The Play by Karina Halle is now available! Make sure to pick up your copy – the author is donating her profits to animal charities! Check out below for more details.
Because The Play revolves around a hot as sin Scottish rugby player who also rescues dogs, Karina Halle is donating $1 from every pre-order sale (that’s half of her preorder profits) to select animal charities, including Best Friends Animal Society and reader chosen ones that help promote adoption and rescues for animals. If you know of a deserving animal charity that needs attention and her donations, please let Karina know by emailing her with the headline Save the Puppies to Authorkarinahalle@gmail.com. Hopefully enough money will be raised to make a difference in the animal’s lives. Every preorder counts!
“Get a fucking hold of yourself,” I say out loud and crane my neck to look up at the floor-to-ceiling windows of Lachlan’s apartment building, trying to count floors and see which one is his. I anxiously open my compact and dot more lip stain on my lips, wondering how fast it will be rubbed off once I get into his apartment.
Is he going to kiss me right away?
Will this be a Netflix and chill night?
The possibilities have me on edge.
With a deep breath, I get out of the car and walk over to the entrance. My finger hovers at the apartment number. I take a moment to eye myself in the reflection of the glass doors. I had sped home to change into a strappy black dress, something like the nightgown-trend of the 90’s, with hot pink platform heels. No bra. No underwear. What’s the point?
I press the buzzer and wait for a few moments, my pulse pounding in my wrist. Lachlan’s distinct voice comes through, – slightly drowsy, smooth as butter. “Kayla?”
“Hi,” I say. I’m about to say something else, probably something awkward but he immediately buzzes me through. I exhale loudly, trying to release tension and remain a fidgety mess all the way up the elevator. Last time I was in here, we’d just rescued the dogs. He was shirtless. He’d felt so close at that time and yet oh so far away. To think now, now, I’d had my hands and lips all over him and my need for him was stronger than ever before.
I knock on his door, biting my lip in anticipation, until it swings open and I see Lachlan, leaning casually against it. The dulcet tones of Fiona Apple’s “Slow like Honey” drift in from the room.
“You shouldn’t be wearing that,” he says, a faint smile on his lips. God, I’ve missed those lips.
“Why not?” I ask with a raise of my brow. In a second, all my nerves smooth out and I realize how easy it is to talk with him like this.
“You’ll make it impossible to get through the appetizer,” he answers, moving back and letting me inside. He’s back to casual gear, a white thermal shirt that’s partially unbuttoned, just enough to show a glimpse of tanned skin, chest hair and tattoos, a necklace with a small wooden cross, green cargo pants. I like him like this just as much as I like him in a suit.
I walk in, my heels echoing on the tiles. “I thought I was the appetizer,” I tell him, looking around. The two dogs are on the couch, curled up into each other like sleeping mice. In unison, they both lift their heads to stare at me. The pitbull gives a thump of its tail but the scruffy mutt shivers slightly, showing teeth.
“Don’t mind them, they’re still adjusting,” he says, closing the door and then gesturing to the table by the kitchen, where I had done my interview with him last week. “That’s the appetizer.”
On the table is a bottle of red wine, two glasses, and a cheeseboard topped with brie, cheddar, camembert, figs, jam, honey and crostini. “Wow,” I say softly. “You did all this?”
He shrugs, making a dismissive noise. “It was nothing.”
“This is romantic,” I tell him. “I didn’t peg you for a romantic.”
He raises a perfectly arched brow. “Oh yeah? What did you peg me for?” He slowly pours a glass of wine.
I just stand there, watching him pour a smaller amount into the other glass. His forearm flexes, the lion tattoo seems to roar. His forehead is creased with concentration, perhaps anticipation of my reply. He seems completely at ease with me but there’s always that wildness in his eyes that never seems to go away. The only time I saw peace in them was after he came last night.
“I pegged you for a man who wouldn’t give me a second glance.”
He gives me a crooked smile and corks the bottle “Well, love, you know that isn’t true.”
I slowly walk toward him, looking up through my lashes like some femme fatale. “Oh, it was true. You wanted nothing to do with me.”
His look softens for a moment before he heads over into the kitchen, grabbing small plates from the glass cupboards. “I want nothing to do with most people. Never take it personal.”
“Tell that to Old Kayla. She had no idea she’d get the chance to put your gorgeous cock in her mouth.”
The plates rattle against the counter. “You do have some mouth on you.”
He comes back in the room with his hulking swagger, putting the plates down. He nods at the seat pushed out. “Here, sit down. Please.”
I hook my purse on the corner of the chair and take a seat. Both dogs stare at me from the couch.
“So how are they?” I ask him.
He looks behind him and I take a moment to appreciate every hardened, strained muscle on his neck and shoulders. “As I said, adjusting.” He sits down and folds his hands in front of him. “Someone is coming by tomorrow to see about adopting Ed. But I think Emily will be coming home with me.”
