Small-town Indiana tomboy Sarah Dudley grew up living and breathing baseball, since her father owned the minor league Plainview Thrashers. A talented player herself, she idolized her brother’s best friend: Tom Cord, a pitcher with a wicked fastball and an even more wicked reputation.
Now, Sarah is the Thrashers’ VP of public relations, and Tom—a star in the major leagues—has been assigned to the club while rehabbing from surgery. It’s Sarah’s job to keep the hard-throwing, hard-living star out of trouble. But when she gets a glimpse of the man behind the bad-boy image, they start to generate more heat than an inside fastball…
Includes a preview of the next Hard Hitters novel, Screwball
“Readers will cheer for Tom and Sarah!”— Jeannette Murray, author of One Night with a Quarterback
Praise for Linda Morris:
“Linda Morris has a delightful writing voice and I can't wait to read more stories from her!”—Ex Libris
“Fun, sexy, heartbreaking at times, and left a smile on my face!”—Book Loving Me
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Would he remember her?
Sarah Dudley shaded her eyes and looked over the green checkerboard lawn of Dudley Field. The Plainview Thrashers had a home game tonight. In the bullpen, the starting pitcher was throwing. A crowd had gathered around him. That could only mean one thing.
Tom Cord had arrived.
A nervous dance started up in her stomach. She’d known the big leaguer could show up on the Plainview Thrashers’ roster any day. He was recovering from his elbow surgery of a year and a half ago, and she’d been hearing for a while that he would soon be ready for a rehab assignment in the minors right here in Plainview, Indiana. Apparently he’d gotten the call.
Nah, he probably wouldn’t remember her.
Back then, he’d been a superstar prospect full of charm and good looks, looking ahead to a bright future, talking of nothing but the big leagues and the World Series ring he’d have someday.
As she watched from the stands, he gloved the ball and paused for a drink of water. A nineteen-year-old outfielder approached him and handed him a pen.
Goodness. Even his teammates wanted his autograph.
He nodded and signed the ball, giving it back to the kid and flashing the grin that had lit up the cover of Sports Illustrated two years ago.
She rolled her eyes. No wonder he thought he was hot stuff. Everyone he came into contact with drank the Tom Cord Kool-Aid.
Not her, though. She wasn’t a skinny tomboy anymore. She was VP of public relations for the Thrashers, and having a big-league star on their team for a few weeks was a big deal. She needed to greet him—get him lined up for some PR appearances during his brief stay here.
Ticket sales had been slumping for the last couple of years. Lord knows they could use the boost he would bring.
But no matter how famous he was, she’d treat him like every other athlete—no better, no worse. All business.
So why did her stomach flutter as she drew near the bullpen? She cast a quick glance down at herself and smoothed her sweaty palms down her hips.
Her crisp gray jacket and pants screamed “professional, practical.” Her flats made it easy to walk on the infield. It was the perfect uniform for a woman in a man’s world. So why did she wish she’d worn a skirt, maybe, or taken more than five minutes to swipe tinted sunblock on her face and put some lip gloss on?
Tom had dropped out of college when he was drafted by the Florida Marlins. Her brother, Paul had been his college teammate and good friend. Paul had finished school, knowing he wasn’t good enough to make it to the big leagues, and the two men had mostly gone their separate ways.
Sarah’s contact with Tom Cord since then had been limited to watching him pitch on TV and lingering on his picture on some online Sexiest Male Athlete list. Like everyone else, she’d shaken her head every time he’d made the news for dating another reality star or celebrity baseball groupie.
Then there was that incident a couple of years ago when his girlfriend du jour had tweeted a dark, grainy photo of him swimming naked in the pool of his Florida mansion. The girl had deleted the picture eventually, but not before Sarah had gotten enough of an eyeful to make several of her teenage fantasies come roaring back with a rush.
She pushed that out of her mind. Acting like yet another celebrity-addled baseball groupie wouldn’t exactly leave a professional impression.
He looked different now than he had back when he was in college. His skin was darker, rougher, from years spent out in the sun. He’d gained a little weight since his skinny college-playing days: all muscle, as far as she could tell. He wore his dark brown hair in a shorter crop than he had then, when he used to let it grow until it stuck under the back of his collar.
Some things hadn’t changed, though. That rough-hewn all-American face. Those blue eyes, and the half-wise, half-amused expression he always wore, like he knew some joke you didn’t, and it was probably on you.
