Making a Comeback290
Making a Comeback290
Nathan Cooper is trying to revive his own career. Once a top left-handed relief pitcher, he tried to get over a hidden injury with the aid of banned substances. Not only was he caught and suspended, he was traded and missed out on winning the championship. Now he’s a free agent without a contract, and that means life is ready to play ball…
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|Publisher:||Lyrical Press, Incorporated|
|Series:||More Than A Game , #3|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||748 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Making A Comeback
More Than A Game Series
By Kristina Mathews
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Kristina Mathews
All rights reserved.
Today was a good day. A glorious day. Sitting at the stoplight in the Southern California sunshine, Annabelle Jones did a drum solo on the steering wheel of her convertible Mercedes. She didn't care if people stared at her singing along to "Don't Stop Believing." She hadn't stopped believing, and look at her now, fresh off her first modeling job since filing for divorce. So it wasn't the cover of Sports Illustrated, still, it was a job. Something she could be proud of. Her daughters could be proud of her.
It wasn't about the money. The income she earned from this modeling job was more about pride. Having something to offer the world, even if it was just her face.
Annabelle wanted to show her daughters that a woman didn't need a man to take care of her. She could stand on her own two feet, and return to the career she'd given up when she married Clayton Barry. She might not fly off to exotic locations or work with the world's most famous photographers, but she was working.
She lifted her face to the sun, soaking in its warmth. It was as if the fog of the last few years had finally lifted. Nothing but blue skies ahead for her and her six-year-old twin daughters.
Today's shoot was just the beginning. Her agent had two more jobs lined up for her before the end of the month. He'd also scheduled her to attend the televised celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. She hadn't been able to make the photo shoot last fall in New York for the magazine, but he thought making an appearance on the live show would give her plenty of exposure.
Hopefully, she'd be able to juggle it all. Part of what appealed to her about today's job was that it was close enough that she'd be able to shoot for a few hours and still get home in time to meet her daughters when they got off the school bus.
Annabelle glanced at the clock. If the light didn't change soon, she wasn't going to make it to the bus stop in time.
The song ended and Annabelle turned down the volume. She'd started listening to Journey during the Goliaths' World Series run. So the song was five years older than she was, the message still rang true. It was about hope. Starting over. Believing.
The traffic light turned green, and she pulled into the intersection. A flash of yellow appeared out of the corner of her eye. She turned in time to see an SUV blow through the stoplight. Before she could react, the vehicle struck her Mercedes just behind the driver's side door.
Her head slammed into the side window. Glass shattered and she looked down at the blood on her blouse. A thousand black pixels danced before her eyes.
And then nothing.
* * *
Nathan Cooper was almost home. He'd gotten his miles in, had lunch at his favorite restaurant, and he'd spent the early part of the day working his shoulder to the point of fatigue, but not pain. What a concept. How many times in the last two years had he told himself to toughen up? Work through the pain? He'd been in denial enough to believe he could overcome the injury to his shoulder by working harder, longer, stronger.
When that hadn't worked, he'd tried herbal supplements, powders, creams, and potions — just about anything that promised one more inning, one more pitch. He'd been desperate enough that he'd believed in the so-called experts until he couldn't be sure what he was putting in his body.
He slipped his hand under his collar to run his fingertips over the tiny scar. He should have started with the surgery. It would have saved him a whole lot of time and trouble. Hell, it might have even saved his career.
Standing at the corner, he waited for the school bus that had been sitting there idling for almost ten minutes. But he hadn't seen any passengers unload. The red flashing lights were to stop vehicular traffic. On foot, he could go around the bus, but he was determined to be a model citizen. To keep from making another mistake.
Finally, the doors opened and two little blond girls waved to him. The bus driver nodded, and the girls bounded off the bus.
