Read an Excerpt
The Practice Proposal
A Suddenly Smitten Novel
By Tracy March, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Tracy March
All rights reserved.
Liza Sutherland would much rather be in a ballpark than a ballroom, and tonight's black-tie charity gala had gone on way too long. She hoped the who's-who patrons at her table hadn't noticed her fidgeting, rolling the tiny beads on her dress between her fingertips. Which baseball teams had won and lost while she'd listened to big-band music and eaten fancy banquet food? She'd have been fine with a foil-wrapped hot dog with mustard and onions and an umpire calling balls and strikes.
Instead, the emcee stood onstage, waving a large white envelope, teasing the audience. The envelope was the last of a big stack, and everyone was wondering whose name was in it. Everyone but Liza. The gala was almost over, and that was all that mattered to her.
Hopefully she'd get home in time to catch a few highlights on the post-game shows.
The emcee cleared his throat loudly. "And the winner of the grand prize in our silent auction tonight—an evening with the Washington Nationals' All-Star first baseman, Cole Collins—is ..." The audience murmured with hushed chatter, while seemingly every woman there secretly fantasized that her name was about to be called.
The emcee tore open the envelope. With a dramatic flourish, he removed the card inside. "Congratulations to ... Miss Liza Sutherland."
Liza's stomach did a backflip. What the ...?
After a split second of stunned silence, the crowd erupted with applause and wolf whistles. She quickly shook her head, heat rising in her face. "I didn't even bid. There has to be a mistake," she said, but the only person who heard her above the noise was her mother, who sat next to her.
Sylvia Sutherland's knowing look immediately solved the mystery for Liza. "You. Did. Not."
Of all people, her mom should understand that she wasn't interested in dating. Not now or ever again. But her mom had probably thought she was doing Liza a favor, encouraging her to get out and "meet another nice young man." In fact, she'd been "encouraging" for much of the last two years. An excruciating two years when Liza had grieved Wes Kelley, her former fiancé, who had been a dedicated Secret Service agent. So dedicated that he'd taken a fatal bullet for a visiting third-world dictator ... who was assassinated five months later.
The band began another brassy tune that sounded the same to Liza as all the others they'd played tonight. Thankfully, it sent people hurrying toward the dance floor, diverting attention from her.
"It was for two good causes," her mom said proudly. "You." She squeezed Liza's hand and despite her frustration, Liza relished the warm comfort she'd relied on through her grief. "And the BADD Athletes Foundation."
Her mother had founded the organization several years ago, shortly after she'd been appointed to Major League Baseball's Health Policy Advisory Committee. She practiced sports medicine, loved baseball, and hoped BADD—"Be Aware of the Dangers of Doping"—would make a difference in the lives of young athletes.
Liza felt the same way, and she even worked for the foundation, but she wished her mom would've kept her money to herself tonight. She leaned closer so she wouldn't be overheard. "For starters, I'm not a cause. And I don't think it's appropriate for someone who works for BADD to win the grand prize. That wasn't the point of the auction." It was hard enough for her to go to work every day and have to prove she was more than capable of doing her job, regardless of whom her parents were. Now there was this.
"Nonsense." Her mom waved her hand airily. "The point of the auction was to raise money and have a little fun." She winked.
"But you and Dad would have given that money to BADD anyway. If someone else had won the stupid date, we could've had double the funds." Liza was sensitive about fund-raising. It was the part of her job she liked the least and struggled with most.
Her mom grinned. "But you won the stupid date, sweetheart."
She just doesn't get it. Liza didn't want a date. She'd had a once-ina-lifetime romance with Wes, and she'd lost him. Everyone expected her to move on, but grief had its own timeline, and Liza's heart still ached for him. Living with his memory would be her ever after, and she was satisfied with that.
"What makes you think I'd even want to go out with Cole Collins?" The idea alone tied Liza's stomach in a knot.
"Because ever since you met him at your father's camp, you've cherished that autographed baseball he gave you like it was a diamond the same size." Of course her mom remembered all of the most embarrassing times of Liza's awkward teenage life, and seemed determined to remind her of them.
Liza scrunched her face. "I packed that ball away years ago." But she remembered vividly that day at the camp, where she'd hung out for weeks just to watch Cole Collins breathe.
Her father had been a professional baseball player. After he'd retired, and before he became co-owner of the Orioles, he ran a summer camp for promising young players. Cole had attended three summers straight.
"I was all knees and elbows, and he was all full-blown ego." Liza shook her head. "The only reason I kept that ball was I hoped it'd be worth something someday." She took a deep breath and blew it out loudly. "I should sell it on eBay."
