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"Have you been watching the news?"
Feeling like a suspect caught in the act, Naomi Benoit clutched the telephone tighter in one hand as she muted the volume on the television with the other.
"Not since the six o'clock update," she lied to her best friend, forcing her restless feet into her cottage's small kitchen to make a cup of tea. A wicked rainstorm battered the northeast tonight, seemingly centered on Naomi's coastal New Hampshire hometown. Some tea would help ward off the storm's chill andmaybe help chase off the stupid, misplaced worries tonight's news had stirred up. "And actually, I've got a ton of papers to grade before school tomorrow"
"Do you believe Brody told the ump to, ah, screw off?"
Shayla had been her best bud since Naomi punched Mugsy Simpson on the playground for lifting Shayla's skirt on a dare. Surely they'd been friends long enough for Shayla to know better than to bring up him?
The only ex-boyfriend to ever drag a piece of Naomi's heart along with him when he left. The controversial baseball star Brody Davis.
"Of course he told the ump to go scratch himself." Naomi pulled a shiny red teapot from the cupboard and switched on the burner under her kettle. "Did you see that pitch he called strike three?"
Not that it was any of her concern. How pathetic was it that she would defend a guy who'd ended their relationship via phone while he'd been on the road for a game? He'd never apologized. Never explained. He'd just gotten swept up into baseball and the majors and endorsements for Nike. All of which apparently ranked higher than his hometown girlfriend on his personal radar.
Still, her gaze strayed to ESPN's replay of today's home plate shouting match in spite of herself.
"It looked low to me." Shayla sighed on the other end of the phone. "But why can't he ever walk away? Doesn't he realize they'll never renew his contract, let alone consider him for the Gold Glove he deserves? I keep thinking Brody will get past the big outbursts one of these days, but"
"Did I mention I had papers to grade?" Naomi's heart shouldn't twist over a conversation about an afternoon Boston Aces game at the home field just two hours south of them. She and Shay had been fans of the team since the sixth grade when Boston traded some upstart pitching prospect for Lyle Daringer, the hottest slugger on the planet at that time. But with Brody a fixture on the Aces' roster this year, Naomi found she couldn't dish about the games quite as much as in the old days.
Although, in her defense, she'd dated with a vengeance after the breakup to oust Brody from her heart. She thought she'd done a damn good job of it, too, until her most recent ex-boyfriend suggested she was only interested in baseball because she carried a torch for her first love.
"Can you hear the subtle nuances of my cold silence on this end of the phone?" Shayla asked, remaining quiet for all of two seconds to illustrate her point. "Who am I going to talk baseball with if you find something else to do every time Brody's name comes up?"
Naomi's cat, Zora, twined around her legs and meowed, recognizing Naomi's proximity to the cat treat cabinet. She pulled out the container like any well-trained pet owner and sprinkled a snack in Zora's bowl.
"You can hear Mike and Tony battle it out on Pardon the Interruption if you want some insights. At least they won't write off his beef the way that snarky DJ on Big Apple Sports Radio will. Because while Brody might be the type to dump his girlfriend in the most tacky manner possible, he sure as heck wouldn't argue a strike call without damn good reason." She could respect the guy's prowess on the diamond without carrying a freaking torch for him.
And frankly, as a die-hard Aces fan, Naomi hated the flap Brody's antics had caused in baseball circles, taking focus off the game and putting it on his colorful character. She didn't know what was up with him, but he was having a hell of a rookie year. The stats were amazing, but he seemed to touch off controversy at every other game.
"One last question," Shayla pushed, stretching Naomi's patience as the kettle began to whistle. "Do you think they'll try to trade him for this?"
The hiss of steam blared through the kitchen, almost drowning out the roll of pounding thunder. Naomi tugged her sweater tighter around her and lifted the pot to fill her teacup. As the whistling ceased, she realized the pounding wasn't thunder.
Bam, bam, bam!
