Authors: Pamela Aares
Tags: #Romance, #woman's fiction, #baseball, #contemporary, #sports
“Hey, I know you have a whacko aversion to ballplayers. I thought it was why you didn’t take him seriously.” He downed a fist full of fries. “That and the fact that he’s a hunky guy. You always avoid them.” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Except me, of course.”
“You should’ve stuck to hockey. It would’ve saved me the trouble of dealing with you.” She took another big swig of his beer. “And it’s not whacko. I have my reasons.”
“You always do,” Gage said with a tinge of resignation.
She definitely did not like ballplayers, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Alex.
She watched him grip the bat, watched his forearms flex as he lifted it and took a swing through the air. Gage was right—he crouched in his stance, moved through his swing—in a way that was every inch primal.
A responding heat jolted deep inside her. Also primal. But so
good. Not now. And
for a jock, never again.
She’d fallen hard for a football player when she was finishing up vet school. An audacious striker, he could score a goal from seventy yards out. But it wasn't his passes on the field that lured her in. She’d been naïve then, young, and so enthralled and distracted by his charm that she’d nearly lost out on an important fellowship. When Brett had asked her to marry him, she’d moved heaven and earth to get back from her fieldwork in Africa in time to put the final details together for the wedding. Not that she’d needed to; her mother had hired not one but three wedding planners. You’d have thought they were planning a coronation, not a country wedding in Cornwall.
The morning of the wedding, Brett sent a two-line letter by messenger saying he couldn’t go through with it. There’d been no call, no explanation—he just jilted her, just like that. He turned up on the telly a week later, all smiles, with a lingerie model on his arm. In the end a friend told her he’d admitted he’d thought it might’ve been a good lark to marry an aristocrat’s daughter, but she’d proven too serious. And Brett was a man who liked booty and fun in one package.
His uncaring words had hurt more than anything else. Even more than having to face their guests that morning.
After that, the long faces of her friends and the wry glances from her mother’s aristocratic acquaintances were more than she could bear. She’d been more than humiliated—she’d been broken. She’d accepted the job at the Center and moved to California a month later.
Nope. She did
need a jock in her life.
The Center might, but she didn’t.
It’d be a replay of her younger self getting crushed, and she’d barely begun to crawl out of that hole.
She turned her attention back to the field. The hitter before Alex had made it to base while she daydreamed, though she wasn’t sure how.
“Watch how the pitcher hides his hands until the last moment,” Gage said, elbowing her so he wouldn’t have to put down his beer. “The great ones know how to disguise their release. That’s Taylor pitching now. He’s good, but he’s no match for Alex. Alex is one of those hitters who’s not just gifted, he’s trained up, and the more trained up a hitter is, the longer they can wait. It gives them just that extra fraction of time to read the pitch.”
Gage passed her the beer. “The sports press says he’s going for the Triple Crown this year. He could do it.”
His admiration of Alex was impossible to miss.
She took a big breath, followed by a big swallow of beer. “Sounds like a horse race,” she said as she handed the cup back.
A ballplayer, she thought, gritting her teeth. Great. Just great.
A roar sounded as the crowd leapt to their feet and booed wildly. Alex waved his hand and backed out of the box.
“Did you see that?” Gage shouted. “Taylor nearly drilled Alex. There could be blood yet.”
the hockey player,” Jackie said, laughing.
But as she watched the replay on the massive screen that towered above center field, she realized just how dangerous it was to stand in front of a ball heading straight at you at ninety-five miles an hour.
People around them began to sit back in their seats, most of them still muttering and shouting at the field.
“This’ll either be a sweet, sweet pitch or we’ll have a brawl,” Gage said.
She watched as Alex tapped his shoe with the bat, then flexed his arms and brought the bat up near his shoulder. It seemed that not only his eyes but his whole body was focused on the pitcher. A hawk watching prey couldn’t have had a steadier stare.
Alex swung on the next pitch, hitting the ball between two players, neither of whom could get it. He ran to the first base.
The crowd cheered, and Gage jumped up, punching a fist into the air.
“That’s the way, Alex.”
Jackie stood too, feeling odd about it, and then felt odder when everyone else sat before she did.
By the time she sat and got comfortable again, the crowd was groaning. She looked to the field. The players were jogging off.
“Double play,” Gage said. “We’re out.”
Jackie tried to absorb all the rules Gage threw at her in the next inning, but some seemed downright nonsensical. A player could get on base if he hit the ball, but he didn’t have to hit the ball to get on base. She sipped more of Gage’s beer, joking that obviously drinking helped with comprehension.
The second inning went quickly, with no one for either team getting on base, though a couple of the players managed to hit the ball fairly far. But there was always another player directly where the ball came down.
“Why don’t they hit where the other players aren’t?” she asked.
“I’ve often wondered the very same thing,” Gage said.
She guessed he was laughing at her, but he was straight-faced when he asked if she could handle another beer.
When Alex’s team was up for the third time, their first batter got on right away. But the next batter, the pitcher, swung three times without even touching the ball.
“He’s not very good, is he?” Jackie said.
“Not at hitting. But he has a wicked fastball.”
She’d have to take his word for it. Every pitch looked the same to her—they went rushing toward the batter somewhere around chest high.
The next hitter got on base when he got there faster than the ball did. And then the next hitter got on when one of the other players had trouble getting the ball out of his glove.
The crowd roared.
“Hot damn! Bases are loaded for Alex,” Gage said, thrusting the tray of nachos at Jackie and once again jumping to his feet. He clapped and whistled, joining in with the rest of the crowd.