“Which one is Ed?”
“The pit,” he says.
“Funny, I would have thought he would have been harder to find a home for.”
“Usually. But Ed is a big sweetie and people in this city are a little more tolerant of bully breeds than people in the UK. Emily, however, as sweet as she looks,” he glances back at the scruffy dog, who immediately bares her teeth to me, “has behaviour problems. She’ll need work.”
“And are you the one who teaches them?” I ask. “Because if so, then you are the dog whisperer, which means there’s pretty much nothing you can’t do.”
He looks down at his hands and gives a lazy one-shouldered shrug. “I found Lionel on the streets in Edinburgh. I was able to teach him. Maybe he taught me some things, you never know with dogs. But…it takes a special kind of person to train dogs, especially those who have been through trauma and abuse. I am not that kind of person. I will do whatever I can to save them but I’m not the person who can school them on obedience.”
A quiet, almost uncomfortable smile tugs on his lips. “A dog with behavioural problems shouldn’t learn from someone with behavioural problems.”
I expect him to laugh but he doesn’t. “Oh,” I say, trying to think of the right thing. “You just seem like a natural. These two were strays and now look at them. Just like that.”
“I can get the dogs to trust me,” he says in a low voice. “Because I trust them. But I can’t get them to trust others.”
“Because you don’t trust people…”
He slowly blinks and then reaches for the stem of his wine glass. “I think I may trust you. Here’s to that.”
“Here’s to that,” I say, raising my glass and clinking it against his. I’m more than meeting him the eyes, I’m diving in the green and grey. They seem darker somehow, moving shadows. Depthless. Behavioural problems? What kind? How much more can I learn about him before he’s gone?
I take a gulp of my wine. He barely touches his. Just a small sip, then puts the glass back down and pushes it away from him.
“I’ve never seen you drink much,” I tell him, hoping my tone is easy enough so he won’t take offense.
He gives me a long, measured look before he licks his lips and looks away. “No, I don’t.”
“Because of training,” I say, giving him an easy way out.
A slow nod. “Yes.”
He’s still not meeting my eyes, his focus on the cheeseboard and even though he’s not frowning like he usually his, his shoulders seem tense.
“What other things do you have to do for training?” I ask. I feel we’ve regressed a little bit and I want that sexy, casual banter back.
He drums his fingers along the edge of the table and I lean forward, trying to get some cheese on my plate. “Lot of work in the gym. Lot of work in the field. A good diet.”
“I assume it doesn’t include loads of cheese,” I tell him, drizzling the honey on top of my brie.
“Nah, just boring stuff. Chicken breasts, broccoli. It’s not a lot of fun but at my age, you have to do it if you want to keep playing. When I was younger I could have eaten whatever I wanted.”
“How old are you?” I ask.
“Thirty-two,” he says and I’m a little bit surprised. I guess because he looks so manly and distinguished – the lines on his forehead, his scruffy beard – I pegged him for someone in his mid-to-late thirties. Or maybe it’s his eyes.
I stare at them, even though they are now staring sharply at the fig as he hacks his way into it, as if the fig had done something personal to him. It’s those eyes that trip me up. The eyes of an old soul, of someone who has seen too much, done too much. There’s a war behind them at all times, a war I want to help him win.
“Does that surprise you?” he asks, glancing up at me briefly.
I take a delicate bite of the crostini. “Not really. You just seem more mature than that.”
He spreads the fig over goat cheese. “In rugby, being in your thirties is asking for trouble. All these years of being hit, all the injuries, the strain. It takes a toll. I don’t know what happened, but when I turned thirty it all started to slip, just a bit.” He offers me the fig and I take it from his hands, my fingers brushing against his. One simple touch and I feel it travel down the length of my arm, straight to my heart.
Bam. A shower of sparks.
I swallow, trying to ignore the feeling. “How long have you been playing for?”
He frowns, eyes squinting in thought. “Twenty-two. Yeah.” He nods. “Ten years.”
I blink, impressed. “That’s a long time. Is that normal?”
“I guess,” he says, pursing his lips, considering. “I’m good at what I do. They need someone fast and someone who will break everyone in their way. That’s my job. But I can’t do it forever. After I fucked up my bloody tendon…I know I don’t have long.”
“You almost make it seem like you’re dying.”
He briefly sucks in his cheeks. “Rugby saved my life. I’m not sure what I’ll do when it’s over.”
“Coach?” I ask him hopefully.
“Nah,” he says, munching on the crostini and leaning back in the chair. When he swallows, he adds, “I’m either in the game, or I’m not. There is no halfway. That’s not how I’m built. Once I’m done, I’m done.”
And when this is over? I think. Are we done?
But of course we are…we aren’t even a thing.
“Maybe you’ll just do the charity work…for the dogs.”
