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Five years should be enough time for people to forget. In a world of thirty-second sound bites and high-speed internet, one person's fifteen minutes of fame should be a distant memory in a few months at most.
But Rick didn't live in a world of shoulds. If he did, he'd be happily married to Brandy. And Lizzie wouldn't be sitting in the stands at the annual Pickle Play-Off game.
Get your head in the game, Allyn. This is for the championship.
He clapped his hands and crouched into a running stance at second base. His line drive had been good enough to get him there, but he needed one more solid hit to get him and the guy on third home to win the game. The young man with Down syndrome up to bat might dampen anyone else's enthusiasm. But not Rick's. Because tonight was his night. He could feel it down to his cleats.
Rick cupped his hands around his mouth. "C'mon, Jeffy. Hit me in, buddy."
Jeffy looked up at him and nodded. He bit his tongue as he got into position in front of the catcher.
The first pitch. "Ball."
Rick stood and clapped his hands once more. "Good eye, Jeffy."
Jeffy swung at the next ball. Missed. "Strike one."
"Wait for your pitch, buddy." Rick put his hands on his knees, rubbing the left one to ease the achea remnant of a car accident five years beforethen returned to his running stance, ready to make a dash for third if the opportunity arose.
The next ball floated across the plate.
The crowd got to their feet. They could be one pitch away from winning it all. Or losing. They stomped. Shouted. Cheered. Jeffy's mom hid her head in her hands and turned to the well-dressed brunette in a purple power suit beside her.
Why was she here?
Rick shook his head. Stay focused. "C'mon, Jeffy. Hit her out of here!"
He held his breath as the next ball pinged off Jeffy's bat and rolled toward first base.
At third base, Tom saw his opportunity and sprinted toward home before the opposing team could react. He slid safely into home plate and tied the game as Rick reached third base.
One hit was all they needed. One solid hit to get Rick home.
He held his hands up. "Time-out." He started walking toward Jeffy. Time for a pep talk.
The older woman sitting beside Elizabeth on the bleachers covered her eyes. "I can't look."
Elizabeth looked from the woman to the young man talking with Rick at home plate.
"Is that your son?"
The woman turned and smiled at Elizabeth. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"Afraid not." She gripped the handles of her Kate Spade bag tighter. "I'm here on business."
And business was exactly what she should be doing rather than sitting on a hard wooden bleacher, waiting for a chance to talk to Rick. He looked good. Better than good. But five years hadn't changed him. Same brown hair that looked as if he'd run a comb through it sometime that week. Same warm grin that could make a girl's toes curl. And if she could get close enough to see his brown eyes, she knew she'd see the familiar twinkle that played with his good-guy image. Five years and he still didn't see his potential beyond this hick town. Good thing she was there to change all that.
The woman next to her held out her hand. "I'm Martha. Otherwise known in town as Jeffy's mom."
Elizabeth turned her attention back to Martha and shook her hand. "Elizabeth."
"Jeffy loves the game, but because he's slow, coaches won't let him play." She turned adoring eyes back to the two men standing at home plate. "Except for Rick, bless him."
Rick walked back to third base as Jeffy returned to the batter's box. Swung the bat a few times. Hunkered down, ready for his pitch.
Martha squeezed her eyes shut. "Oh, I can't watch."
Elizabeth took the woman's hand in hers. "I'll watch for you." You could get through anything with someone holding your hand.
The pitch. "Ball two."
The crowd let out their breath and clapped.
"Jeffy! Jeffy! Jeffy!"
The pitcher glanced at third base, then threw the ball at the baseman. Rick shook his head. "Just pitch the ball, Stu." He turned back to Jeffy. "Nice and easy, now. Just like practice."
Jeffy nodded and tightened his grip on the bat.
The coach from the other team laughed. "No worries, folks. We've got the game. That trophy is as good as ours."
Stu shook off the catcher's first two calls. He nodded and threw the ball.
Martha's eyes opened. "He hit it?"
Elizabeth grinned and helped her to her feet as Rick flew toward home and planted his feet on home base. He then stood to watch Jeffy charging toward first base before the ball could get there.
His feet touched the base.
The ball hit the baseman's glove.
With a roar, fans rushed the field, carrying Jeffy away in their excitement. Elizabeth helped Martha down from the stands, but even his own mother couldn't get to Jeffy through the crowd. Everyone was hugging him. Shouting and crying. All trying to get the chance to put their hands on the young man the other team said couldn't play.
Elizabeth couldn't help but smile. This was better than anything on television.
