Authors: Pamela Aares
Tags: #Romance, #woman's fiction, #baseball, #contemporary, #sports
When she’d put down Tom’s life and his dreams, Alex had finally realized he’d been fooling himself all along. He wouldn’t do that ever again.
He should thank Tom.
“You’re losing your touch, Tavonesi. You don’t need a gargoyle. Just handle the lovely ladies like grounders. A moment in the hands”—he whirled his hands in the space between them—“and then a gentle and mutual toss-off.”
“Thanks, Yoda,” Alex said. “Remind me to ask you for hitting advice as well.”
wasn’t going to happen. Nobody expected a pitcher to hit, and Scotty met that expectation handily by hitting well below .100. He managed to put down a good sacrifice bunt on occasion, but that was about it. Alex couldn’t imagine life without the challenge of hitting. Reading the pitchers and learning their patterns, watching the seams, tuning his body to the pace and the arc, the ritual and the focus, it ran in his blood.
The last light of day glowed a dim line under fast-moving clouds along the horizon as Alex and Scotty crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Whitecaps peaked on the waves in the bay, and the wind had picked up in the past half hour. The city and the hills of the Marin Headlands were shrouded in clouds by the time they turned off at the first exit at the end of the bridge.
“Maybe it’s not such a great time to head to the coast. Looks like a mighty storm headed this way,” Scotty said, pointing to the northwestern horizon. “I thought we’d get hammered before the end of the seventh inning.”
Alex shrugged. “If I waited for a break in the odd weather patterns we’re having, I’d never get anything done.”
He fired off the strange weather events in his mind: earliest frost, hottest summer days, longest stretch of winter with no rain and now rain, warm rain, that just wouldn’t let up. If late rains kept up into May, they could affect the fruit set at his vineyard for the second year in a row.
, they called the storm pattern that brought these rains and winds. But there was nothing child-sized about its effects.
The rain and wind intensified as he nosed the car over the last ridge separating the headlands from the sea. In the distance, a side road snaked down toward the Point Bonita lighthouse.
“Wouldn’t want to be out there in waves like this,” Scotty said. “How far is it to this seal hospital?”
“Rescue center. It’s about a half mile from here. The whole place looked pretty ramshackle on the website. I was surprised to read that they’re doing some first-class science out of such a small place.”
“Is this science or a woman piquing your interest?” Scotty gave him a sidelong glance. “Rescuing river maidens might be your new calling.”
“I know about curious. Not exactly what we need right now.”
Scotty was right; chasing about the coast was the last thing he should be doing. He needed to rest up and stay in the zone. He’d set a high bar for the season and even on his best days he wondered if he’d overreached. He’d seen what overreaching had done to McQuinn last season, watched the guy wind himself so tight that he’d started making mistakes. But unlike McQuinn, Alex knew how to keep his perspective. At least he hoped he did.
His car hugged the curves as he eased it down the hill to Rodeo Beach. It’d been a favorite haunt, yet how many years had passed since he’d been there?
He turned onto a road that edged a small lagoon just past the beach. The hills of the headlands jutted down to steep cliffs and pitching waves. He opened his window, breathing in the salty marine air.
Driving to Trovare and donning a tux, smiling at people he barely knew, lost all its appeal.
“Mind if we skip Trovare tonight?” Alex asked.
Scotty shot him a look. “I was looking forward to meeting some of those society babes up at your place.”
Alex shook his head. “They eat boys from Nebraska for breakfast.”
“Sounds intriguing,” Scotty said. “I might like being someone’s breakfast.”
“Trust me on this one,” he said as he punched at his cellphone.
“Alex, it’s storming up here,” Sabrina said when she answered. “It came in fast, and Mother’s furious. She still doesn’t believe she can’t command the heavens.”
Alex laughed. “I’m going to skip the party. Forgive me?”
“I always do. I’ll find a way for you to make it up to me.”
He knew that playful tone. “No dates or set-ups, Sabrina. None. Zero.”
