Love is about to throw a serious curveball…
For new Hall-of-Famer Crush Taylor, even owning the championship Kilby Catfish baseball team has lost its edge. In fact, the only thing that fires him up these days is ice queen Wendy Trent, mayor of Kilby, Texas and official thorn in his side. She thinks he’s a player—and she’s right. But the stunning, smart, and unattainable Wendy gets under his skin like no other woman.
Wendy hasn’t risen to her position of mayor by chance—she’s worked incredibly hard to succeed, and knows the pain of being burned. So when the brash, irrepressible, heart-meltingly gorgeous Crush turns his attention her way, she’s definitely not interested. Okay, maybe a little…but he’ll never know.
Then a brilliant, young female pitching phenom—and Wendy’s long-lost daughter--shows up in Kilby. Finally Crush and Wendy want the same thing -- to give Teri a chance at a pro baseball career. Making baseball history would be a home run. Temporarily giving in to their wild attraction in the process? Grand slam.
There’s only one problem: falling in love could be the biggest game changer of all.
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Also by Jennifer Bernard
About the Author
In Crush Taylor’s opinion, January was the “hangover” of months. By January, the World Series was long gone, as was the parade of holiday gatherings that kept him busy through December. Spring Training wouldn’t get underway until February. January was just a long slog through a baseball-free wasteland. The only baseball to be had was in the form of winter trades and free agent pickups. You might as well donate the entire month to football.
Except for one little—make that major—thing.
The phone call every player who ever picked up a bat dreamed of receiving.
“I’d like to speak with Crush Taylor, please.”
“Yeah, this is him.”
“This is Dallas Bueller with the Baseball Writers Association in New York. I’m calling to tell you that the writers have elected you to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Congratulations.”
He’d known it was likely, he’d wanted it, but it felt surreal. And not like what he’d expected. Realizing that he hadn’t responded yet, he shook himself back to attention. “Yeah…uh, thanks, Dallas.”
A short pause. “Okay then.”
Crush didn’t say anything more. He knew he should. But a heavy weight had descended on him at the word “Hall.” It still sat on his chest like a Sumo wrestler declaring victory. After all the speculation in the sports columns, after his agent’s insistence that this was his year, the actual moment was just…empty. Strange. Maybe even…disturbing.
“You were a shoo-in, Crush, but I’m sure that’s no surprise to you.”
Hell, he’d better muster up the proper reaction. “No, uh…I’m extremely honored.”
“Yeah, I can tell you’re just jumping up and down.” The Bronx accent on the other end of the line added to Bueller’s dry delivery. Crush had known him and sparred with him for years. Then again, he’d known everyone for years. Maybe that was the problem.
“Look, Dallas, I’m honored. What the fuck else do you want me to say?”
“And…now I see why you refused to have cameras recording this moment for broadcast.”
“You got that right.” Crush had watched Ken Griffey Jr. get his Hall of Fame calls, and decided on the spot to skip that media ritual. “It’s better for everyone this way.”
“Well, you have six months until Cooperstown. Think you can muster up a smile or a grin by then?”
“I’m sure I can come up with something.” As he spoke, his middle finger rose up all on its own.
“I recognize that tone of voice. You’re giving me the finger, aren’t you?”
Dammit, Dallas knew himtoo well. The entire baseball world knew him too well. Maybe that was the problem. Crush snatched his middle finger back into position and formed a fist to keep it in line. “I’m not giving you the finger, Dallas. I’m honored. Can we just stick with that? This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I will never forget.”
“Your sincerity is a beacon to us all. Honestly, I got more reaction when I refereed my first-grader’s spelling bee.”
“Well, I can spell too. F. U.”
“See you in Cooperstown, asshole.”
“Look forward to it.”
Crush ended the call and flipped his phone onto the granite countertop in his state-of-the-art kitchen, which had been rendered spotless by his team of cleaning personnel. Next, his agent would call. The San Diego Friars would call. The local press would call. The national press would call. His three ex-wives would probably call, and those of his kids who were speaking to him.
If there were a Hall of Fame for fathers, he’d never stand a chance.
Crush peered at his reflection in the hood of his Viking eight-burner stove. Was that an alfalfa sprout on his shirt? What was he, a cow? His daughter Paige was trying to get him to eat healthy, and she was hard to resist. Having his oldest daughter around this past season had really opened his eyes to how much he’d missed. Truth was, he’d devoted his entire life to baseball, and now he was being honored for it and he felt as if he’d just gotten kicked in the jaw.
What was wrong with him?
No, he definitely couldn’t handle any calls today. He reached for the phone to switch it off, but instead managed to answer a call just coming in at that moment. The cool female voice on the other end sent his spine snapping straight. Mayor Wendy Trent always had that effect on him.
