Andrew “Ace” Braddock is a player in every sense of the word. The center fielder for the Austin Lone Stars, he’s also been at the center of numerous sports scandals involving beer, bars, and baseball bunnies. But when he takes the fall for a teammate, Ace wakes up in the hospital, injured and in serious trouble. He’s sent to lie low and recover at his family ranch in Silverlake, Texas, where he’s saddled with his worst nightmare: his high school nemesis—a beautiful nurse who refuses to play doctor with him.
Mia Adams has no time to fool around. The daughter of Silverlake’s high school baseball coach has three jobs and a pile of debt left behind by her missing ex. The very last thing she wants is to spend her time indulging hometown hero Easy Ace Braddock. If she didn’t need the money, she’d have nothing to do with the guy from her past who stole her dad’s time, attention, and love away from her before leaving for the major leagues.
As Mia does her best to corral the irrepressible Ace, keep a sense of humor, and fight her unwelcome attraction to him, he charms, sidesteps, and outmaneuvers her. Will the onetime enemies find love at home base, right in the town where they grew up?
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The radio was still playing. That was the surreal thing. Andrew "Ace" Braddock, second baseman for the Austin Lone Stars, was suspended upside down, hanging by his seat belt . . . and AC/DC was still blasting.
Back in black . . .
"Pete?" he said urgently. "Pete? Are you okay?"
Nobody's gonna get me on another rap.
A moan came from the driver's seat, where shortstop Pete Bergsen hung next to him. "Frannie's . . . she's gonna divorce me."
The first thing Ace felt was sweeping relief. Pete was alive.
The next thing he felt was agony. "Son of a bi-aagh. I think my ankle is broken."
"My car. Oh, man. The car!"
"Yeah, the car. Sure. Did you hear me, buddy? My ankle. Is. Annihilated." The pain. The pain was like white-hot lightning, streaking up from his ankle and then colliding somewhere inside his nervous system in an explosion that left him breathless.
But the pain was better than panicking-giving in to flashbacks of a different crumpled car, years ago. Don't go there. Don't go there. Deep breaths. Stay calm.
"Your ankle. Really?" Pete's voice anchored him to the present mess.
"Yeah," Ace managed. "Really."
They hung there for a moment longer, absorbing the unholy mess they were in: wrecked in pitch-black darkness, out on the winding roads surrounding Austin's Lake Travis. Courtesy of a moment of stupidity by his buddy.
"Pete, you're such a piece of crap." Ace said it without heat.
"You paid enough for the Maserati-you should know it has its own lighter."
"I like my lighter. Frannie gave it to me."
"Next time, leave it on the friggin' floor of the car when you drop it."
"Don't run us off the friggin' road and into a live oak and flip the car."
"Ace, you gotta switch places with me. Say you were driving.
"Switch . . . ?" If they hadn't been hanging upside down, his jaw would have dropped open.
"Just how many beers did you have, Pete?"
"Please, Ace. Frannie's gonna leave and take the kids with her. She will do it this time. She was serious. You gotta switch places with me, man."
"You have got to be kidding. Are you nuts?"
"C'mon. You're Easy Ace Braddock. You're a walkin' Enquirer headline. Nobody will be surprised that you're in the papers again. But Frannie warned me. She will walk and take my kids and then take me to the cleaners."
"You are such a tool."
"I cannot believe you're asking me this."
"Please. Switch places with me, Ace? I'm beggin' you."
Maybe it was the excruciating pain. Maybe he was just a chump. But Ace thought about it for a moment. He thought about Pete's kids.
He didn't have much to lose in comparison. Then he unbuckled his seat belt with his left hand and folded his head and shoulders, followed by the rest of him, onto the roof interior of what had once been a very sweet car. It hurt. A lot.
He shoved open the door-which was an amazing feat in itself, since it was crumpled like a tissue from slamming into the tree. Not to mention the fact that it didn't work so well upside down.
Then Ace, cursing royally with each movement, hauled his sorry butt out of the car and fell into the grass.
His first thought was that it was way too quiet. No lights, no sirens, no witnesses-wait, that last part was good. If he was going to honor Pete's crazy request to switch places with him and say he'd been the one driving the car.
His next thought was: Get Pete out of the vehicle, now. In case the gas tank explodes.
Oh, damn, it hurts.
Now! On your feet, Braddock. Don't even think about wussing out. Pro athlete, and you can't take a little pain? Up! It was Coach's voice, as always. Ace might have left Silverlake High behind, but he'd always hear Coach Adams in his head.
