Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
Tags: #JUV000000, #book
He almost choked on the bread. ‘Nothing.’
‘You don’t hole up in your room for nothing.’
‘I’m just tired.’
She was quiet for a moment. ‘I know you think you’re alone, Michael, but you’re not. Your father and I love you. Your brothers love you—’
He snorted. ‘Don’t be so sure about that. I caught the twins trying to write on my face with a Sharpie at three a.m. the other day.’
She smiled, but her eyes were still serious. ‘I’m just trying to tell you we’re here for you. No matter what.’
‘I know, Mom.’
She touched his face. ‘You sure?’
He nodded. He was sure—and that was the problem. They shouldn’t have to be here for him. The thought of his family getting caught in the cross fire for something he’d done, for something he was … Michael almost couldn’t take it.
And that was the only reason he was here instead of running. When Emily reported him, when the Guides came for him, he was ready to surrender.
As long as they left his family alone.
By Monday afternoon, Emily had completely reorganized the
designer golf balls in the display case, making a rather impressive tower of alternating colors, if she did say so herself. She was blasting the
sound track today, louder than usual so she could belt along with Idina Menzel.
This kind of heat always made business slow, but today was ridiculous. Maybe people were finally done with the weather, and everyone had gone to the beach.
When ‘Defying Gravity’ came on, she cranked it a few notches higher, then stepped out onto the floor to rearrange the rack of golf shirts by size and style.
Just as she got to the chorus, a man cleared his throat behind her.
Emily jumped and shrieked and nearly knocked all the shirts off the rack. Her face went from cool to blazing in half a second.
She steadied the rack and called over her shoulder, loudly enough to be heard over the music. ‘I’m so sorry—’
Then she stopped short. Michael Merrick stood there.
She stared at him, unable to move.
He made a circular motion with his hand. ‘Could you turn this down?’
‘Oh … sure.’ She dashed for the stereo behind the counter and yanked her iPod cord free. The music died instantly.
When she straightened, Michael was at the counter. She could barely catch her breath.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he said flatly. ‘I like Broadway musicals as much as the next guy.’
Her cheeks felt hotter—if that was possible. ‘Sorry. It’s been dead. I mean …’ She hesitated. ‘You need tokens?’
‘I have some from the other day.’
But he was still standing there, staring down at her. It took some effort to meet his eyes, but at least she could read the emotion there: surprise, and intrigue, and confusion.
‘About Friday,’ he said.
She wet her lips. ‘Friday?’
‘I stayed up all night.’ A self-deprecating shrug. ‘Most of the weekend, really.’
She frowned. ‘Okay … ?’
‘I was waiting.’ He rested his forearms against the glass, and his voice dropped a notch. ‘I thought you’d turn me in.’
‘For the parking lot?’ She shrugged and picked at the disclaimers taped to the glass counter. ‘It’s not a big deal—’
‘It is to me.’
Emily stopped fidgeting and looked at him.
‘So,’ he said, his voice softer and almost gentle, ‘thanks.’
She had no idea what to say to that.
And he didn’t wait. He picked up his bat and turned for the back door to the shop, stepping out into the humidity without a backwards glance.
Emily cheated the time clock out of fifteen minutes and strode down the hill to the batting cages. Michael was still there, in a royal blue tee shirt today, using the fastest machine they had.
She didn’t even hesitate this time, just walked up to the cage and hooked her fingers through the fence.
‘It’s Monday,’ she said.
He didn’t look. ‘No kidding.’
‘You said you only come on Wednesdays and Fridays.’
He glanced over his shoulder. ‘Maybe I didn’t want to miss the show.’
His voice wasn’t quite friendly—but it sure wasn’t hostile. She blushed again and wished her skin weren’t so fair. Maybe he’d attribute it to the heat.
Then he turned back to swing for the next ball.
There was something addictive about the sound of the machine, the regular crack of the bat, the motion of his body as he swung to hit.
Before she knew it, four pitches had gone by, and she realized she looked like a freak stalker.
She had to say something. ‘That looks so … therapeutic.’