“You left out infinity.”
“That too.” He took in a breath. “And would you tell Emilio that I’ll meet with him when the team gets back from the road trip? The new irrigation for the vineyard can wait until then.”
. It was Sabrina’s favorite nickname for him. As a child, he’d wanted to go to sea. Years later, when he’d rebelled at being handed his life on a platter, he’d lost himself in the mysteries of marine biology. He’d majored in it at USC, but he’d quickly discovered that he had to choose between his love for the sea and baseball. Baseball had won out. When he’d been called up to the majors, everything else dropped away. After his dad died and left him to handle Trovare, any dreams he’d harbored for pursuing his passion for the sea dissolved into the added responsibilities. Tonight, those early, carefree days were a past he barely remembered.
The rain morphed into a light mist. A hundred yards down the rutted road, a chain-link fence surrounded a cluster of buildings lit by floodlights on poles.
The gate was open, and he pulled into a parking area gutted with potholes. Several large, round blue tanks stood next to the buildings, and a square of fenced pens ran along one side. Every pen held animals. Alex pulled a raincoat from behind his seat and tossed it across Scotty’s lap.
“Dress for battle.”
Scotty laughed. “I’d rather dress for breakfast.”
Alex stepped out, donned his overcoat and walked over to a pen where a big man in yellow slickers stooped over a sea lion laid out at his feet. The slickers made him look like a giant who had stepped out of a children’s cartoon. He held a board against the animal, pinning it into the corner of the pen. The sea lion easily weighed 300 pounds, Alex estimated, but unlike the animals he’d seen when he was out sailing, this one wasn’t frisky.
“Hey there!” the man called, without looking up. “Push that IV tower over here, would you?” The flat vowels of his accent marked him as Canadian.
Alex took hold of the metal pole that held the bag of fluid and rolled it to him. Without taking his eyes off the sea lion, the man felt his way down the tubing with his other hand, found the needle and pulled it. With a flick of his wrist, he inserted the needle at the back of the animal’s neck.
“Hand me those towels,” he ordered.
Alex grabbed the bundle and handed them over just as the man glanced up. Even in the dim light and at the late hour, the man’s eyes danced with merriment.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, still pressing the board against the sea lion. “I thought you were a volunteer.” A smirk crept across his face as he scanned Alex’s attire. “I told them we needed another pair of hands, but you don’t look the type.” He looked over at Scotty. “Neither of you do.”
The man paused, his eyes scanning Alex’s face. Alex stiffened and prepared himself for the usual questions and comments about baseball, but the man didn’t say anything. He just turned back to finish taping the IV to the sea lion.
Alex let out the breath he’d caged. “Never mind what I’m wearing. I’m willing to offer a hand.”
The man looked up again, nodded and then rubbed a blue stripe of paint across the animal’s forehead. He stood. To Alex’s surprise, they were eye to eye. Not many men reached six four.
“The name’s Gage,” the man said. “I won’t offer to shake your hand.” Like his slickers, his gloves were streaked with blood and muck. “I’m the assistant vet,” he said with a wry smile.
“Alex. And this is my buddy Scotty.”
“These guys are way bigger up close,” Scotty said as he walked over and acknowledged Gage.
A roaring bark sounded from the pen next to them, and Scotty jumped.
“Teeth. Lots of teeth,” Scotty said, shaking his head.
“The man needs a hand,” Alex said.
Scotty pulled Alex aside.
“If you’re going to hang around here,” he said in a low voice, “I’d rather rustle up a date back in the city.” He looked over his shoulder. “Those things could bite.” He made a snapping motion against his arm. “I’m pitching in four days.”
“Living up to your reputation as a precious pitcher,” Alex chided. He fished his car keys from his overcoat pocket. “Take my car; I’ll find a way back.”
idea, Tavonesi. Leave your number and have the mystery woman call you.” He glanced over to where Gage stood at a distance, watching them. “Where is she, anyway?”
