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Dylan Andrews skimmed the blog. Inhaling deeply, he turned off his laptop. He didn't know why he bothered reading that crap. The last thing the Milwaukee Mavericks cared about was how "hot" he was. The only way he was going to get called up to the Major League franchise was by being the best shortstop playing today.
Listening to outside opinionswhether they were from baseball groupies or seasoned sports journalistsaccomplished nothing except to make him more anxious.
He got up from the wobbly hotel desk to get more coffee, decided against it, and instead hit the floor and did another thirty pushups. If they'd been playing at home he would've gone to the gym for a workout after his run, but the Carolina Crusaders, his Minor League team, had three more games here in Tulsa before they made the trek to Milwaukee.
Man, he did not want to spend another season playing DoubleA ball. If he had to, he'd suck it up and bide his time, but he belonged in the Majors. Trouble was, so did four other shortstops in the Southeast League. And none of them had defected to Japan to play their first three years as pros. Of course at the end of the day it didn't matter if the fans considered him a sellout, or whether his manager liked him. The only thing that did was how much he was worth to the franchise. It was always about money.
His cell rang and he sprang to his feet to grab his phone. It was Arnie, his agent. Dylan smiled. Talk about money being the bottom line. Arnie thought Dylan was nuts for leaving Japan. He'd been a star there and made a small fortune.
"What's up?" Dylan anchored the phone between his jaw and shoulder while he got a bottle of water out of the motel's mini fridge.
"You ever heard of the North Star News?"
"Yeah," he said slowly. It was a daily paper put out by a town next to where he'd grown up. He had a bad feeling about this conversation. "why?"
"They want to do an interview with you. One of those smalltownboymakesgood pieces."
Papers rustled and Arnie's assistant was saying something in the background. "Tell him I'll call him back," Arnie murmured, his voice muffled and distant, before he said more clearly, "what do you mean, no?"
"Do an interview now? Before I know if I'm getting called up? Are you kidding?" He didn't like doing interviews, period, and Arnie knew that. Giving a sound bite now and then, that was different. But answering personal questions? No way.
"Look, Dylan, you need to get the fans pulling for you, not pissed that Japan was your first choice. Show them you were just a kid who wanted to play ball"
Dylan sighed. That's exactly who he'd been… just a kid who wanted to play ball. Except fear and ego had gotten in the way and he'd refused to go from college baseball star to DoubleA nobody for the American League. "The fans won't determine whether I get called up. we both know that."
"But it wouldn't hurt if you were more likable."
"Don't get thinskinned on me now, kid. Wait." Arnie held the phone away and yelled something at his assistant. "Hey, I gotta go, but I wanted you to expect the phone call."
"What phone call?"
"From the North Star News."
"Shit, Arnie. I didn't agree to the interview."
"Yeah, you did. Five minutes ago."
"Dammit, Arnie" The call had already been disconnected.
Muttering a curse, Dylan flipped the phone closed, tossed it on the bed and uncapped the bottle. He could be a jerk and not take the reporter's call. Or go ahead with the interview and give the guy a string of twosyllable answers. Wasn't it enough to play his damn heart out every single game? Evidently not.
Dylan took a big gulp of water. He'd have to think about this.
Elizabeth Smith doubted she was about to be fired. She'd kept her nose clean, her attitude in check, even though she'd detested every single ridiculous social function she'd had to cover for the North Star News in the past ten months. Not once had she so much as lifted a brow, or gagged at an assignment. At least not in public.
She checked her teeth in the mirror she kept in her desk. No pink lipstick, no remaining romaine lettuce from the chicken Caesar salad she'd just had for lunch. With her fingers, she combed back the spiky bangs that made her look too young. She'd started growing them out, but it seemed to take forever.
"Hey, Smith," Kevin called out on his way into the break room. "The old man wants to see you."
"Got the message already." She waved an acknowledgment, wishing the nosy weather guy would mind his own business, and then ignored the group of heads that sprouted up from the other cubicles around her.
As soon as she left the boss's office, everyone would want to know why Ed Singleton had wanted to see her. The owner rarely spoke directly to the peons, especially a newbie like her. No one cared that she had more experience and ambition than any of the local desk jockeys, or that half of the staff were only hanging around for their pension.