Except this time, her voice had an extra layer of southern sweetness to it. “I’d just like to say, on behalf of the city of Kilby, how honored we are that our own native son and owner of our beloved local team the Catfish has been recognized by the baseball Hall of Fame. We couldn’t be more pleased or proud.”
“Practicing for the press?”
“Yes. How do you like it? Should I mention the weeklong Crush Taylor Festival my office is planning?”
He blanched. “You’re joking.”
“Of course I’m joking. Unless it’s a good idea. How big a deal is this? It sounds like a very big deal, but you know me and sports.”
When he’d first met Wendy Trent, he’d seen her as a blow-dried Texas ice queen. Over the past two years, they’d gone from adversaries to sparring partners, with an occasional flirtation thrown in for kicks. He’d even made dinner for her once. The undercurrent of sexual chemistry between them was off the charts, but he’d never once gotten her to admit it.
Maybe this Hall of Fame thing would be good for something after all.
“Put it this way. The Baseball Hall of Fame has existed since 1936 and I’ll be member number three hundred and twenty. It’s a pretty big deal.”
“Festival it is, then.”
“No! No festival. Seriously. I won’t show up.”
“Why, Crush Taylor!” All of a sudden her voice got even more twangy than usual. “Are you telling me your poor little old male ego can’t stand just a little more stroking?”
Talk about stroking…that was exactly what her voice was doing to his cock. “I never say no to stroking.”
“So I’ve heard. Good, then. I’ll pencil it in for August, after the induction ceremony.”
His stomach gave a slow, queasy roll. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d been feted and honored and wined and dined his entire baseball career, even after retiring. If he had someone to celebrate with, maybe it would feel different.
Just thinking about all the speeches and dinners and flattery, he needed a drink, something he’d been working hard to avoid.
“Pencil whatever you want. I’m not committing right now.”
“Why not?” Surprise rippled across the phone line. He could just picture her bluebonnet eyes going wide in her Texas beauty queen face. “What’s wrong with you, Crush? Shouldn’t you be sounding a lot happier about this?”
He muttered something, or maybe growled. “Gotta go, babe.”
“You can’t call your mayor ‘babe.’ Crush, I swear, your very existence sets back the women’s movement about fifty years.”
“How would I do that? I married three women and fathered three more. I’m pro-woman.”
“Name one thing you’ve done for women. Not counting members of your family.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but she added quickly, “Or women you’ve slept with.”
Okay then. Apparently the ice queen mayor thought he was some kind of Neanderthal. “I ain’t your enemy, darlin’,” he drawled. “You know what really set back the women’s movement? Bikini waxes. Not that I mind. Personally, I’m pro-bikini wax. Where do you stand on that issue?”
He could swear he heard the sound of her teeth gnashing. “Bye, Crush.”
After hanging up the phone, he wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. That call had not gone well. Every time he talked to Wendy, he irritated her—and it was only intentional some of the time.
He checked the clock on his stove. Almost noon, on what should be one of the best days of his life. This day ought to be the cherry on top of his baseball career. He’d worked his ass off for this honor. At the same time, he knew that other people had worked just as hard, and weren’t being inducted into the Hall of Fame. He should feel grateful for his good fortune. Grateful for his natural born talent, grateful for the drive that brought him to this point, grateful for his relative lack of injuries, for some lucky trades, for…God, for everything. He was one lucky mother-effer.
But it felt wrong. Twenty years in baseball. Three ex-wives. A string of failed relationships that didn’t involve a ring. Four kids he barely knew. Hall of Fame, buddy. Hall of Fame.
Selfish. That’s what he was. Everyone told him so, and he had to agree. His selfishness had brought him to the peak of achievement for a ballplayer. He was supposed to be celebrating. But he couldn’t.
He needed a damn drink.
Around midnight, many shots of tequila later, Crush stumbled, dead-drunk, onto the baseball field at Los Alamos Park, where the Little League, the Senior League, and other various unofficial leagues played. His own stadium had been locked, and what the fuck was up with that?
“Oughta be able to get into my own damn stadium,” he muttered as he staggered across the green sweep of the outfield. “What’s the point of buying your own team if you can’t get into your own stadium when you damn well want to? I oughta get my money back.” He laughed uproariously, the sound suffocated by the emptiness of the field.
He brandished his fist at the mound rising in the center of the diamond.
“Baseball, I got somethin’ to say to you. Has to be said in person. Man to man. Mano a mano. Mound to mound.” That was too frickin’ funny, he couldn’t stand it. He doubled over, laughing so hard his stomach hurt, almost losing track of what he was saying. He dropped to his knees and crawled to the mound.
“Why’d you do it, baseball? Why me? You picked me out of the whole wide world. Me. I’m nothing special. Was nothing special.” He touched the rubber embedded in the sandy dirt. “I don’t know anything else but you. Never even finished high school. I lied and said I did. Took some college courses online so I wouldn’t look stupid. I know I have brains. I’m not stupid. Okay, right now I’m acting stupid but see…I know I’m acting stupid. I always know. The brain never stops. I try to kill it one brain cell at a time but it doesn’t stop. Just keeps on ticking.”