Ace used the car to pull himself to his feet-it was like someone had poured acid over his ankle. He didn't want to think about what that meant for his career with the Austin Lone Stars.
He hopped around the Maserati, reaching the driver's side door with another blue streak of cuss words, none of which made him feel any better. "Pete, buddy, unbuckle your seat belt. We gotta get you out of there."
There was a pause as Pete fumbled. "Can't find it."
"What d'you mean, you can't find it? Look down-or up, actually, at your lap. Press the button. Prepare to land on your head."
Pete mumbled something unintelligible.
The window was open, since Pete had rolled it down to smoke.
Ace winced again at the pain but lowered himself to the grass and stuck his head in, coming face to groin with his disoriented friend. "Get your junk out of my face."
"Can't help it," said Pete, his voice now more slurred.
"Did you hit your head or something? Unbuckle your seat belt and get the hell out of the car."
Pete hung there, silent. It wasn't like him. Was he concussed? Or drunk? Or both? Ace had been so hell-bent on getting away from that rabid baseball bunny that he hadn't noticed Pete was in no condition to drive.
Ace did his best to ignore Pete's crotch and fumbled around until he found the buckle to his seat belt. He pressed the button, and Pete dropped into a heap on the roof's interior.
Cussing a blue, green, purple, and black streak because of the pain, Ace lay on his side and hooked his arm under Pete's armpit. He braced his good foot on the crumpled car's frame and hauled with all his might.
Pete popped out like a cork, and they both fell backward to the uneven terrain.
Ace dragged him farther away from the car-it really could go up in flames at any moment-almost howling with the pain. "Pete? Buddy? What's wrong?"
In answer, his teammate puked all over the grass.
What the hell had he been thinking, to get in a car with Pete? What had Pete been thinking, to get behind the wheel?
Answer: Neither of them had been thinking at all.
Ace slid his cell phone out of his pocket, since one of them had to call 911 and explain their predicament. Great.
He checked Pete's pulse. It was steady, thank God. "Pete, can you hear me? Did you hit your head?"
Pete wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "N-no. Hit the tequila . . ."
Just as Ace had thought. Well, he guessed it was better than a concussion. But there was one big, Texas-sized problem. If Ace called 911 and revealed to the cops that Pete had been driving this way, then his friend was going straight to jail.
If, on the other hand, Ace told the police that he'd been the one driving ... well, he'd ridden in the notoriety rodeo before. Pete was right-nobody'd be shocked that Easy Ace had gotten his face splashed across the scandal sheets or the gossip sites.
He'd go to PR hell, for sure. But he'd only had two light beers over the course of the whole evening, so he wouldn't go to jail.
Ace spun the story easily in his head: He'd spotted his friend's condition and he'd taken Pete's keys once they got out to the car. He'd been driving Pete home.
The team would thank him for salvaging the situation and being a good wingman. Frannie would thank him and not divorce Pete. Ace would serve as an example to the youth of America: Friends don't let friends drive drunk.
See, he wasn't a blithering idiot. He was a hero.
Unfortunately, Ace’s agent, Lucille Dunn, did not agree with this assessment when he woke three hours later in a hospital bed with his ankle still on fire. Upon opening his eyes, he took in the ugly green pattern of his hospital gown first, and the fact that under it, he was buck naked.
Then his gaze traveled to the white blanket on the bed and the beige walls. Overhead, he saw the black rectangle of a muted television. Only then did he glimpse a flash of satanic red. The ridiculously expensive sole of a stiletto shoe.
That was when Ace knew he was in deep, deep voodoo-doo-doo. He winced. He'd rather face a flesh-eating zombie at the moment than his agent.
She was sitting next to him, checking two smartphones and an iPad all at the same time. Lucille was a six-foot-tall, no-nonsense, smoking-hot blonde and one of the top sports agents around. She busted balls before breakfast and could outcuss a sailor. And he was pretty sure that she carried a switchblade, a shovel, tarps, and lye in her oversized Chanel handbag.
"Howdy, Luce," mumbled Ace, woozy from pain and whatever drug they'd given him for it. "What're you doing here?"
"Emergency management," she said crisply, tossing one of the phones at his head.
"Ow." Ace felt around on the pillow for it, and then took a look at the screen.
"Which I don't have the time, or the inclination, to do. Especially under these circumstances."
His eyes focused on an image of Pete's crumpled Maserati, underneath a blaring headline: Braddock's Latest Line Drive. Now that it was all over and he wasn't pulsing with adrenaline, looking at the car made him want to vomit. It wasn't a minivan, and he wasn't thirteen years old, but still. His stomach lurched. And then shadows, whispers, and ghosts filled his mind. The ones he expertly ducked, but that always somehow found him. "How . . . ? No press was there."