“It looks pretty tame,” Alex said, looking out at the pens and ignoring Scotty’s question. He’d find the woman from the river, if not tonight, then next week. She’d left more than an impression. She’d haunted his dreams.
“Should’ve kissed the gargoyle,” Scotty said with a knowing smile. “This mystery woman must be awful pretty.” He took the keys Alex held out. “Maybe she’s having a beer at O’Doul’s.” His grin stretched even wider. “I’ll call you if I see anyone matching her description.”
Scotty nodded to Gage and headed for the car. Within moments he was driving down the hill.
Gage jerked his head in the direction of the car’s receding tail lights. “Your friend know his way back?”
Gage raised a brow, then turned and wrote something on a chalkboard-like poster that hung between the pens. A wail from an enclosure farther down the line had Gage bolting. He pulled a pair of gloves from where they were wedged in the fencing and tossed them to Alex.
“You’ll be useful for this one,” he said.
was a 600-pound behemoth, maybe heavier, and he was not docile like the first. Though large, the sea lion was obviously starving; its ribs showed and its skin hung loose.
Alex took the board Gage pushed toward him, grabbed the two handles at its front and helped to herd the creature into a corner of the enclosure. Gage was strong, and he worked with a deft confidence.
The animal bucked and tried to rear up.
“Lean into it,” Gage instructed, gesturing with his hip. Alex leveraged his weight on the board and felt a pull along his ribs as he did. He ignored the pain and held the board steady. In less than a minute Gage had inserted an IV and started the drip. He pushed a piece of fencing up to the animal.
“Hand me those bungees,” he said, pointing at strips of rubber hanging on the pen. He fastened the fencing into a makeshift restraint pen and turned to remove the wooden herding board.
“Where’s the rest of your crew?” Alex asked as he followed Gage to the back of the pen.
“Out on rescues. We had no idea it’d be this busy—hadn’t counted on another storm so soon.” He shook the water from his hair and wiped his forehead with the back of his glove. “Two El Niño years in a row and a new batch of animals coming down from the North Bay, harbor seals, mostly.”
He tugged on the IV. Evidently confident it would hold, he motioned to Alex and together they backed out of the pen.
A truck roared into the lot, its headlights flooding the pen and path, temporarily blinding Alex.
“Damn!” Gage swore under his breath. “They should yank her green card
Alex’s eyes adjusted, and he saw the woman from the river hop out of the truck, calling out orders to the two men unloading crates from the back. Even at a distance there was no mistaking her English accent or the confidence and strength woven through the lush tones of her voice.
“Take these two down to the hospital,” she said, pointing to the heavy crates the men were hefting from the back of the truck. “And set up the X-ray; that one’s been shot.” She nodded toward a smaller crate still in the truck.
She whirled to face them and froze when she saw Alex. The wariness in her eyes surprised him.
Wet auburn curls fell loose and tangled around her face, framing her beautiful and honeyed hazel eyes. She was even lovelier than he remembered.
“You do turn up in the oddest places.”
Without a glance back, she headed toward the building she’d called the hospital.
“You know her?” Gage asked.
“Not really. Ran into her up in Sonoma last week. We weren’t introduced.”
“That’s Jackie,” Gage said, tilting his head toward the departing woman. “She’s the boss. And that’s her at her most suave. She might be wanting in bedside manners, but she’s the best marine mammal vet in the world. She’s why I’m here.” He handed Alex the IV bag he’d lifted from its hook. “Watch to see that this drains properly.”
He walked to the truck and lifted the smaller crate from it and headed toward the hospital.
Standing in the misting drizzle, holding an IV bag hooked up to a very sad-looking sea lion, Alex calculated how ridiculous he must appear. His shoes were coated in mud, and he was soaked through. A loud snort sounded behind him, and he turned just in time for the sea lion to sneeze snot all over his overcoat. The smell had a stink like no other. Even so, as he snagged a towel off the fencing with his free hand and began to wipe down his coat, an odd elation flooded him, like hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. It made no sense.