Ruff and Tumble
by Lucy Gilmore
Publication Date: 6/29/2021
This sweet, funny, wonderfully escapist contemporary romance takes a winking view at the year’s most anticipated sporting event: Puppy Football.
As a production assistant for the Puppy Cup, Hailey Lincoln knows all things puppies and football. She also knows all things Cole Bennett, star quarterback for the Seattle Lumberjacks and sexiest man alive. But years spent cheering for Cole from the sidelines never prepared her to meet his famous winning grin—or his unexpected plea for help.
Cole’s entire life revolves around football, but that’s not the future he wants. He’s in a bind: if he leaves the spotlight, he risks disappointing his team, his fans, and his incredibly tight-knit family. He needs a bit of good PR to help him out, and Hailey (and her puppies) are perfect for the job.
But winning at puppy football is only the start. If Hailey really wants to win—the game, the man, and the family she never thought could be hers—she needs to pull out all the stops. And Cole, who’s spent his entire life playing a game, has to realize that losing football isn’t nearly as catastrophic as losing the woman he loves.
Lucy Gilmore is a contemporary romance author with a love of puppies, rainbows, and happily ever afters. She began her reading (and writing) career as an English literature major and ended as a die-hard fan of romance in all forms. When she’s not rolling around with her two Akitas, she can be found hiking, biking, or with her nose buried in a book.
Cole didn’t wait for Hailey’s nod this time. Instead, he reached down and tucked the puppy under one arm in the same football hold he’d used to carry Mia. It took a lot more of his strength than he cared to admit to keep Philip there, but he managed the same way he always did.
With grit and determination and a desperate wish that he could just once admit he didn’t have nearly as much of his shit together as the world believed.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll do it. And I’ll take this little guy for my team. Look at him wriggle. He’s got fight in him. He’ll make an excellent offensive tackle.”
An exasperated sigh escaped her. “For the last time, we don’t pick teams. Or assign positions, for that matter. They’re puppies. We just let them run around for a while.”
“As long as we let them run in my favor, I don’t care how we play it,” he said. “But for the record, you never want to lead your pick with an OT. Or a kicker, but don’t tell Johnson I said that. He got us six points yesterday. He’s feeling a little smug.”
“Cole!” Hailey released a shaky laugh. “It’s not real football. It’s literally a patch of Astroturf with puppies and chew toys. We film them for like forty hours in hopes of whittling it down to thirty minutes of play time. You’ve seen the Puppy Cup before, right?”
“Well, no,” he admitted. “I’m usually busy during the game. Sorry.”
Cole took advantage of Hailey’s momentary discomfiture to set Philip on the ground and watch as the puppy took off after a bird that landed on the edge of the yard, his leash dragging behind him. If history planned on repeating itself, Cole had about ten seconds before Hailey recovered and gave him his own back again, and he didn’t intend to waste them.
“That dog has good speed,” he said with a nod. “Not to mention good form and lots of energy, but I feel like he could be easily distracted. Are you writing this down?”
“Of course I’m not writing it down.”
“Fine.” Cole made a big show of reaching for his phone and pulling it out. He snapped a quick photo of Philip, who was barking excitedly at the bird, before turning on the record function.
“Philip the pit bull,” he said in a loud, careful voice. “Five months old and—what was it you said?—abandoned next to a tree. Good speed and strength, but he can’t even scare that bird on the fence away. Final assessment: All bark. No bite.”
He turned to Hailey with the phone held out. “Anything you’d like to add?”
“What are you doing?”
“Building a roster. It’s only fair. You’ve spent the past few months assessing and getting to know the animals. If I’m going to have a chance at picking a winning team, I need basic stats from all of them. Philip has promise, but I’d like to see who else there is to choose from.”
As he hoped, this focus on football and puppies—the only two things that didn’t seem to fluster Hailey—worked in breaking down any of the barriers that remained between them. Stalking forward, she yanked the phone out of Cole’s hand and held it to her lips. “Cole the football player. Thirty-two years old and not in charge of this project. Despite his years of being the center of attention, this is supposed to be about the animals, not him.”
Cole felt a laugh well up from somewhere deep within him. He also took his phone back and kept the recorder going. “Hailey the puppy lady. Twentysomething and adorable as all get-out. Doesn’t play well with others, but that’s okay. I’ve always liked a challenge.”
Somewhere in the middle of his assessment, Hailey’s lower lip fell and stayed there. If Cole had to guess, he’d say the cause was that bit about being adorable, but he didn’t regret his words. She was adorable. Flushed with pleasure, squaring up for battle, more belligerent than his sister’s birth-room attendant—there was something seriously wrong with him to find the combination of those three things appealing, but that was no surprise. He’d been saying he was broken for years, and no one believed him.
Since he was holding the phone out of Hailey’s reach, she couldn’t snatch it back to list more of his faults, but that didn’t stop her. She drew so close that he could feel the heat radiating off her and got up on her tiptoes. As before, she didn’t take advantage of their proximity to touch him in any way, but that didn’t seem to matter in the slightest. The almost-but-not-quite touching, the way he could sense the shape of her body rather than feel it, was working much more powerfully on his blood flow than he could have anticipated.
“Cole the liar,” Hailey said, her voice carrying up to his phone. “Not going to get his way with empty compliments. Some of us have work to do today.”
“Hailey the disbelieving. Should probably back down, or she’s going to get kissed. Immediately.”