"You don't need the money, sweetie," her mom said. "And you and Cole aren't teenagers anymore. You've both had your struggles. Maybe he's changed—you certainly have. Just go out with him and have a nice evening."
Liza toyed with one of the straps of her peridot-green cocktail dress. It had been Wes's favorite because it matched her eyes, and it fit "just right." She remembered wistfully how he'd sometimes called her Goldilocks—despite her dark-red hair—because everything about her was "just right" for him. After the love she'd shared with Wes, how could she even think about going out with a guy like Cole Collins ... even to raise money for charity?
"I'm not interested in dating, Mom—especially a player like Cole. He's lucky he didn't get arrested last weekend with Nikki Barlow."
Her mom pursed her lips. "I think Cole just happened to be with the wrong wayward starlet at the wrong time. Nikki was the one driving under the influence, and they found the drugs in her purse. She's the one who was charged, not Cole."
After the well-publicized drug-related drama Cole had been involved in, there had been some debate at BADD about pulling from the auction the "evening out" grand prize he'd donated. But considering the funds the item was expected to raise, and that Cole hadn't actually been arrested, the auction committee had decided to move forward. Besides, all of the advertising for the gala and auction had included the high-profile listing and had gotten BADD plenty of press.
"You seem pretty quick to defend him," Liza said, careful not to sound accusing. She just wondered why.
"He's hanging around with the wrong people." Her mother was always good for a classic mom-quote. "But I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt." She pulled at a lock of Liza's long hair. "And trying to reintroduce him to a nice girl who used to think he was pretty special."
"He's interested in movie stars and models." Liza shrugged. "Not women like me."
"So you've been keeping tabs on his social life?" her mom teased.
"No. All I have to do is flip on E!, wait five minutes, and they'll run a clip showing him with some Victoria's Secret model."
"You're as beautiful as any of those girls. And smart, too."
Liza smiled, appreciating the compliment and wishing—not for the first time—that brains translated to curves. "But no one's ever paid me to model sexy lingerie and wear angel wings."
Her mom shook her head, her expression turning serious. "Wes would want you to find love again. He'd want you to be happy."
Liza swallowed the lump in her throat. "What's Dad going to think? The Nats are our rivals in the Battle of the Beltway." She always talked about the Orioles as if she were one of them. "And there's a real possibility the Os and the Nats will go to the World Series this year. That makes things even more uncomfortable right now."
Her mom swept a section of her ash-blond bob from her face and shrugged casually. "It's a friendly rivalry, and your dad will be fine—especially if the Os make the Series." She put her arm around Liza and pulled her close. "He'd be pleased to see you happy."
Happy hadn't been in Liza's emotional repertoire for a long time. She couldn't imagine a date with Cole Collins changing that. "I can't," she said.
The hurt in her mom's eyes tugged at Liza's heart. "If you won't do it for you," she said gently, "will you do it for me?" She gazed at Liza with all of the hope and great expectations that a mother has for her daughter, and Liza knew her mother had suffered, too. Surely she'd felt helpless as she tried to ease Liza's grief in so many ways. From mother/daughter weekends to coming over in the middle of the night to listen and dry Liza's tears. If she could've figured out how to bring Wes back to life, she would have, and sacrificed herself to do it.
Liza really wanted to say no to the date with Cole, but the look on her mom's face wouldn't let her. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she squeezed her mom's hand and said, "Okay. I'll go."
* * *
Cole Collins glanced up from his menu and caught the too-cheery young waitress staring at him. He gave her a lazy half smile and left it at that. She was cute enough, and he was all about flirting, but this wasn't the time.
For starters, it was way too early, and he was still half asleep. He didn't have a game until tonight, and he could've slept in if his agent hadn't insisted on meeting for breakfast. So here he was at Ted's Bulletin, an incredibly popular upscale diner on Barracks Row in DC's Capitol Hill. Cole glanced across the booth-for-two at Frank Price, knowing he'd set up this seven thirty breakfast to try to keep Cole from staying out too late last night.
It hadn't worked.
"Are you guys ready to order?" the waitress asked.
Cole nodded at Frank, who was built like a bear and took up every bit of the space on his side of the booth.
"I'll have the beer biscuits and sausage gravy." Frank's Virginia-gentleman baritone carried up into the rusted pressed-tin ceiling. He took a gulp of his Bloody Mary. "With two eggs sunny-side up and hash browns."
"And you, Mr. Collins?" the waitress asked.
Cole bunched his lips. He would have liked her a lot better if she would've just let him enjoy his breakfast incognito.
"I'll have the Walk of Shame burrito," he said.
"Fitting," Frank muttered.
Cole had hesitated to order his favorite breakfast, knowing Frank would have something to say about it, but the sirloin steak, egg, and cheese burrito seemed like the best way to fortify himself against what was coming. He handed the waitress the oversize old-newspaper-style menu.