She stopped at the third-base wall, short of the bullpen. He’d resumed throwing, hard, to the Thrashers’ starting catcher. Below her, the pitching coach, Reedy Johnson, aimed a radar gun to check the speed of the pitches. Cord drew himself up and stared over his glove, his expression all business.
He wound up, his knee lifting high for a big leaguer, past his navel.
“Wow,” she murmured under her breath, moving to Reedy’s side. “Look at those mechanics.” She’d seen him pitch on TV, of course, but in person, his style looked even more unorthodox. He did nothing by the book: he torqued around too far away from home plate on his windup, pulled his arm back to throw before he had his front foot down, and moved his elbow behind his body. He even tilted his head at a weird angle.
“Why don’t you go over there and set him straight?” Reedy said with a laugh. “He’s only won the Cy Young Award three times, and he’s been to a World Series. He’s probably been wondering what he’s doing wrong.”
Despite Tom’s odd form, when the ball landed in the catcher’s glove, it popped like a fast pitch. She checked the gun. One hundred miles per hour. Reedy whistled through his teeth. “The boy hasn’t thrown less than ninety-eight all morning.”
She shook her head. He’d spent a year and a half rehabbing from surgery. This was a practice session the day of his first rehab start in the minor leagues, for Pete’s sake—a pit stop on his way back to the majors.
“He shouldn’t be throwing hard in practice his first day back. He’s got to pitch tonight. What if he blows out that ligament again before he’s even thrown a pitch in a game?” She shaded her eyes with one hand and watched him wind up again. Same motion, almost the same result. A ninety-nine-mile-per-hour pitch.
“You know how he is. He’s not going to like being told to stop.”
“You’re the pitching coach, not me. It’ll sound better coming from you.”
Not to mention that her dad would be furious if he found out she’d said anything to a player about his game play. He’d made her VP of public relations for a reason. Walter Dudley didn’t think a real lady should interact with players and deal with baseball operations. It was crazy, but her dad was the boss.
“Fine.” Reedy shook his head slowly. “Remember, this was your idea.” He put the radar gun down and hollered at Tom, who came over, eyes on Reedy.
He stopped an arm’s length away, but she swore she could still feel the heat radiating from him. She wasn’t petite, but his height made her feel tiny. He’d gotten even taller since college. He must be six foot three at least.
“What’s up?” Cord braced his glove on his hip. The move pulled his jersey tight across his chest and Sarah chided herself for noticing it.
Don’t go mushy-headed over the players. Rule number one for a woman in baseball.
“That’s enough for now,” Reedy said. “I don’t want you going all out on your first day back.”
Cord pulled off his cap and wiped sweat from his brow, then replaced the hat. “It’s fine. I feel good. I always throw all out the afternoon before a start. It’s part of my routine.”
“Maybe so, but I think you’d better give it a rest. You haven’t put that arm through game conditions yet.”
Tom shook his head. “I don’t want to mess with my mojo. I have to be consistent. Hard throwing on the day of a start is routine for me. I always do it.”
“But you’re not always recovering from surgery, are you?” Sarah said.
That pulled his gaze to hers in a hurry. His hard stare went straight through her. “I’m recovered from surgery, not recovering. I’m completely back to normal.”
“Maybe so,” she said, although she had her doubts. No one would know if he had completely recovered until he’d pitched in real game conditions, which was what this foray into the minors was all about. No point in arguing that yet, though. “Throwing hard on the day of a start is risky for anyone, even someone who isn’t recovering—I mean recovered,” she said, correcting herself at his scowl, “from major surgery.”
“It’s normal for me.” He looked at her hard. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
She extended her hand, ignoring the hollow feeling in her chest. Surprise, surprise. He didn’t remember her. “Sarah Dudley, VP of marketing and public relations.”
He shook her hand, his skin rough with calluses and blisters, trademarks of his profession. “Marketing? What the hell are you doing down here?” His face cleared. “Ah, Paul’s sister. That explains it.”
She raised a brow. “Excuse me?”
“Your dad owns the team. Your brother’s team president. No wonder you feel like you can come down here and tell me what do to.”
Reedy sucked in a breath.
“If I think I can tell you what to do, it’s because I can,” she said, keeping her voice level with effort. Never let them see they’ve gotten to you. Rule number two for a woman in baseball. “My department is going to spend money advertising your stint down here. I don’t want you blowing out the ligaments in your elbow again. As VP of public relations, that gives me a stake in whether you actually play while you’re in town.” She made herself look him right in the eye, ignoring the pounding of her heart. She wasn’t another batter he could stare down and fake out into a swing and a miss.
