’s eyes.

A look similar to the one my three-year-old niece gets when she’s hurt or afraid but is trying to pretend like hell she’s perfectly fine. A brave, little girl in this big, bad world.

Guess Harper’s not so sure of her heeled feet in this world after all.

And why does that thought bug the shit out of me?

Chapter Five


I’m the first in the room, my mind focused on getting to work, my body still reacting to the feel of Ryder’s body against mine.

That’s what I get for taking a minute to appreciate the sight of his very fine ass walking in front of me. Take my eyes off the dirt for one damn second and I almost fall face-first and make an idiot out of myself.

Correct that. I did make an idiot out of myself with what felt like a million other eyes watching. Ain’t that a kicker? Try to prove you’re a woman, capable and tough, and end up looking like the helpless damsel.

Of course, no time like the present for the prince who saved me to enter the room. Needing space, I step to the opposite side of the crowd as him because I can still feel my body against his, can still smell the subtle scent of his cologne, and can still see that look in his eyes from earlier today when I don’t want to.

And then I’m left to wonder if that fluttering I feel is from today or just the memory of before? Which one has my body standing to attention when his undeniable presence is near?

How can one mistake of a kiss years ago still make me feel this way?

Because it was one helluva kiss. That’s why.

My thoughts are interrupted when a woman hands me a colored file folder with the number “13” and “Harper Denton” written on the front of it.

“Please don’t open anything yet,” Mason’s assistant says as Mason, himself, walks in the room, right as I was about to do just that.

The subtle hum in my veins returns because we’re about to get started. The bid, the competition, the fight for first. There’s no better feeling than walking into a room as the underdog simply because you’re a woman, to later walk out the victor because your skills and expertise proved them all wrong. And because of this—my drive to prove I’m better than my competitors are, that I need to refocus and get myself back on sure-footedness that the dirt dusting my heels tells me I lost today.

I look around to see everyone else with that anticipatory look on their faces, their excitement palpable, and wonder if it’s the same for them as it is for me.

“Hey, Harp.” Ryder’s low timbre is whispered in my ear, his chin hitting my shoulder as he speaks. I freeze, hold in my yelp of surprise that he’s behind me when he was across the room a second ago, and try to remain as professional as possible when everything in my body feels like it has just been electrified. “Just in case you were wondering, beard burn is a real thing.”

His chuckle rumbles from his chest into my back before he steps away. I’m left staring at the number thirteen on my folder and pretending to remain unaffected to the people around us––like he was discussing the particulars of the project––while inside I’m dying a slow, beautifully torturous death of desire.

My mind shifts gears suddenly and realizes he heard me. Actually heard me as I chastised myself for thinking about it while we talked earlier. Can this day get any worse?

But before I can turn any redder, Mason takes charge of the room. “You’ll note the full-scale model has been placed in the center of the room to make it easy for you all to see from your seats. Elevation renditions are hanging on the wall to your left and a nonnegotiable construction schedule with deadline dates is hanging on the wall to your right. We’ve set up a desk for each of you and you’ll find it fully stocked with supplies, calculators, etcetera,” Mason says with a flutter of his fingers as if all this secrecy is self-explanatory.

We all glance to the two rows of desks set facing each other a mere five feet apart. Talk about staring down the enemy while you work. I catch a few furrowed brows of the guys around me as to why all the hubbub and quietly sympathize because I feel the same way.

“By now, each of you should have a file folder in your hands. These are your bibles for this bid. It is your information and yours only. That folder is not to leave this room and it and its contents should remain on the top of your desks when you leave each night.”

Expressions become more bewildered. This stipulation means that our bid calculations would be sitting in plain sight for any of our competitors to open and look at if they wanted to see our numbers.

“Doesn’t that allow for––”

“I know it’s unconventional, Brandon, but it’s the way the contractor wants the bid run and therefore we are following through with his wishes. A couple of notes before you begin. The client is very specific in his demands for the project. He will not negotiate with you over your numbers, so be firm. The first two phases are up for grabs and the lowest bid wins. Good luck.” His chuckle fills the room. “Please, find your desks and feel free to start. Remember, you will have three days including today to work on your numbers, with your presentation to board members taking place on the third day and the subsequent awarding of the project afterward.”

Heads nod in agreement around me even though I know most of us are confused about these strange and unconventional parameters for this bidding process. I haven’t been out of the game that long that things have changed this much, have I?

It doesn’t matter. I can roll with it. I’m used to circumstances making me adjust.

The excitement in the room is palpable as we each find our assigned desks. Eager to begin, I open my folder and shuffle through its contents: bid directives, square footage, key codes for the CAD drawings, building specifications, etcetera. These are all the things that make a girl like me happy. Construction porn.

With a smile wide, the adrenaline escalating, and finally feeling like I’m back in my element, it all fades when I glance up and meet the intense gaze of Ryder.

A mere five feet in front of me.

Seriously? As if tripping and falling against him wasn’t enough, now I have to sit and work directly across from him.

Our eyes hold momentarily before he smiles softly and nods. Was he always this nice to me? I don’t remember him being so. If he was, maybe my brain was so clouded by my constant competitiveness laced with lust for him that I never noticed it.

He shouldn’t be nice to me.

Nice is distracting.

And I don’t need distractions.

I need game-on.

“You ready?” I ask him, my own smile playing at the corners of my lips, a blatant and ironic attempt to distract me from my own thoughts.

“Bring it on, Denton.” He flashes his own grin. “I can’t wait to see what you’ve got.”

“More than you can handle.”

His laugh is quick and echoes in my head as I look down, glad to feel like we are back on a more familiar playing field. But as I start to organize the papers in the folder how I prefer them, I realize my mind is still on Ryder.

Christ, Harper. You said you weren’t going to let him distract you.

Not him or his beard or his blue eyes framed by black lenses or strong jaw that pulses at the corners when he concentrates. Nop