Martha walked up to Rick and hugged him. "Thank you for believing in Jeffy."
"Thanks for letting him play." He patted her back. "You're bringing him to the diner after?"
"He wouldn't let us miss it." She wiped her eyes and turned to find her son amid the crowd.
The opposing coach cleared his throat until Rick turned around and accepted the trophy.
The coach shrugged. "We underestimated you."
"The underdog has to win at least once." They shook hands briefly before the coach walked away.
"Still tilting at windmills?"
At Lizzie's voice, Rick turned to face the inevitable moment. It had been coming since he'd spotted her in the bleachers. She looked good. Too good. Despite the fact that she wore her power suit like armor.
"You've been avoiding my calls."
He started to walk around the bases, picking them up and slapping them together to get off the dirt. "Because they all say the same thing, Lizzie. And my answer hasn't changed."
"If you'd just listen"
"I don't need to. True Love was a onetime shot. I don't need to relive that time of my life. I've moved on." He bent and stuffed the bases into the equipment bags, zipped them shut and hoisted them over his left shoulder. He waved with his free hand to some friends. "See you at the diner," he called after them when they honked their car horns.
"No offense, Rick, but it doesn't look like you've moved much from when I met you five years ago."
Rick turned to observe her. One of television's top reality-show producers stood on a dusty baseball field wearing designer clothes that cost more than what most of the people in this town made in a month. Her haircut, though attractive and stylish, probably cost enough to pay the grocery bills. She didn't have a clue about how his world operated. Yet here she was. Standing on his turf. Trying to convince him to make another mistake.
He opened his mouth, a smart retort on his tongue, but instead stalked off the field toward the parking lot, where two vehicles remained. He glanced at the rental that obviously belonged to Lizzie and shook his head.
"Something wrong with my car?" He could hear the smile in her voice.
He put the bags in the back of his truck but didn't look at her. "It's a convertible."
He turned to face her. "In Michigan." She didn't get it. Probably never would, Rick was sure.
Lizzie's smile faded into a frown. "And?"
Rick shrugged and sighed as if to say it was her funeral. "The weather changes every five minutes here."
"But I look good in a convertible."
He sighed. Some things really didn't change. "Always going for style over substance."
"Are you judging me?" She took her sunglasses from the perch atop her head and slid them over her eyes. "I thought we'd gotten past that. I thought we were friends."
Rick swallowed and tried to fight the feeling that he'd messed up again. "Friends who haven't talked or seen each other since I got dumped on television." He took off his ball cap and hit his thigh with it once. Twice. "I apologize, Lizzie. It's still a sore spot."
"And it's still Elizabeth."
Rick grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. "Not to me."
She strode to her car and took a sleek leather briefcase from the front seat. With a few quick snaps, she opened it and retrieved a thin envelope. "Our offer has increased."
He glanced at the envelope, then at her. "You could offer me twice as much and my answer would still be no."
Lizzie fiddled with the contents of her briefcase before placing the envelope back inside. "Rick, this is a chance of a lifetime."
He swallowed. Yeah, like the chance that had made him a joke on every national newscast for a month. "I already had one of those, remember?"
Lizzie sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Could we at least discuss this over coffee?"
He chuckled. "At the diner we only have half-and-half, not that flavored creamer you like." He finished throwing the equipment bags into the bed of his pickup truck before slamming the tailgate closed. Turning, he nearly ran Lizzie over.
"How did you remember the creamer?"
Rick shrugged. "How do I remember that Frank gets pancakes with butter and no syrup every day except on Saturday when it's French toast? How do I know that Miss Maudie wants the crusts cut off her sandwiches and put into a doggie bag to take home to her Yorkie?" He flipped the keys in his hands over a few times. "It's my job."
"I'm not your job."
"But I'm yours?" He glanced at the empty ball field and then back at her. "Why are you here? Why not send one of your interns? Backwater Michigan is a long way from Hollywood for a business call."
"I needed to see you."
He raised one eyebrow. "Interesting."
Elizabeth tried not to groan. This wasn't the way things were supposed to happen. She'd come in person to convince him to do the show, which should have impressed him. Instead it seemed to make him even more resistant to the idea. He was supposed to be desperate for her.
Desperate for the show. That was what she meant.
Rick opened the passenger door of his truck. "Convince me. We'll talk on the drive to the diner."
That was more like it. She looked back at the blue convertible. "And leave my car here?"
"It'll be fine." Rick glanced up at the sky. "But you might want to put up the top. It could rain."