It was a knock at her door.
"Someone's here. I'll see you in school tomorrow, okay?" Setting down the phone and the kettle, she hurried to the front door, wondering who would brave the storm. Zora kept pace, planting her furry cat body wherever she was about to step, nearly tripping her twice before she reached the door.
She pulled it open to see the same face that had filled her TV screen in highlight reels ever since the one o'clock game in Boston.
Dripping rain and testosterone, hometown hero Brody Davis stood on her porch step.
"Ten minutes." Brody figured he'd better start small in his requests if he wanted to gain admittance to Naomi's house after a year of silence. A year of knowing he'd thrown away the best shot he'd ever had at real happiness. "That's all I'm asking. Can I talk to you for ten minutes?"
Frowning, she studied him while the wind whipped his baseball jacket, the gusts driving the pelting rain on his back. She held the door open wide enough that the elements blew around the magazines and papers on a coffee table just behind her, but she seemed oblivious to the tempest. She appeared more concerned with how to tell him off while he stood before hera wet hat literally in handready to talk.
"C'mon, Naomi," he urged, miserable from the inside out. "I already struck out once tonight. You can't ring me up a second time."
Just remembering the fight with the ump and the ensuing dress down from his manager torqued him off all over again. But the mention of his latest outburst drew a lopsided grin from his former girlfriend.
Damn, but she was hot. Not manicured, groomed perfection. But real-woman sexy. Her fiery-red hair and take-no-crap attitude had turned his head at a young age and set the standard for what he would find appealing in a woman for the rest of his life. Still, though they'd dated on and off in high school, they hadn't really gotten serious until last year when he'd been on a farm team close to town.
"I can pretty much guarantee you won't be scoring in this house, Slugger," she drawled, standing aside to let him enter. "But I've got ten minutes if you'd like to dry off before I send you back down the highway to Boston in that jaunty little sports car."
She could pick on his ride all she wanted. She didn't know he'd already scored a victory tonight. Just stepping into Naomi Benoit's house was like coming home. A unique feeling for a scrappy kid whose teenage parents had passed him around to every relative they could scrounge in an effort to abdicate his upbringing.
Finding Naomi tonight had been his overriding goal from the moment he'd walked out of the Aces' clubhouse in the wake of the great meltdown. He wanted her back. And he'd been waiting for her to be free for the past six months. Lucky for Brody, he still had enough friends in town to keep tabs on her so he could jump into the fray the moment he'd heard she had split with her boyfriend. He wasn't taking any chances she'd find someone new after she broke up with the latest guy.
"Thank you." He stood on the front mat and took the door out of her hands since she didn't seem inclined to close it. Shutting it behind him, he absorbed the sights and sounds of Naomi and her world. "Great place you've got here."
He knew she couldn't abide small talk, but it was his first reaction that was safe to utter since he couldn't possibly tell her she looked good enough to devour.
When they'd broken up, she'd been house shopping. Her apartment had been tiny and they'd both been ready for more room, but he hadn't been around to help her make the move. But his eye was taken by her and not the digs. She was a gorgeous redhead whose tomboy ways were masked beneath eclectic clothes with girly touches. Even tonight, roaming her living room in navy-striped pajama pants and a Boston Aces T-shirt, she sported a jeweled double headband that kept her wavy auburn hair off her face. The headband had a purple butterfly perched over one ear.
She clutched a mug in one hand and her house smelled like scented candles and flavored tea. Something cinnamony. Something sexy. Of course, sex had never been far from his mind when Naomi was around, one of many reasons he'd thought they should take a break a year ago. He'd wanted to focus on his career.
"Oh, please." Naomi set down the mug and disappeared into a back room for a second before returning with a blue bath towel. She threw it at him before plunking into a green paisley wingback across from a fireplace with a single burning log. "You're living in something that looks like the Playboy mansion and you think this place is nice?" She shook her head. "I'm not buying it. Why don't you have a seat and tell me what you really came here for."