He laughed, blue eyes sparking against his tanned skin. His anger had blown away like clouds in front of a stiff breeze. “Lady, I have about a million reasons for not wanting to blow out my arm again, and your PR budget isn’t one of them. Why don’t you let me worry about my arm and you go worry about the bobbleheads you’re going to give out to the first five hundred fans tonight?”
Heat erupted in her cheeks. Oh, this guy thinks he is so big-time. Several players had found an excuse to wander within earshot. Don’t let the guys get away with disrespecting you. Rule number three for a woman in baseball.
“Look, you’ve spouted off and done what you pleased everywhere you’ve played. You may have some people so buffaloed that they’re afraid of you, but not me.”
“Last I heard, you weren’t part of the coaching staff. Why the hell should I listen to you, anyway?” He glared at her, his blue eyes turning sapphire.
“Not that you listen to them, either, from what I hear.”
His lips quirked, but before he could respond, her father’s voice from behind cut them off.
“What seems to be the problem here?”
Damn. She kept her face impassive, trying not to look like the naughty girl who’d been caught out by the principal. Heart sinking, she turned to see her father, looking cool despite the heat in a crisp white business shirt and dark dress pants. His silver hair glinted in the summer sun and dark aviator glasses shielded his eyes. She didn’t need to see his eyes to know they were hard with anger.
“I come down here to say hello to our newest addition, and I find you yelling at him, Sarah.”
Her gut clenched.
“Tom was throwing a little hot in his practice session,” she said. “He’s got a start tonight. I was concerned.”
“It’s not your place to be concerned, Sarah. You’re the VP of PR. Don’t interfere in coaching decisions. You know I don’t like you on the field during practice anyway.”
“My point is—”
“My point is I don’t want you on the field, Sarah. It’s not part of your duties. What I need you to do is to sell more tickets. We’re down seven percent from this time last year. Please return to your office.”
She pressed her lips together. She couldn’t change her father’s mind on this issue, and continuing to argue would only make him dig in harder. “Yes, Dad.” She nodded to her dad and Reedy, and finally to Tom Cord, whose face she couldn’t read. “I have some things I need to take care of.” And they weren’t bobbleheads, dammit. “Good-bye.”
She returned to the stands and headed for the outer concourse, holding her head high, although she wanted to slink away. Damn her dad. He never gave a thought to shooting her down in front of the rest of the organization. She supposed he had to go out of his way to show that he didn’t give his daughter special treatment, but it still burned. Damn Reedy. If he’d been doing his job, instead of being intimidated by the big-shot superstar, she wouldn’t have had to interfere.
Most of all, damn Tom Cord. Not for throwing hot, and not for arguing with her. What really ticked her off was that he hadn’t had an inkling who she was until she told him.
The old man droned on with an apology for his daughter’s behavior, but Tom was focused on watching Sarah Dudley ascend the stairs, the funniest feeling chewing at his gut. If he had to name to it, he’d call it guilt. God knows why. She’d butted in where she shouldn’t have, and her dad, who also happened to be her boss, had taken her to the woodshed for it.
And Tom had stood by and let the old man pick her apart.
The little scene between father and daughter made it clear he’d been wrong. Sarah Dudley wasn’t the spoiled pet of an indulgent father.
“She’s a frustrated baseballer. Should have been born a boy.” Walter Dudley sighed.
Tom couldn’t imagine it. Sarah might be working in a man’s game, but she was a no-doubt-about-it woman. Long dark hair hung in a shiny fall, held out of her deep brown eyes with a simple clip, and she had luscious lips that seemed to have no problem putting a man in his place, even if he had earned eighteen million last year. She had a slim figure, not too curvy on top, but as she’d walked away, he’d seen a nice ass he’d had to remind himself not to ogle as her dad watched.
After she’d introduced herself, he’d vaguely remembered her. Paul had brought him home for Christmas vacation one year. She’d been an awestruck, skinny tomboy who’d grilled him about baseball.
My, how things have changed.
“No need to apologize.” He shook off his guilt and grinned. “Lots of people have tried to straighten me out over the years, and I haven’t listened yet.” Why fix what wasn’t broke?