Elizabeth looked up. Not a cloud could be seen in the sky. "I'll take my chances."
"Your rental agreement covers water damage?"
"There's no possibility of rain." Besides, when in all of her twenty-eight years had she done something just because some man told her to? She hopped up into the truck, clicked the seat belt into place and turned to Rick. "I don't understand why you won't do the show."
Rick sighed and shifted the truck into Drive. "You're relentless."
"That's why I'm the best." Because she knew which buttons to push to get what she wanted. She only needed to dig a little more. "It's a great opportunity. Aren't you interested in finding love? In meeting the woman you're destined to spend the rest of your life with?" She leaned closer, her voice softer, more intimate. "It can work this time. I know it."
"Why? It didn't back then." He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of the Kenny Chesney song playing on the radio. "Call me crazy, but I don't relish the idea of going through that again."
"It will be different."
"How? I'll still be making a fool of myself on TV." He shifted his gaze to her. "Besides, I had more fun talking with you between takes than on any of those fantasy dates you sent me on."
She glanced at him before looking out the window again. "Everyone wants you back."
She could feel the heat in her cheeks. "You're the most popular contestant the show has ever had. We get hundreds of letters a week asking us to bring you back." She faced him again. "You owe it to America to be on the show."
"Somehow I think you're exaggerating things."
She was losing him. He wasn't interested in money, love or fame. What else could he want? She changed gears. "If this is about reliving history, we'll do a better job this time. You won't end up humiliated and alone."
"It must be nice to control the universe."
She reached over and put a hand on his arm. Ignored the skitter in her stomach at the feel of his muscles underneath the denim jacket. "Tell me what you want, and I'll guarantee it."
He turned into the parking lot of the diner and parked in the back. "Time's up."
She sighed. When had she lost her touch? Men jumped at the chance to have twenty-four beautiful women fawning over them. But then Rick had never been a typical man. "If you would just give me a chance "
He scratched his head and replaced his ball cap. "Think that's what I just did." He got out of the truck, then poked his head back in. "See you inside."
Elizabeth watched him walk toward the diner. She could hear the loud shouts from those inside as he entered. She had to make him realize he needed to be on the show. Give him the thing he wanted most, whatever that was.
The perfect cheeseburger. That was what she wanted more than anything. Unfortunately, she didn't eat cheeseburgers anymore. And it didn't help that she sat outside a diner that she suspected must serve them to perfection.
Elizabeth slammed her hand on the dashboard, then tried to shake away the pain. This was crazy. She could have sent anyone else to come out here to talk to Rick, so why torture herself?
Her cell phone sang a Diana Ross tune, and a chill passed over her. "Hi, Mom."
"Bethie, I'm in an awful fix."
Elizabeth closed her eyes. How many times had she heard those same words? "Who was he this time?"
"I didn't know he was married. Honest." Her mom sighed. "And now he fired me."
Of course. They always did. "Mom, I can't talk right now. I'm working."
"I only need a couple of hundred this time." Her mom's voice became whiny, which was not a good sign. "My rent is overdue, and my cupboards are bare. Please, Bethie. You remember what this is like."
The goose bumps intensified on Elizabeth's arms, and she shivered. She couldn't forget, even in her nightmares. "Have you been looking for a job?"
"I've applied at a few restaurants, but you know how this economy is." Her mom started crying. "Who's gonna hire a washed-up waitress when they could hire any of a dozen half my age? What am I gonna do?"
Elizabeth swallowed and closed her eyes, massaging her forehead in circles as if the motion would turn back time. Give her a different mother. A different childhood. "Tell me where to send it. I'll have it there by tomorrow morning."
"You're the best daughter, Bethie."
"I love you."
Her phone beeped, and she glanced at the incoming phone number. The head of development at the studio. "Mom, I've got another phone call coming in. Text me with the details later, okay?"
She switched to the other line. "Elizabeth Maier."
"Did he sign the contracts yet?"
She wasn't ready to deal with pressure from the studio. Couldn't he give her a few days at least? "You're always to the point, Devon."
"That's why they pay me the big bucks." He chuckled on the other end. "I don't need to remind you what's at stake. We want Rick."
That had been made abundantly clear.
"You got this job because you promised results. Don't let us down."
"I always deliver." Always had. Always would. She straightened her blouse and sat up straighter. "That's why you promoted me."
"Didn't hurt that your boss was having an inappropriate relationship with one of the bachelorettes, either." Devon paused. "The story's been leaked on the internet and hits the newsstands tomorrow."