“Aye,” he says. He reaches for his wine and takes a small sip. He almost puts it back down, then takes another gulp, finishing the glass. “I’ll keep doing that. There’s no expiration on helping others. As bloody cheesy as that sounds.”
“That’s not cheesy,” I tell him. “That’s selfless and beautiful.”
“Come now,” he chides me, seeming embarrassed. He looks away, folding his arms across his wide chest, his unreal body stealing my attention again, turning my thoughts back into that sexual whirlwind. Well played, Mr. McGregor, well played.
“What’s the lion tattoo for?” I ask him. “What’s the story?”
That startles him. “What are you on about?”
I point to his forearm. “There. Lion. See. You said you would tell me some stories. About your tattoos. Why you have them.”
He rakes his teeth over his lower lip and looks me dead in the eye. “Did I now?”
“Yes,” I tell him impatiently. “Last night…maybe this morning. After some good fucking.”
“Ah, yes. That explains it.”
“Well give me something.”
“If I give you something, will you give me something?”
I can’t help but grin like a fool. “Of course.”
“Okay then.” He pushes his chair back slightly and takes his shirt off, tossing it on the floor beside him. He spreads his legs and pats the crotch of his pants, his gaze absolutely feral. “Have a seat.”
I am light-headed at the sight of his torso again. I manage to get up, drawn to him like a magnet. I put my hands on the hard breadth of his shoulders and straddle him. We are so close. Our mouths inches away.
He’s breathing hard. I’m breathless.
He’s a wall of muscle and ink. I’m soft, yielding against him.
“So ask away,” he says, that voice low, rough, yet cashmere cream. That voice I’ll hear in my dreams long after he’s gone.
His eyes never leave my lips.
I lean back to get a better look at him, even though the distance pulls at me. I run my fingers over his shoulder, taught, hard muscle. A storm rages in muted ink, an old ship with tall sails is masterfully shaded, spreading onto his chest.
“This one,” I say softly. “Why the storm? Why the ship?”
He chews on his lip for a moment, searching my eyes. “I was twenty-four. I backpeddled with life for a bit. I lost my edge in the game. But I pushed through and was better for it. A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” He tilts his head, as if observing me, though I’m the one watching him. “It helps me when I get scared. To keep going.”
“You get scared?” I ask him, unable to picture him, this strong, powerful man, afraid of anything at all.
“All the time,” he says frankly. “How can life be anything except terrifying at times? We’re born here. We don’t ask for it. And we’re expected to somehow get through it, living each day without dying. We either live and if we don’t, we die.” He looks away, gives his head a shake. “Nah. We’re all scared, every last one of us.”
I know I am. Of so many things. My heart melts slightly to know that someone like him could feel the same way as someone like me.
I trail my fingers along the text on his collarbone. “Nunquam iterum,” I read out. “Latin, I assume?”
“Yes,” he says slowly, looking away. “It means never again.”
“Never again, what?”
His mouth quirks up into a sour smile. “Never again to a lot of things.”
“Is that all I’m going to get?”
“From that, yes,” he says, finally meeting my gaze again. His pupils are so large, they hypnotize me. “You get one more. Then you’re giving me something.”
I breathe in deeply through my nose and look over every inch of him. The lion. Words across his side “Hope before Death.” A paw print in his inner arm. A flock of ravens swirling into a tribal pattern down one bicep, making a sleeve. A crest with what looks like Latin on the other forearm. Another similar crest on his chest. I press on the one on his chest, with a boar at the centre. “Corda. Serrata. Pando,” I say, my finger tracing the words.
“I open locked hearts,” he says.
I still, watching him close. “What?”
“I open locked hearts,” he repeats. “It’s the Lockhart crest. I was born a Lockhart. That is the clan’s motto.”
“Again, that’s terribly romantic,” I tell him. “That must be where you get it from.” I touch his forearm, the other crest. “And I guess this is McGregor?”
“Aye, though it should be MacGregor, or Clan Gregor.”
“’S rioghal mo dhream,” I try to say but stumble over it. “What the hell.”
“Royal is my race,” he translates. He gives me a dry smile. “However, it’s not my race. So that explains a lot.”
I run my hand down the side of his cheek and he briefly closes his eyes. “I think I’d rather you a romantic warrior than one with fussy bloodlines.”
He leans in, slowly opening his eyes, gazing at me through his lashes. “Who said I was a warrior?”
I lower my voice. “I say you’re a warrior.”
You’re my warrior.
He lifts his chin. “What else do you say?”
I adjust myself on his hips, my hand slipping down toward his pants. I shift to undo the top button, bracing myself on his shoulder. “I say you need to get your cock out, warrior.”
He reaches out and lets his hands drift down over my hair. “Lead you into battle?”
“Something like that.” I bite my lip as I tug down his zipper.