Walter didn’t share his humor. “Maybe, but my daughter shouldn’t be one of them. She’s in PR for a reason. Baseball is a man’s business. She wouldn’t even be in PR, except she and her brother hounded me so much, I couldn’t say no.”
Tom said nothing. He didn’t like the way the owner talked to his daughter in front of the team, or about her behind her back, but that wasn’t his business. In his years in the major leagues, he’d learned to stay out of ownership fights. Besides, he’d had plenty of trouble with his own dad. He wasn’t getting involved in anybody else’s family quarrel.
“You play your game the way you always have, son, and let me know if my daughter gives you any trouble, okay?”
He nodded. “No problem. I’d better head for the showers anyway. I’ve got a comeback to get ready for.”
Walter Dudley grinned. “You’ll be back in game seven of a World Series before you know it, son.”
“Thank you, sir.” And he did know it. He’d blown out a ligament in his elbow in the seventh and deciding game of the World Series two seasons ago while pitching for the Marlins. The Marlins had lost the Series and, in the off-season, as he recovered from surgery, slashed their payroll by cutting loose highly paid veteran players.
His contract had come up for renewal while he was out, and they’d declined. “You’re thirty-one. Who knows if you’ll ever be the pitcher you were before the surgery?” his agent had explained with a shrug.
He knew, and in a couple of months, everyone would know. Tom Cord was coming back.
The White Sox had snapped him up, willing to take a chance on a bargain at only five mil a year.
He nodded to the kid who’d been catching for him and headed for the clubhouse. Time to shower, rest a little, and get his mind right before the game tonight. The clubhouse was small and dark and reeked of sweat—a far cry from the spacious, airy lounges in the big leagues—but he didn’t care.
He’d be in Plainview for two, three games max before he proved to everybody that he was better than ever. He’d worked his ass off in rehab in the year and a half since the surgery. He was ready to go. This stint in the minors, on the White Sox minor-league affiliate, checked a box. He would do what he had to do to prove he was ready to get back to the bigs.
For months, he’d been telling everybody who would listen, and a lot of people who wouldn’t, that he was ready to roll. Finally the team doctors had agreed and approved him for this rehab assignment in Hicksville, USA. He had to do it, but that didn’t mean he had to be happy about it, and he’d be damned if he’d listen to what some paper-shuffler from the front office had to say, even if he did feel bad for her.
He stretched out his throwing arm and worked it in a circle. He had been throwing pretty hot, and his arm was tight. It wasn’t sore, though, not really. No sorer than usual after a warm-up. He didn’t think.
Everything was going to be fine.
“Sarah, we’ve got a problem!”
She blinked and peered at the clock on the bedside table. “Paul?” She sat up in bed, clutching her phone. Why was her brother calling her at this hour? “It’s two AM! What do you want?”
“You’d better get down to the Home Plate. Tom Cord’s down there, and he’s partying his butt off.”
“You’re kidding.” She paused for a yawn. “At the Home Plate? What’s he doing in that dive?”
“It’s the bar closest to the stadium. I assume that has something to do with it,” Paul said dryly. “You saw how he pitched tonight. He had something to celebrate. He woke me up texting me to join him, but I wouldn’t.”
“Couldn’t talk the ball and chain into letting you go out, huh?” Susan, Paul’s suspicious girlfriend, never let him out of her sight if she could help it.
“She knows Tom’s reputation.” He cleared his throat. “I guess I may have told her a few too many details about the parties we went to back in college.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I really don’t want to think about you at some wild jock party.” Yuck.
“That was a long time ago, for me anyway. Tom doesn’t seem to have changed much. The SOB is drunk-tweeting from the bar. He’s posting photos of himself with the Bailey twins.”
“Oh, God.” The whole situation suddenly became a lot less funny. The Bailey twins were barely twenty-one, blonde and busty, and enjoyed hanging around the ballpark—and the ballplayers—too much for their own good.
They were the daughters of the Dudley Field box office supervisor, who happened to be a good friend of her father’s. Her stern, old-fashioned, upright father. Both men would freak if they realized one or both of the Baileys were hooking up with Tom. She threw the covers back and flicked on the light, wincing at the glare.
“I’d go get him but Susan would have a fit,” Paul continued. “Can you please get down there and get him out of there before he makes an even bigger fool of himself? Who knows how long he’s been drinking? He’s tweeting with the hashtag ‘majorleaguehurler’ and I’m afraid he means it both ways.”