‘Want a turn?’
‘What—No!’ God, she’d been standing here staring. She couldn’t even remember why she’d come down to the batting cage. ‘Sorry. I’ll just … I’ll …’
‘I’m sorry about Friday.’ Michael fed the machine a new token. ‘Not just for the parking lot.’ He tossed a glance over his shoulder. ‘For being a dick.’
She should turn and walk away. She didn’t want to. ‘It’s all right.’
He paused to swing. The crack of the bat stole her breath.
Another glance. He tapped the bat against the dirt. ‘Sure you don’t want a turn?’
Emily shook her head quickly. ‘I’ve never played baseball. I’m not sure the fast-pitch machine is the best place to start.’
He snorted. A laugh? She couldn’t tell. She felt like they’d completely ventured off the map of what felt sure and certain.
Then he said, ‘So why do you need this job so badly?’
‘I want to move to New York City.’
The words were out before she could stop them. But he’d surprised her with his gratitude, followed by this apology. And for some reason, it was easier to have a conversation while his back was turned and his attention was focused elsewhere.
‘New York?’ Crack. The ball strained at the nets before dropping to the earth.
She swallowed. ‘Yeah. I have a friend who graduated two years ago who’s an understudy on Broadway. She says she’ll help me get a job.’
‘You want to be on Broadway?’ The surprise in his voice was almost tangible.
She bristled, ready for the mockery she’d gotten from her father when she’d mentioned this last year. There was a reason she made the appropriate noises about researching colleges but kept her true plans a secret. ‘Yeah, so?’
He didn’t say anything, the bat poised over his shoulder.
‘I mean, it’s not like a guarantee or anything,’ she said, folding her arms across her chest. ‘I’ll probably end up waiting tables and calling my parents to borrow cash after six months.’
A ball flew at him. Crack.
‘Nah. I could see it. You kept up with that
Her jaw almost hit the ground. ‘You recognized the music?’ And was that a … compliment?
He shrugged. ‘My dad got our mom tickets for her birthday last spring. We all had to go. Some crap about needing more culture.’
His dad got tickets to
for their mom? She couldn’t remember the last time her father had given a present to her mom—much less included her and Tyler in on it.
‘I think living in a city would make me stir-crazy,’ said Michael.
She thought of his parents’ landscaping business and wondered if a guy like Michael would actually suffer in a city. ‘I guess we’re not fated to be together, then.’
She’d meant for it to come out flippant, full of sarcasm, but the words fell flat and honest. He looked over his shoulder. ‘I guess not.’
The machine buzzed, signaling the last pitch. Michael hit hard, sending the ball into flight before it hit the nets and dropped dead.
She expected him to feed it another token, but he stepped over to the fence and hooked his hand on a link exactly five inches to the left of hers.
Again, he was too close. Her heart kicked. She stared up at him and stopped breathing.
‘Want to learn?’ he said.
‘Learn?’ Her voice was squeaking.
He tapped the fence with the end of the bat. ‘How to hit.’
She couldn’t. She’d already spent too much time talking to him. This had danger written all over it.
But some part of her heart had already told her brain’s insistent thoughts to shove it.
Because she was already saying yes.
His brain kept asking him what the hell he was doing, but Michael ignored the doubts and led Emily to the slowest cage. All afternoon, her presence had been little flickers against his skin, not entirely unpleasant. From the moment he’d caught her in the office, blushing and stammering and fighting to turn down her music, he’d been resisting the urge to reach out and touch her, to see if those little flickers were a promise of something more.
She hadn’t reported him. That had to mean something.
Especially now, when she stood with him in the eight-foot-square cage, listening to him talk about things like stance and hand position and letting the ball come to her.
God, he needed to shut up. He felt giddy and nervous and it was a miracle he could even form a coherent sentence. He held out the bat. ‘Here. Let’s just try.’
She made no move to take it. ‘I’m probably going to give myself a concussion.’
‘Come on. My brother could hit off this machine when he was eight.’