The catcher ran out to talk to the pitcher, and the crowd settled back in their seats. Gage took back both his nachos and his beer.
Jackie leaned forward, eyes intent on Alex. What did he think about when he stood there, waiting for a ball to hurl past? Was he in a position of power or did that belong to the pitcher?
He missed with his first swing, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind. They called out encouragement.
Jackie released a long breath. The pitcher and Alex both took their positions again.
The pitcher released the ball, and Alex stepped toward its path, lowered the bat and swung. The bat connected with a crack, and the ball soared into the air and then into the stadium seats. Gage leapt to his feet, spilling what was left of his nachos.
“That’s it! That’s it! Way to go!” Gage roared. He hugged Jackie, smearing her shirt with crumbs and cheese. “Grand slam! I’ve been coming here for years and I’ve never seen one!”
She wasn’t sure how to respond. The crowd was screaming all around her. Alex was running around the bases and as he reached the one where he’d batted, the men who’d run in before him and the man waiting to bat all high-fived him. The crowd was cheering and calling his name.
“Watch.” Gage beamed. “He’ll come out of the dugout.”
Dugout. Sounded like a canoe. But she watched as Alex stepped up out of the enclosure and tipped his hat to the crowd. They roared. Then he looked over to where she and Gage were standing and smiled.
His smile melted a trail through her that felt like melted butter, yet what followed immediately was the slow sinking feeling that never presaged a good ending.
She needed to get a grip.
She glanced over at Gage; he was transfixed.
he got along with Alex. She should hand the wooing of Alex off to Gage. It’d be a better match. And she wouldn’t care if the board screamed about it.
The next two hitters both popped out—Gage’s words—and just like that, the players changed places on the field again.
Gage leaned across her to signal one of the vendors. The man handed her a warm bag, and she gave him the money Gage pressed into her hand.
“Peanut?” Gage offered. “You’ll have to shell them. Part of the fun.”
“If I eat one more oddity, you’ll have to carry me out of here,” she said. She couldn’t believe
could eat anything else.
Her cellphone vibrated in her pocket and she pulled it out.
“It’s the rescue line.” She took the call, putting her finger in her other ear so she could hear. She looked up to see Alex glance her way. Great. He’s just done something heroic and she was talking on the phone. She slipped her gaze to her lap and told the rescue supervisor she’d be there in half an hour.
“I have to go.”
“You need me?” He said it in a tone that meant he hoped not.
“I don’t think so. You okay catching a cab back to the Center?”
He nodded. As she stood to leave, she saw Alex glance her way again. Color rose in her cheeks. She hoped he couldn’t see it from so far away.
Back at the Center, Jackie examined the X-rays of the sea lion the rescue crew had called her about. Luckily for him, the bullet was lodged in his shoulder tissue and had missed a main artery. She had Bev help her anesthetize him, wishing Gage was there. But Bev was a skilled surgeon, and working together they removed the bullet and stitched the wound.
She hadn’t yet removed her gloves when the rescue crew brought in four more harbor seals from the North Bay. From the look of them, they had the same symptoms as the others. She settled them onto heated pads and tucked a towel under each.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of what’s taking you little guys out,” she said softly as she scoped the last little female and then took a final blood sample.
She was breaking her rule of never talking to the animals, but it didn’t matter; these little ones weren’t likely to make it through the night. She glanced up to see the crew chief peering, bug-eyed, over the gate. She didn’t bother to explain.
Her heart was still heavy three hours later as she gathered her notes and samples and headed home.
Once there, she put the tissue samples in her home fridge. Tomorrow she’d give them to Bradley. Already she dreaded their lunch. She longed for the days when they were just colleagues helping with one another’s work. There had to be a kind way to tell him she wasn’t interested in him romantically, but she couldn’t think of one. And she liked him way too much to hurt his feelings. Aside from Gage, he was her most trusted colleague.
She got out her map and marked each spot where the rescue crews had found dead or ailing seals. Most had been picked up near the mouth of the river she’d sampled. It made sense since there were thousands of acres of agricultural land upriver from there. She needed to go farther upriver and gather more water samples.
She clicked through her files and sent the data off to Bradley to review before he headed down to the Center. It felt good to be able to share her findings with someone, better than she’d expected.
She finished her notes and reveled in the quiet of her house. With little left to distract her, her thoughts circled back to the ball game. Watching Alex in his element had stirred raw feelings that were a far cry from comfortable.
She’d thought she’d grown out of such rushing, tumbling emotions. Maybe she’d just been carried away by the novelty of the game, or maybe she’d been drawn into Gage’s enthusiasm more than she’d realized. Maybe it was being in a stadium once again, watching a man who could command his body to perform remarkable feats and knowing what it felt like to have his body close to hers, touching hers and arousing responses that she didn’t fully control.
Or maybe she was just plain tired. Merely thinking the word had her rubbing a hand over her eyes and contemplating stretching out for a few minutes. When she was tired, everything loomed out of proportion.
But whatever stirred her feelings, she still felt bad about walking out. He’d gone to all the effort of getting them tickets, and she’d left before the game was half over. A niggling sense of discomfort squirmed in her chest. She’d apologize; there was simply nothing else to be done.
She pulled up the volunteer roster on her phone and punched in his number. When his recording answered, she nearly hung up. But she’d come this far.
“It’s Dr. Brandon,” she said.
That part was easy. Sort of.
“I’m sorry I missed the rest of the game; there was an emergency at the Center. Although I have to admit that most of what I did see baffled me.”