God. Were they talking about a grown man or a middle schooler? Sarah rubbed the point of tension that had erupted between her eyes. “All right, all right. Let me get going. I’ll get him under control.”
“Thanks, hon. I owe you one.”
She pulled on jeans and a Thrashers T-shirt. She scraped her hair up in a ponytail and, without examining why, splashed water on her face and swiped on some lip gloss. Everyone in town knew the Dudleys. She needed to maintain a somewhat professional appearance, even if it was two AM.
Stepping out into the summer night air brought a blast of heat and humidity. Moths fluttered around her porch light and a noise came from the garbage cans at the curb. Raccoons again, probably. She loved her old Victorian, located on a tree-lined street in one of Plainview’s oldest neighborhoods, but she could do without the nighttime visitors.
She didn’t have time to deal with them now, though. Another pest took priority. She backed her Nissan crossover out of the side building that served as a garage for her duplex. On the short drive to the Home Plate, she scanned the radio until she found a sports talk station.
“Did you see the Thrashers’ pitching debut of Tom Cord tonight?” said the host. “Phenomenal! Not many guys come back from Tommy John surgery stronger than before they went under the knife, but Cord looks like he might be an exception. All his hard partying hasn’t slowed him down a bit. Six innings of shutout ball pitched, nine strikeouts, two hits, only two walks. The guy was on fire!”
“It was one game,” she muttered, switching off the radio. Why did it irritate her so much that he’d had a fabulous outing? She didn’t want to see the team lose a game just to prove her point that he shouldn’t have been throwing hard before a start, but it would have been nice if he’d at least had to break a sweat.
No such luck. He’d cruised through six innings and chewed out Reedy when he’d pulled him to save his arm, insisting all the way back to the dugout that he could have gone the whole game.
The guy had no sense of self-preservation. No wonder he’d spent the last year and a half out of baseball.
The streets of Plainview were deserted at this hour, but the Home Plate was a different story. Lights and loud music blared from the dive bar.
She parked and went inside, peering through the dimness.
He wasn’t hard to find.
In one corner of the bar, flushed and grinning, sat Tom, tapping on his cell phone, a beer in front of him, and a Bailey twin at each elbow. A group of adoring bystanders watched his every move. A TV over the bar was tuned to ESPN, which was running highlights of his performance tonight.
Great. He was holding court, and she had to break it up.
Heart hammering at the prospect of another public confrontation with him, Sarah shouldered through the crowd to stand before him.
“Congratulations. You threw a heck of a game tonight.” It pained her to admit it, but hey, credit where credit was due. He looked up, his eyes lighting in recognition.
“Thanks, boss lady.” Her eyebrows quirked. She was “boss lady” now, huh? He seemed to hold no grudge from their earlier confrontation. Maybe he’d gotten lubricated enough to forget about the tussle. In any case, his good humor made the tightness in the back of her neck ease a fraction.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“Looking for you. What are you doing here?” she asked, sending his question back to him.
“He’s partying with us and having a good time!” One of the Bailey girls yelled over the Journey song pumping out of the sound system, throwing a possessive arm over his shoulder. “Ain’t that right, Tommy?”
“That’s right.” He kept his gaze on Sarah.
“Think maybe you’ve had enough of a good time? I’m here to take you home. You shouldn’t drive, and the Home Plate is going to be closing down soon.” She had no idea if that was true. Probably they’d keep it open as long as the big-shot pitcher wanted, but he seemed to buy her logic.
He slipped his phone into his shirt pocket and shrugged. “I don’t have a car, anyway.”
She crossed her arms. “How were you planning to get home?”
He shrugged and looked at one Bailey twin, and then the other. “I figured that would take care of itself.” Both girls erupted in giggles, and Sarah rolled her eyes.
God, she’d never be able to face their dad if she let the Bailey girls get mixed up in a threeway with Tom Cord. Heat crept up her neck at the picture and she shut it out of her mind.
She jiggled her keys. “I think you’d better get home and rest that arm, don’t you?”
“My arm wasn’t what I was planning on using.” He didn’t blink as he met her eyes, ignoring the snickering of the girls.
“From what I’ve heard, you need to give that a rest too.” She jerked her head toward the door. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride home.”
He sighed and leaned forward, his blue eyes still fixed on hers. “Fine. I guess boss lady is right. Girls, I’m afraid I’ll have to say good-bye.” He smiled and winked at her, and she barely kept her eyes from rolling.