"Are you that stupid, Ace?"
"Someone on the inside sold the photo."
"Photos, plural. Ace, I told you to keep a low profile because of the contract negotiations."
He closed his eyes. "I know."
"Keeping a low profile does not involve drunken carousing or getting your name and face splashed across every news outlet in America!"
"I wasn't carousing, and I wasn't drunk," Ace protested.
"You're lucky your blood test came back under the legal limit," Lucille said. "Or you'd be in jail. But this is a PR nightmare: You could have killed yourself and Pete Bergsen. And we have to show the public that you take that very, very seriously."
He swallowed and looked away.
"What aren't you telling me, Ace?" Lucille homed in on the tension inside him, as if she had x-ray vision. She probably did.
"Ace. I will give you one chance to come clean. One."
"I didn't put peanut butter out for the grackles."
Lucille rolled her eyes. "Those birds are so gross. But this has nothing to do with your ridiculous superstitions. Now spill."
Ridiculous? He didn't pee on his hands, like Moises Alou. He'd never worn a gold thong, like Jason Giambi. Or women's stockings, like the Babe. In the great arena of weird baseball-player superstitions, grackle appeasement really wasn't that odd.
Lucille got up. "Fine. We're done."
"Okay, okay! I wasn't actually driving," he confessed. "Pete was."
Lucille closed her eyes and dropped back into her chair. "Are. You. Kidding. Me."
Ace just looked at her. "He would have gone to jail."
"You should have let him!"
"He's my friend. My teammate. My brother."
Lucille said a few choice words that almost made the white hospital blanket over him blush. Then she threw up her hands. "I could just kill you, Ace Braddock." She skewered him with her smoky green assassin's gaze. "But what's done is done. And if you're dead, I won't make my luxurious commission on your next Austin Lone Stars contract. By the way, none of this, especially not the fracture in your ankle, is going to help me in negotiations on your behalf."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Save your apology for someone who cares." Lucille drummed her fingernails on her iPad and then slipped it into the monstrous black quilted bag with its entwined Cs. "The team's attorney, Larry Litman, is already threatening to pull the moral turpitude card. So this is what you're going to do. You will release a statement to the press. You'll thank fans everywhere for their concern and good wishes. You will be voluntarily going on the wagon and the team will hire a sober companion for you while you heal from your injuries in seclusion. Got it?"
Ace groaned. "I don't need to 'get sober' and I don't need a companion."
"Well, your public image does. And if Larry is going to scream moral turpitude, then we're gonna milk any dubious advantage out of it that we can-meaning they can pay gobs of money for your babysitter so that you don't have to. You're going to suck it up, Ace, or I'm done with you as a client. Talent, charm, and good looks are not going to get you out of this, and I have my own reputation to maintain."
"Don't even try to Lucille me. Not interested. And stop sabotaging your career. What is that about, Ace? You need to figure it out-before it's too late."
She held up her manicured hand and shot a meaningful glance at the phone that still lay on his chest.
He tossed it to her, and she caught it neatly. "See you on the other side of this mess." She shut the door firmly on the protests that he hadn't even begun to make.
Ace stared at it.
Stop sabotaging your career. What is that about?
He closed his eyes again, but the image of Pete's crumpled Maserati was burned into his retinas. And the image of a pale blue 2003 Dodge minivan came after it: front end mangled, windshield smashed in. No survivors.
Nothing would ever chase that image away. Not Coach Adams's affectionate mentoring. Not stellar stats, or league championship wins. Not beautiful baseball bunnies or bar fights.
It would follow him forever.
You will be voluntarily going on the wagon and the team will hire a sober companion for you while you heal from your injuries in seclusion. Got it?
Yeah, he got it. It was good advice, if unwelcome advice.
But where, exactly, was "seclusion"? Where could he go to get away from the celebrity scene and the photographers and the reporters?
The last place anyone would expect.
Silverlake. His hometown. His family still owned a ranch there, and he had as much right as any of his siblings to stake a claim. Well, at least to one of the bedrooms. Never mind that he'd hardly seen any of his family in person for years.
He was the local kid made good in the major leagues. He couldn't think of one single person in the town of Silverlake, Texas, who wouldn't want to welcome back Andrew "Ace" Braddock--the hometown hero.
Excerpted from Hometown Hero by Liza Kendall. Copyright © 2020 by Liza Kendall. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.