Scrubbing the towel across his short hair, Brody finished drying off and slipped out of his shoes before leaving the front mat. He dropped the towel next to his loafers, thinking how much the whitewashed New England cottage stuffed with quirky furnishings suited her.
"My house is 6,500 square feet of vacant floor space and baseball memorabilia. It's about as welcoming as a sporting good store." Not ready to spill his real reason for seeking her out yet, he hoped to distract her. "Any chance of snagging some tea, or is that pushing my luck?"
He flexed his sore hands, thinking it might help to wrap them around a mug. His trainer had told him to ice the knuckles he'd scraped up after putting his fist through his locker, but Brody couldn't stand the idea of being any colder.
"The water's hot." She nodded toward a tiny galley kitchen with a stove that looked like it came from the 1930s and a bright red teapot on the white tile countertop beside it. "Help your What happened to your hands?"
She set her cup down on the coffee table made of a lacquered tree stump just as he stood up. Darting past her, he snatched the teapot and rummaged around her cabinets until he found a second cup.
"It's not a big deal." Of course, it was a big deal to let his temper get the best of him for the umpteenth time this season, but the cuts on his hands were the least of his worries.
She snatched up his right arm before he could grab a mug. He hadn't been prepared for how her touch would affect him. Purple-painted fingernails barely grazed his skin, the pinkies graced with tiny daisies. A silver Celtic bangle wound around her wrist, a gift from her parents on her sixteenth birthday. He vaguely remembered her friend hosting a big bonfire party to mark the date.
Now, the fruity scent of her shampoo tempted him to lean closer, and he realized she'd just showered. A few damp strands of hair remained darker than the rest and her skin had been scrubbed clean of any makeup. A shot of pure longing jolted his insides as he remembered showers together. Whole days spent in bed
"Please tell me you used the fist on an inanimate object?" Her chin tipped up as she met his gaze and she let go of his hand in a hurry.
Had his carnal thoughts been that obvious?
"Of course." He poured hot water in his mug while she slid him a tea bag. "You know me better than that."
"I thought I did until you went after Javier Velasquez the last time you played Chicago." She shot him an assessing look for a moment before she reached into the freezer for a package of frozen vegetables and passed it to him. "You should hold that on your hand."
"It was a tense game and he was talking smack." Still, he'd never lost it like that before. His world had been falling apart ever since his breakup with Naomi and he didn't know why. He'd thought it would be a good idea to focus on his career. But lately everything he touched went up in flames. "And you should know that Velasquez was cool about it afterward. He plays the way I do, you know? He doesn't leave anything on the field. It's the media that blew it out of proportion."
Taking the tea and the green beans, he stalked out of the kitchen to take a seat on her couch.
"I never thought you would piss away your shot at the majors." She followed more slowly, studying him over the rim of her mug. "I couldn't believe you were ripping into that ump on national TV after you've been warned to keep a rein on your tendency to, shall we say, speak your mind?"
He knew he shouldn't be flattered she'd kept tabs on his career. She'd been a baseball enthusiast, and particularly an Aces fan, since long before they'd dated. Still, it pleased him to know she hadn't carried a big enough grudge against him to make her root for New York.
"Did you see that strike-three call?"
The Aces had been down by a run in the eighth when he'd come up to bat. There were two outs with runners on second and third and Brody had two legitimate strikes on him for multiple balls he'd fouled off trying to work the count. As a catcher, he'd sat behind home plate all game and he knew the ump's strike zone. The guy had been calling the outside corner all day for both pitchers, squeezing them hard. But it had started to rain sometime in the seventh and maybe the guy didn't want to stick around for extra innings with bad weather on the way. When the next pitch came, it was low and outside, same as a hundred other balls that afternoon.
Brody had let that one past him, confident as hell about the placement, yet the home plate ump had given the strike-three sign and ended the game.