Hours ago, he’d made it clear that he didn’t care to hear her opinion about his throwing. Now he was flirting with her? Obviously the old saying was true: Winning fixed everything. Throwing a kick-ass game had left him in a sunny mood. Then again, he had a rep for hitting on anything female and passably pretty. No need to inflate his übersized ego by responding to it.
Between accepting congratulations, signing autographs, and reassuring the heartbroken Bailey girls that he’d see them again before he left town, it took him another fifteen minutes to get out of the bar.
“You should find some other women to hang out with,” Sarah informed him as they headed to the parking lot.
“What?” He slid into the passenger seat beside her. “You’ve got a problem with my hanging out with the Bailey girls?” Looking at him closely, she wondered how drunk he actually was. He seemed pretty lucid to her.
“They’re the daughters of the Thrashers’ box office sup, who is an old friend of my dad’s. My dad would be pretty upset if you got . . . uh, mixed up with them.”
“You mean if I slept with them.”
His directness made her pause. She gave starting the car her full attention, carefully adjusting mirrors that didn’t need it. “Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
“I was just hanging out. I wasn’t really going to sleep with them.”
“You weren’t?” Her brows rose. He’d done a damn good impression of trying.
“No, I don’t do threeways. I can only concentrate on one thing at a time.”
She tried, God knows she tried, but she couldn’t keep a smile off her face. “Really?”
“Yep. I like to give a woman my undivided attention.”
Oh, dear. She bet he could really give some good attention when he wanted to. He’d had plenty of practice, no doubt. As any coach would tell you, practice really did make perfect. She swallowed and thanked God for the darkness so he couldn’t see her throat bob.
She approved of his single-minded devotion to a woman’s pleasure, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of saying so. He was off-limits. He was a player, in more ways than one.
She fastened her seat belt and backed out of her space. “Where are you staying?”
She slammed on the brakes, surprising a curse out of him. “Louisville? Kentucky?” At his nod, she stared. “That’s almost two hours away!”
“I’m at the Hilton. My agent set it up.”
“Your agent’s an idiot.”
“I wouldn’t disagree with that, but he gets me a lot of money.”
“Did you plan on spending four hours in the car every day you were here?”
Behind them, a car honked, and she waved it around.
“I didn’t have time to do a whole lot of planning. They activated me this morning and I got here at noon. Besides, I won’t be in town long enough for it to matter. One more start, maybe two, and they’ll be calling me up to Chicago.”
She let that pass. He’d convinced himself this stay in the minors was no more than a brief yet necessary evil on the way back to the bigs. Maybe he was right. He’d certainly been on fire tonight.
Still, the Thrashers were a team, and everyone from her father on down lived that philosophy. The team practiced and played together. “Dad has always been pretty adamant about the team practicing together, and Paul runs the team the same way. He’ll want you in town and coming to practice, even on the nights you’re not pitching.”
He yawned into his hand. “Fine. Take me to a motel or something.”
“That might be a problem.”
“Why? Surely this burg has a decent motel?”
“Motel, yes. Decent, no.” Most minor leaguers who stayed in Plainview for any length of time rented houses together. Those who were passing through for a very short time stayed at the Plainview Motel, which had earned the nickname “Painview Motel” due to its bowed mattresses and paper-thin pillows.
She couldn’t send him there. If Tom Cord would need anything during his stay in Plainview, it was a proper mattress.
Strangely, the idea of him test-driving a bed at the Painview with a local woman made her lips purse.
She didn’t know why. She had no designs on the jerk. She’d put the gawky teen who had a pathetic crush on her big brother’s friend behind her long ago.
Then again, he’d been a giant pain in her butt so far. Maybe she should let him suffer there for a few nights.
A smile curved her lips at the thought of torturing the big shot by dumping him at the dive motel, but she shook it off. She could only imagine how many tongues would wag if she showed up at the Painview in the middle of the night with Tom Cord. This was a small town, and people needed something to gossip about. Nobody would ever believe there was an innocent explanation.
Sometimes, being the town’s most well-known good girl could be a huge hassle.
“Fine,” Tom said, “I’ll find a place to stay tomorrow, but for tonight, my reservation is in Louisville.”
“I’m not driving you to Louisville at this time of night. I can’t spend four hours on the road,” she explained at his scowl. “I’ve got to work in the morning. Some of us have real jobs, you know, regardless of what anyone thinks.” That bobblehead comment still stuck in the back of her throat.