He lay on his stomach, resting his chin on his hands, staring at the rubber.
“Here’s the thing, baseball. You were always it for me. The one thing I was good at. I sucked ass at everything else in life. Marriage, friendship, parenthood. All a big fat strikeout failure. Three wives, you’re out. Right, baseball?”
Nausea cruised up the back of his throat. Damn, he just couldn’t drink the way he used to. He’d lost the knack. He really should quit.
“And now you’re done, baseball. You kicked me out. Hall of Fame is like a goddamn living coffin. That’s why most of the guys in there are dead. They ought to call it Zombietown, not Cooperstown.”
He tried to laugh at his own joke, but the queasiness was thick in his throat now, and the heresy of referring to Cooperstown that way put him on edge. Crush wasn’t all that religious, but he was definitely superstitious, especially regarding baseball.
“I take that back, baseball,” he whispered. His gorge rose and he realized he was about to vomit all over the Los Alamos park mound. Quickly he rolled over onto his back and came upright. He forced himself to his feet and scrambled to the side of the field, where the grass grew thicker and taller. He emptied his stomach in an out-of-the-way spot, then staggered back in the direction of the field.
“Why did I think tequila would help?” he muttered, waving away the alcohol fumes wafting from him. “Just say no, motherfucker. Just say no.” At the edge of the field, he noticed an especially downy looking patch of grass. Maybe it was where they kept the water cooler during games. Right now, it looked incredibly tempting.
“Hey, baseball,” he called to the mound. “I’m just going to…take a little nap. You have fun without me now. Don’t have ol’ Crush to kick around anymore, do you? No, you don’t.”
He dropped onto the patch of grass and spread-eagled his arms and legs. The familiar grassy fragrance enveloped him in its green goodness. “All the best games are played on grass, ever notice that? Baseball, golf, croquet, football, three-legged race, egg toss…cookie toss…” Chuckling, he dropped into a deep sleep that closed over his head like a coffin.
He woke up to a very familiar sound. Ball hitting dirt. He’d know that sound in any spot in the world. A chill shuddered through his body. How long had he been lying here in the grass? Judging by the painful vise cinched around his head—hours. Streaks of light sliced across the horizon, turning the sky overhead a bold, deep sapphire. Pre-dawn. The witching hour.
Lifting his head, he squinted toward the mound. A powerful, lean, lithe figure commanded the mound. He took the classic pitcher’s pose, body bent forward at the waist, ball behind his back, as if listening to an invisible catcher. Crush glanced at the plate to make sure. Yup, no catcher. That didn’t bother the pitcher, who shook off several imaginary signs before rearing back into his windup and drilling the ball over the plate.
Damn. That was some throw. It flew over the plate like an arrow on speed, then landed in the dirt before the backstop. Hard to tell, without a catcher’s glove and a hitter, but Crush would call that one a strike, low and inside.
“Steeerike,” the pitcher agreed, pumping his fist, his ponytail waving behind him.
Crush sat up, rubbing gunk out of his eyes. Ponytail? There were players who wore ponytails, he supposed, but not so long they touched the middle of their backs. He watched more closely as the pitcher paced around the mound, apparently debating what pitch would deliver the final nail in the imaginary hitter’s coffin.
With a nod, he—or she?—took the mound again and wasted no time delivering one of the best curveballs Crush had ever seen. Certainly it was in the top five.
“Out on a called third strike! Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Take that! I win!” The pitcher danced around the mound in an ass-wagging way that made it crystal fucking clear she was female. A woman. Or a girl. Or somewhere in between, it was hard to tell in this early morning light. But whatever her age, she kicked ass.
Crush did a fair amount of scouting for the Friars. He had an eye for talent; everyone in baseball knew that. He’d discovered Trevor Stark, after all, who’d be anchoring the Friars’ lineup come April. He’d seen thousands and thousands of pitchers throw, and when he saw a sweet natural motion like this girl’s, it was like witnessing a heavenly chorus.
He watched her as she jogged to the backstop to collect the ball. She was tall and long-limbed, with wide hips and strong, curving thigh muscles encased in spandex workout shorts. He closed his eyes and brought up the image of her last delivery. Her form wasn’t perfect. If she planted her back foot a little farther back, if she turned more to the side, if she tinkered with her windup…
He must have said that out loud, because suddenly the girl whipped around from the backstop and flung the ball at him. He rolled to the side just in time to keep from getting walloped. “Hey, watch it, kid.”
“You watch it! Or better yet, don’t watch it, perv.”
“Excuse me?” He grabbed the ball out of the grass and shot it back to her. She caught it with a grunt, her gloved hand rising into the air automatically. Good reflexes.