Elizabeth wasn't complaining though. She was lucky to have a job with the daily paper. It might not be stimulating, but for now, it paid her rent, her car loan and kept her in enough takeout that she never had to cooknot a bad place to be while she licked her wounds and climbed her way back up the ladder.
At Singleton's closed door, she paused, tugging at the cuffs of the jacket she insisted on wearing, even though no one else in the office wore suits besides her and the old man. Not that she was trying to prove anything. But she'd spent a small fortune on her wardrobe the first week she'd arrived in Chicago.
The move had been a disaster. The fabulous job as an investigative reporter at the SunTimes had never materialized and the love of her life she'd followed to the city had vanished with a paralegal and Elizabeth's pride. She'd come slinking back to Lester, Wisconsin, and temporarily moved in with her parents until she'd gotten back on her feet, but damned if she'd let her pricey new clothes go to waste. She knocked, heard him answer and then let herself in.
He sat behind his oversize gray metal desk, his bushy white eyebrows drawn in their usual frown. "Have a seat, Elizabeth."
She glanced at the pair of ugly brown vinyl chairs facing him and chose the one without the tear in the corner. The man's frugality was crazy. He was loaded, probably the richest guy in the county. But he seemed to hang on to his possessions until they fell apart.
A horrible thought occurred to her.
Maybe he'd called her in here to tell her to dial it down a notch with the designer suits. Or that she wasn't a good fit here at the laidback publication.
She swallowed, then gave him a smile. "What can I do for you, Mr. Singleton?"
"How do you like working here, Elizabeth?"
"I'm happy here, sir. I'm very grateful for the opportunity."
She blinked, surprised that he knew anything about her. When he wasn't golfing, or attending sports events, he was here, but he generally left the daily operations to his slacker soninlaw. "Frankly, I'm not sure what to say to that. Except I hope I'm not getting fired."
His mouth twitched in a thin smile. "You're not getting fired. In fact, I wanted to offer you a more challenging assignment."
"Really?" She straightened. "Great. I'm honored. What did you have in mind?"
Mr. Singleton leaned back, his worn leather chair creaking under his weight, and studied her for a moment. "Do you know Dylan Andrews?"
Dylan Andrews? The focal point of the biggest humiliation of her young life? The guy who'd starred in her dreams all through high school? The jock who hadn't given her a second thought except as some random nerd? She managed to keep her expression blank, her voice calm. "Sure. I know who heis."
"There's a good chance the kid will be called up to the Majors in a couple of weeks."
She nodded, only because it seemed the appropriate thing to do, and not because she knew a thing about baseball, or understood how this conversation related to her.
"I want you to interview him."
Every muscle in her body tensed as she struggled to stay seated and not bolt for the door. "Me?" she asked, her voice an octave too high.
"I don't want one of those generic sitdowns for an hour, either. I want you to shadow him for a couple of days, show us a day in the life, find out why he played for Japan first"
"Wait." She shook her head and ignored the disapproving frown that said Singleton didn't like being interrupted. She couldn't sit facetoface with Dylan. She absolutely couldn't. "I'm not a sports reporter. Stan is the person you want."
"You think I don't know my own staff?"
"What?" Her mind was still on Dylan and she had to steer her thoughts back to the conversation. "No, of course not. I mean, naturally you know everyone here. But Stan covers sports and is eminently more qualified than myself to interview" She cut herself off when his bushy brows raised toward his receding hairline.
"Stan is leaving for vacation tomorrow," Mr. Singleton said, his patience obviously wearing thin. "And I figured you might appreciate a chance to strut your stuff."
By interviewing a baseball player? This particular baseball player? Seriously? "Thank you for thinking of me." She paused, wanting to say, "Please, no, not him, not now. Anything else, I swear I'll do the obituaries for a year, ten " but she didn't want to commit career suicide before she even had a career. She forced a smile. "I'll get right on it."
"Be sure that you do." The older man's gaze narrowed on her as if he saw right through her phony enthusiasm. "I'm giving you two full pages in next Sunday's edition."
"Wow. Two pages?" Holy mother of God, how was she going to manage that? "Is this guy really that interesting?"
"It's your job to make sure that he is."