“Yeah, yeah.” He looked at her out of the side of his eyes. “Sorry about what happened at the field this afternoon.” He grimaced. “I don’t like being told what to do when it comes to pitching. Nothing personal.”
His apology deflated her ire a little bit. “Don’t worry about it. I didn’t take it personally.” Not that part, anyway. Unfortunately, she was used to bearing the brunt of her father’s wrath. Someday he’d accept that she belonged in the Thrashers front office every bit as much as her brother Paul, but that day hadn’t come yet.
Anyway, it was being completely forgotten by her teenage crush that had stung the most. Not that she was dwelling on it. “You can crash on my couch for tonight and figure out something else in the morning.”
She eased off the brakes and headed for home.
“Maybe I can crash with Paul for a while. I’m kind of surprised he didn’t ask me to.”
“He couldn’t ask you to stay with him.” She smiled slightly in the car’s dark interior. “His girlfriend thinks you’re a bad influence.”
“What?” Cord stared at her. “You’re kidding me!”
“You’re saying you’re not a bad influence?”
“I already told you I wouldn’t have done the Bailey girls together. What do you want from me, sainthood?”
Pain started behind her eyes. She needed to get away from Tom and back to bed—alone—before dealing with him brought on a real headache. “That’s scrupulous of you. You wouldn’t have done them together, but on their own, they’d be fair game?” A voice whispered that she was being unfair—the Baileys were hardly innocents—but she squashed it.
“Why not? They’re over twenty-one.”
Why not, indeed? Most ballplayers got all the girls they could handle, and then some. Tom Cord liked to sleep around, but at least he was single and made no bones about being a playboy, which was more than she could say for some other guys she knew. Why did his incredible ease with women rub her the wrong way?
“Besides, I’m a bad influence, my ass. I could tell her a few stories about Paul back then that would set her straight on that score.”
“Please!” She put one hand over her ear. “This is my brother you’re talking about. I don’t want to hear about it!”
“Sorry, but you gotta know, your brother’s no saint.”
“And you are? What about Christina Caputo?” she said, naming the reality star he’d recently broken up with. She’d been photographed climbing out of a limo with Tom—sans underwear. The wind had lifted her skirt and paparazzi had been waiting to immortalize the moment. Tom’s nude swimming photo had been blurry and indistinct, but a dozen paparazzi with high-resolution cameras had captured Christina’s mistake in excruciating clarity. A censored version of the photo had been on the cover of every supermarket tabloid in America the next week.
“You know about her?” he asked, all fake-casual. Even from the corner of her eye, she could see his smile.
“Everybody knows about her! Her hoo-ha was all over the Internet.”
“Yeah.” He rubbed his chin, his fingers rasping against stubble. “I didn’t know she was planning on doing that.”
“She planned it?” Her mouth fell open.
“Yep. She was quite the publicity hound. She thought dating a famous athlete would raise her profile.”
“I’ll say it did.” Sarah pulled into her driveway and hit the clicker to raise the garage door. “Did it bug you, that she used you that way?”
He shrugged. “I get that a lot from women. Occupational hazard.”
In the garage, she killed the engine and turned to look at him, hand on the door handle. “Women date you to, um, get their profiles raised?” Was it her, or did that sound faintly dirty? Maybe Tom Cord just made everything seem a little naughty.
His teeth gleamed white in the moonlight. His strong chin had a tiny cleft, a hint of sculpture in an otherwise rugged face. He really was the most appallingly handsome man. It almost made her want to overlook his colossal ego.
“Among other things.” He shoved his cap back and scooted closer. She caught the scent of beer on his breath, but it was a pleasant, manly smell. His arm shifted to touch her bare forearm, and the heat seared her all the way down to her toes. “Women like me for all kinds of reasons.”
Oh, she bet they did. Really, did every woman he met fall over, legs in the air, when he crooked his finger? The urge to take him down a peg overpowered her. “Totally. I’m sure your girlfriends get great tickets to ball games, for starters. Heck, it would almost be worth dating you to get seats behind the plate for a big-league game.”
He laughed outright. “Come on. Lighten up. I’m a hell of a lot of fun once you get to know me. You should give me a chance.” The front seat of her crossover seemed smaller than ever. How had he gotten so close?
“I’m sure you’re a heck of a guy, but there are so many reasons why I would never date you. Trust me, they far outnumber the reasons I would date you.”
Damn. She’d meant to cut him off at the knees, and instead she’d inadvertently revealed that she had thought about him that way.