"Coming right up," she said and headed toward the open-air kitchen at the back of the dining area. Cole would swear she'd put a little extra in the sway of her hips.
Frank's salty remark still hung between them. Cole understood that his agent was pissed about his brush with the law last weekend—hell, he was pissed at himself. This was their first time face-to-face since then. Frank had been remarkably quiet about the situation at the time, and then the Nats had gone on a road trip the next day. Since Frank wasn't one to hash out sensitive issues on the phone, Cole expected to hear what-was-what from him this morning. Frank had always had his back, so Cole felt like he owed the guy the respect to sit and take the ass-chewing he deserved.
It helped that Frank was a seasoned agent—not slick and fake like some of the younger ones—but smart and experienced and wise. The guy could also wrangle some pretty impressive deals. Cole had needed plenty of wrangling to keep himself employed over the years—and possibly over the last week. No doubt Frank's negotiating skills had gone a long way toward keeping him from the front of a mug-shot camera that past Sunday.
"Last night was our lucky night, son," Frank said, his intense gaze leveled on Cole.
Cole couldn't imagine what had been lucky about it. The Nats had lost to the Giants after eleven innings, and with the playoffs right around the corner, this was no time to be losing. But if that's what Frank wanted to discuss, Cole was willing. Talking about last night was a heck of a lot better than talking about last week.
"Lucky how?" Cole asked.
"You see the tweet about the Sutherland girl?"
The guy never missed anything. Sometimes Cole wondered if Frank kept up with him better than he kept up with himself.
Sutherland girl? Cole shook his head.
Frank pulled his iPhone from his pocket and put his beefy fingers to work. He handed Cole the phone just as the waitress arrived with their breakfast.
BADD Athletes Foundation@BADDAthletes
@LizaSutherland wins silent auction date with Nationals' All-Star first baseman @ColeCollins. #nowthatsaprize
"You look confused," Frank said, wasting no time digging in to his heaping plateful of food.
Cole stared at the tweet and let his breakfast sit. "I forgot all about this."
"Well, the timing couldn't be better, considering the stunt you pulled last week." Frank swiped his napkin across his mouth and scowled. "Who would've thought you'd be needing some positive publicity from an antidrug program? I hope BADD took out a front-page ad in the Post."
Cole set the phone on the table and rubbed his forehead. This was the conversation he'd been expecting. "The drugs were Nikki's, Frank. Sure, I might've had one too many drinks. That was obvious." He shook his head. "But no drugs. You know that. My test came back clean."
"I know it." Frank stabbed his fork toward Cole. "You know it. And the Nationals know it. But it's the optics, son. And the Nats don't need your kind of trouble. The girls, the booze, the drugs—whether they're yours or not. You're in too deep with all of it."
Cole took a slug of his coffee to keep himself from saying anything else.
"We've got contract negotiations coming up," Frank said. "On the field, you've set yourself up fine—two seasons running. But I was getting questions even before last week about your shenanigans off the field. The Nats' bigwigs think you might be wearing yourself out with all that carousing." He piled his fork full of eggs and hash browns and held it just above his plate. "Then you went and pulled that stunt with Nikki what's-her-name, and almost got yourself arrested. You're giving 'em plenty of reason to worry that you won't be a good investment long-term."
"They're seeing things as worse than they are," Cole said defensively, knowing he was wrong. The Nats were big on high-character players, and a lot of his teammates were settled with wives and kids. The owners worked hard to keep everything classy, from the front office on down. They were all like one big family, but Cole was the black sheep right now.
"I think they're seeing things twenty-twenty," Frank said firmly. "And they're the ones with the ball club. They can contract whomever they want. They've come across guys like you before, and they've been burned once or twice."
"We can go to a different team," Cole said without conviction.
Frank lowered his thick eyebrows. "The Nats might be heading to the World Series this year—I'm seeing a pennant at worst. You want to leave a team on that kind of high?"
Cole shook his head. He and Frank both knew he didn't want to leave the Nationals. They'd all busted their asses to get as far as they had, and he was lucky to be there with them. Plus, he'd practically grown up with the Nats. He'd been totally alone after he'd been drafted, but he'd found a home with his team, and the closest thing to a family he'd ever had. He'd struggled for seven frustrating years, but they'd kept him around anyway, and now he was finally performing.
He'd figured that's all it would take for them to keep him, but clearly he'd figured wrong.
The reality he'd ignored hit him like a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball: he needed the Nationals. He'd never admit it to anyone, but he didn't want to be alone again.
Excerpted from The Practice Proposal by Tracy March, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2013 Tracy March. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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