“Nice throw, for a homeless drunk,” she told him.
“Nice catch, for a vagrant teenager.”
“I’m twenty-one.” She put one hand on her hip. She didn’t seem one bit intimidated by the fact that she was alone on a baseball field with a strange, possibly homeless-and-drunk man.
“And I have a home, I’m just taking a nap here.”
“Because I like baseball. Why are you here?”
“Same.” They shared a moment of agreement. The sky had lightened to a lilac-tinted gray that allowed him to see that her hair was a mass of warm brown curls and her skin a light tan. Probably part Hispanic, would be his guess. Her eyes were bright and curious as they scanned him up and down. “You don’t exactly look like a homeless dude.”
“I’m not. I have more than enough homes.” Groaning at the way his head throbbed with every movement, he hauled himself upright. “Mother of God, whoever thought of making liquor out of a cactus ought to be buried in a bed of them.”
“That’s why I don’t plan to ever drink,” the girl said virtuously.
“Good for you. I’m going to hold you to that.”
She tossed the ball into the air and caught it backhanded. “How the heck are you going to do that? I ain’t even from here.”
“You’re not? Was my first guess right? Are you a vagrant?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, I’m from Brownsville but I don’t know anyone here. I mean, I kind of know someone. I hope.” For the first time, a worried expression widened her big brown eyes.
Either he was still hungover or that made no sense. Or both. He brushed grass off his pants and tucked in his shirt. “My name’s Crush.”
“Mine’s Teri. With an I.” She cocked her head. “What kinda name is Crush?”
“A baseball name.”
She nodded in acceptance. So she’d never heard of him. Apparently election to the Baseball Hall of Fame didn’t grant universal fame.
“Ah, listen, Teri. Do you have your driver’s license?”
“Of course. I told you I’m twenty-one.”
He dug in his pocket and found his car keys. “I’m pretty sure my car’s somewhere around here, and I could really use a cup of coffee but my head is pounding like a moth—” He caught himself. “Motherboard. A motherboard being attacked by rabid hammer-wielding trolls. If you know what I mean.”
She just blinked at him. “Not really.”
“I wonder if you would be so kind as to drive me to an establishment that serves caffeine. You may also have some, my treat.”
“I don’t drink caffeine.”
“No alcohol, no caffeine. What are you, Mormon?”
She squinted into the distance as if not sure how to answer. “I don’t think so.”
Crush shook his head to clear it, which was a big mistake. A snare drum began a backbeat behind his eyeballs. “Hot chocolate, then. Whatever you want. Hell, you can have eggs and bacon as long as I don’t have to look at it. So what do you say?” He tossed the keys to her. She caught them in her glove.
“Good golly,” she said, her eyes widening as she looked at the keys. “Is your car a Porsche? You’re going to let me drive your Porsche? Seriously? Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah!”
He cringed, shielding his ears with both hands. “Only if you stop making sounds right this minute.”
She snapped her mouth shut.
Crush directed Teri to a coffee shop called All Jacked Up, which served the greasiest hash browns known to man and coffee one shade away from burnt. Both of those items hit the spot. Teri got hot chocolate adorned with half a can of Reddi-Wip and a double order of cinnamon French toast. She was flying from her experience driving Crush’s silver Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet.
“I don’t care if you are homeless, that car definitely makes up for it.”
“Yeah, but if you were—”
“Despite appearances, I’m not a drunk either. So do you think we can move on to another topic?”
“Like where you learned to pitch, like what a nice Mormon girl like you is doing in Kilby, what your plans are for the next six weeks.” An idea had been forming in his mind, but he had to make sure it wasn’t just the alcohol talking.
“I learned to pitch from my cousin. He actually pitches in a Mexican League, can you believe it?”
“Wow,” Crush said drily.
“Yeah, he’s awesome, and every time he comes home, he teaches me a new pitch. He says I’m the best girl pitcher he’s seen.” She gave Crush a testing look over her mountain of whipped cream, as if curious to see his reaction to that statement.
“No arguments here. I see lots of natural talent, but your form needs some work.”
She scowled at him. “How would you know, Homeless?”
“Trust me. I know. That’s all right. Form can be taught. Talent can’t. Okay, so next question. Why are you in Kilby?”
“You just insulted my pitching. Why should I even answer any of your questions?”
“Because of my third question. ‘What are you doing for the next six weeks?’ Know what happens in six weeks?”
She lifted one shoulder, clearly irritated by this interrogation. “In six weeks I’ll be back in Brownsville working at the Red Robin.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be trying out for the Kilby Catfish?”
“What are the Kilby Catfish? Some kind of girls’ softball team?” She didn’t look very excited by that idea, and he couldn’t blame her. Aside from the women’s Olympic team, he couldn’t imagine that many female players would give her much of a challenge.
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