"Yes, sir. And thank you." She left his office, closing the door behind her, but she couldn't move her feet any farther. Not yet.
All she'd ever wanted was to be a reporter. A journalist who covered hard news with insight and integrity. She'd been on her way before Chicago, and even though that had gone to hell, she'd picked herself up and started again. It didn't matter that she now had to cover births and PTA meetings and garden partiesshe was prepared to do whatever it took to become the professional she knew she could be.
If it had been anyone but Dylan Andrews, she'd have leaped on this opportunity with all engines firing. She'd have made baseball her passion by the time she knocked on the player's door. She'd have shown her boss and everyone who'd ever turned her down for a job that she was a force to be reckoned with.
No, waitfull stop. Dylan Andrews was the hand she'd been dealt, and she'd be damned if she was going to fold before she'd even begun. From this moment forward, high school hadn't happened, she'd never met Andrews, never thought about him a day in her life. From this moment forward, she was Elizabeth Smith, Baseball Expert and Ace Interviewer. Period.
Even if he got one look at her and burst out laughing just before he slammed the door in her face.
Dylan got out of the shower and wrapped the flimsy hotel towel around his hips, then used another to dry his hair as he walked to the window. Damn, it was still raining. It would really suck if the game got canceled tonight. Not just because he wanted every opportunity to show that he was ready to be called up, but because the reporter would be flying in this afternoon.
He'd tried to put her off, even suggested that they could conduct the entire interview over the phone, but E. J. Smith had been persistent. She'd sidestepped every roadblock he'd thrown in front of her, and promised to work around his schedule. She'd been quick and sharp, not the slightest bit flirty to get his attention, and a small part of him looked forward to meeting her. But if the game were rained out well, he didn't want that much time available for her to get her hooks into him.
On his way back to the bathroom he checked his phone to see if the team manager had texted about the weather forecast or the game being called. So far, so good. But the reporter had called. Again. He didn't bother listening to her messages since he had no intention of returning her call until tomorrow. He was using the towel to dry the back of his damp hair when he heard a knock. Had to be Chip. Stircrazy from being cooped up, the kid had shown up twice to pace Dylan's room after he got tired of pacing his own. Hell, starting to think of nineteenyearold outfielders as kids? Bad sign.
Dylan opened the door. "Man, you really need to find a pool game or" He stopped and frowned at the woman in front of him. Mediumbrown shoulderlength hair, minimal makeup, wellshaped pink lips. She was slim, on the petite side under the nononsense navy blazer and white skirt. She didn't seem like a groupie. "I think you have the wrong room."
Her gaze hadn't budged from his chest, and he realized he was wearing nothing but a damn towel. She looked up, and he saw that her eyes were blue.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. "I tried calling." Abruptly she extended her hand, glanced down at him again, then pulled her hand back and picked up a brown leather travel bag sitting at her feet. "I'll come back. We can set up an appointment for later."
"Hey." He had to step out into the hall because she'd taken off that fast. "Wait." He watched her slow down, though she kept her back to him. "Are you the reporter?"
Her shoulders squared and then she turned to face him. "Yes, we spoke yesterday."
"I didn't think I'd see you until tomorrow."
"Your agent felt we wouldn't have enough time before you left Tulsa. He told me" She gave her head a slight shake and the overhead light caught the subtle gold streaks in her hair. "You really should go inside."
The way she'd moved her head, her sudden preoccupation with the ceiling, made her seem vaguely familiar. Which wouldn't be odd. He'd crossed paths with a number of sports reporters over the years. But he couldn't imagine, having met her, that he'd forget her. He wished she'd quit staring at the ceiling so he could.
He looked down. Shit.
The towel was damp and thin and his cock was doing something it had no damn business doing. He casually draped the other towel over his arm, holding it in front, tempted to dash back into the room. Yeah, that wouldn't make things worse. "Are you staying here?"
"I'm checking in as soon as my room is ready." She tentatively swung her gaze his way, and he could all but hear her sigh of relief.
"So where are you gonna be?"
"I don't know. Just call my cell. You have the number."
For a crazy second he thought about offering to let her wait inside while he dressed. But then he woke up and remembered that he wanted to get rid of her, not make things easy.