She tried again. “I mean, not that I personally would date you. I meant, there are reasons why someone, not me, would—”
He brushed a finger against her lower lip, effectively shutting her up. “Shhhh.”
No cobra had ever mesmerized its prey more effectively than Tom Cord. He held her gaze, and it seemed like everything slowed down. Sounds, sights, everything faded into the background, and only Tom’s blue eyes mattered. She’d once dreamed of having his attention, and now she had it.
He shifted slightly in his seat, leaning in, bringing his lips within a few inches of hers. She caught a whiff of the soap he’d used to wash up with after the game, mingled with the scent of the beer he’d drunk. Both were intoxicating.
Would he kiss her? God knows she’d thought about this so often when she was a teenager, but this was a thousand times more intense than she’d ever imagined.
His hand brushed a stray lock of hair back from her face. He leaned in, his lips about to claim hers. She could feel the warmth of his breath against her mouth. Her eyes drifted shut.
Unbidden, a vision of Christina Caputo rose in her mind.
Sarah was not Tom’s usual kind of girl, not by a long shot, and he was definitely not her kind of guy. The pickings tended to be slim for a single professional woman in Plainview, which was why she’d been seeing her CPA on and off for a couple of years.
Worse, she was front office and Tom was a player.
Her eyes snapped open and she stopped him with a trembling hand to his chest. “Hold it there, bud. I’m in management. I don’t date players.” What had she been thinking? He’d been in town all of a day and she’d almost fallen into his arms without a fight.
She exited the car with all due haste and slammed the door behind her, glaring at him through the window.
He unfolded his long body and extracted himself from the car. Unhurried, he closed the door and leaned against it, shaking his head with a smile. “Maybe so. But you ain’t never met a player like me before.”
Well, that might have been a mistake. In his pleasantly beered-up state, he’d been thinking maybe he could ingratiate himself with Sarah, get to know her a little bit. Maybe she’d take a shine to him and invite him to spend the night in her bed instead of leaving him to fend for himself on a couch.
Her reaction had sobered him up fast.
He knew when a girl was into him, and Sarah Dudley definitely showed some signs. She kept her cards close to her vest, not making it obvious, but she laughed at his jokes and let her pretty brown eyes linger on him when she thought he didn’t notice. Back when he’d been in college, she’d been a young, skinny tomboy who’d peppered him with baseball questions, and he’d hardly looked at her twice, his brain filled with nothing but his upcoming major-league career and chasing every pretty girl he could find.
Now, on the other hand, she was all grown up. He’d wanted to circumvent her guard, take the bull by the horns, and move in for a quick kiss that would speed things along. Instead he’d pissed her off, guaranteeing he’d wind up on the couch.
He rolled over and punched the flat pillow she’d practically thrown at him along with a blanket. Wide-awake, he watched the headlights of a passing car throw shadows across the ceiling.
Sarah Dudley was interesting.
Cute, yes, but so were lots of girls. Sexy, yes, in a way that he sensed she wasn’t totally aware of. Smart and tough.
Not tough, exactly. Prickly, maybe. Sassy. Yeah, that was it. Unintimidated by him and willing to put him in his place, or at least do her damnedest to. His mouth curved as he remembered her eye-roll when she’d claimed, with a straight face, that he had nothing to offer a woman besides front-row tickets to a ball game.
He’d had groupies falling over him for so long, he hardly knew what to do with a woman who gave him the stiff-arm.
Correction. He knew exactly what to do with Sarah Dudley, and it involved long, sweaty nights in his bed. Plenty of female fans approached him in bars and slipped him their numbers on his way to the clubhouse, but something about a woman who had enough self-respect to call him on his BS whetted his appetite.
He lay awake far too long, shifting on the uncomfortable couch and plotting how he’d make stubborn Sarah face up to the inevitability of the two of them. He’d only be in town for a couple of weeks, sure, but oh, what a sweet couple of weeks they could be, if only she’d give him a chance.
“Morning. You’re up bright and early.”
His voice made Sarah nearly drop her bowl of cornflakes. The sight of him in the kitchen doorway did make her drop her cornflakes.
Tom Cord stood bleary-eyed, his jaw dark with stubble, wearing boxers and a Thrashers T-shirt. Apparently she hadn’t dreamed the events of last night, although he certainly looked like something out of one of her reveries. He scratched his bicep lazily. “I think you dropped something.”