She made a face. ‘Now I feel better.’ But she took the bat and attempted to hold it the way he’d shown her.
She looked ridiculous and adorable and he tried not to laugh.
Just as quickly, he choked it off.
What was he thinking?
Sharp words sat on his tongue, ready to drive her away. He could stop this now. They could go back to being mortal enemies. She’d let one mistake slide. That wasn’t the same as helping him. Or even accepting him.
She looked over at him, and he was sure she could read the doubts on his face.
Just like he could read the doubts on hers.
Michael jammed his hands into his pockets, feeling his shoulders tighten.
Before he could say anything, she said, ‘I look like an idiot, don’t I?’
He let out a breath. ‘Nah.’ Then he paused and almost smiled. ‘Well. Maybe.’
‘Tell me what to do so I don’t take a ball to the frontal lobe.’
So he demonstrated again, and she took the stance again, and when she said she was ready, he fed a token to the machine.
At the first ball, she didn’t even try to swing. She flung herself back and almost dropped the bat. ‘Holy crap, that’s fast!’
He caught her shoulders before she could plow into him, intending to set her straight, the way he would one of his brothers.
She froze, just for an instant, but it was enough. He yanked his hands down.
She didn’t say anything, so he backed away to lean against the chain link, putting clear distance between them. ‘You want me to go get a putter?’ he said. ‘You have no trouble swinging those.’
That earned him a rueful glance over her shoulder.
But then her expression softened. ‘You can show me.’ She paused. ‘It’s okay.’
He hesitated, just long enough for him to hear the machine revving up for the next pitch. So he stepped forward, caught her shoulders again, and pushed her into place. Then, without thinking about it too carefully, he put his arms over hers, his hands on the bat, and guided her into the swing.
‘Don’t run from it,’ he said. ‘Stand strong.’
She got a piece of this one, and you would have thought she’d scored the winning home run at the World Series. Bat in the air, jumping up and down, silly smile on her face.
‘I hit it! I hit it!’
It made him smile. This was vastly more satisfying than showing Chris how to hit a curve ball. ‘Okay, try not to make it a foul ball next time.’
She made a face. ‘Killjoy.’ She tapped the bat against the ground and got back into position. Like a frigging major league player.
And then he shut up real quick when she threw another glance over her shoulder. ‘You going to show me again or what?’
Michael crossed the parking lot with a spring in his step.
He told himself to knock it off, that one batting lesson didn’t mean anything.
Especially not with Emily Morgan.
But he kept thinking of the feel of her hands under his, of the way her shoulders fit perfectly within the circle of his arms, of the smell of her skin.
He found himself wondering what other things would feel like. Holding her hand. Touching her hair.
Stop it. You’re an idiot.
But the curve of her neck had been right there. She hadn’t flinched from his touch. Really, if you took away the baseball bat, the way he’d been holding her had been pretty damn intimate.
When he inhaled, he could almost still smell her.
He’d already told her too much. How baseball let him clear his mind and focus on something not related to his element. How he worried every day would end with a loss of control—like Friday.
How badly he wanted to leave town.
He could have kicked himself for revealing that one.
But then she’d talked about her parents’ fighting. How sometimes she didn’t care about making it in New York; it was just a new place, a new beginning.
She told him how she was sick of every day being focused on hate.
And for the first time, he let himself start to wonder if this deal could work out.
She’d left ten minutes ago, after he’d told her to go so they wouldn’t be seen walking out together. He’d killed ten minutes burning through his last token, remembering the feel of her body with every swing he took.
His dad’s truck sat alone at the back of the parking lot, dark in the shade of an old elm tree. Michael had the keys in his hand and a bemused smile he couldn’t get off his face.
He didn’t even hear the attackers until his head was slamming into the concrete.
They were all on him at once. He couldn’t even get a handle on how many guys had tackled him. One had come from the bed of the truck. They had the chain his dad kept back there to tie down loose loads, and they had it against his throat, pinning him to the parking lot. Someone else trapped an arm, kneeling on his wrist, grinding his skin into the pavement.