"Miss Nora said we couldn't get off until we had an adult waiting for us. I told her you were our neighbor." They were five or maybe six years old. He'd seen them next door, playing with their mother, heading down to the beach. This one wore jeans, running shoes, and a San Francisco Goliaths sweatshirt. Not exactly a popular choice in this part of the state, but they had won the World Series last October. Without him. "I'm Sophie. This is Olivia. We're twins."
Olivia was pink, from the giant pink daisy clipped into her hair to some kind of tutu she wore over leggings tucked into pink cowgirl boots. She moved closer to her sister and looked up at him almost as if she thought he was the big, bad wolf.
"My sister's shy." Sophie gave her twin a shove. "Say 'hi' to our neighbor."
"Hi." Olivia looked down at the ground. Her little cheeks turned the same color as her tutu.
"So do you know where our mom is?" Sophie was not shy at all.
"No. I'm afraid I don't." He knew who their mom was. Annabelle Jones. The Annabelle Jones. One of the hottest models to ever grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. Damn.
He'd taken one look at her picture and fallen instantly in lust with her perfect combination of girl-next-door sweetness and a rocking hot body. Blonde, blue-eyed and ... well, built was quite an understatement.
When the real Annabelle Jones moved in next door, he'd kept his distance. Partly because she was the picture of perfection in the pages of a magazine. She was his fantasy. Untouchable. Flawless. He didn't want to see her taking out the trash in her pajamas. Not even in silk pajamas from Victoria's Secret.
But mostly, he didn't get too close to her because he didn't want her to get too close to him. He didn't want her to figure out who he was. And how he'd let down his teammates, his sport, and his fans.
So he'd smiled and waved when they saw each other on the street, nodded politely when she'd suggested they get together for coffee sometime, but he always found an excuse to put her off.
"She's s'posed to meet us at the bus stop, but she had a job." Sophie put her little hands on her hips. "I thought she asked you to come instead."
"No. I haven't talked to her today." He'd spoken to her maybe a half dozen times since he'd received her mail by mistake. She hadn't recognized him, so he'd pretended not to recognize her. He had grown his former military-cut hair out, and was contemplating a beard. She was as gorgeous as always, and way out of his league.
"That's okay. I know where the key is." She shrugged and grabbed her sister's hand to start walking home.
"Sophie!" Olivia's eyes widened. "We're not supposed to cross the street without a grown-up."
"He's a grown-up." Sophie tilted her head in his direction.
"Yeah, but he's not our grown-up." Olivia snuck a glance up at him before turning back to her sister. "He's a stranger."
"You're not a stranger, are you mister?" Sophie looked at him with an innocent, trusting expression. "We've seen you talking to our mom and stuff."
"I'm Cooper, from next door." He had no business taking charge of two little girls. But he couldn't exactly leave them there at the bus stop. "Let's go find your mom."
He checked the traffic, looking both ways. Sophie took his hand without hesitation as they started to cross. But it was when Olivia slipped her tiny hand in his that he realized just how fragile trust was.
When they got to the house, Annabelle's Mercedes was still missing from the driveway. Sophie marched up the steps and tried the door. It was locked. She trotted around the house to the back door. Cooper had no choice but to follow.
"Sophie, you shouldn't show anyone where Mom keeps the key." Olivia's trust wasn't complete. She was fine with him helping them cross the street, but drew the line at him knowing where they kept the spare key.
"I'll close my eyes." He stood between the girls and the driveway, closed his eyes, and listened as Sophie rummaged through the flowerpot next to the back door.
"I got it." The little girl proudly held the key in her hand. He tried not to notice the frog figurine that had been knocked over. Not the most secure place to keep a key. But then, he supposed having a hide-a-key anywhere wasn't a good idea. Especially for a woman living alone with two young girls. A protective instinct rose inside him.
This was already more than he'd bargained for. It was one thing to get them off the bus and help them cross the street. He didn't want to follow them into their home, but they were too young to be left alone. The only other choice would be to take the girls to his place, but that wasn't an option. He had a lot of weights lying around and nothing kid-friendly to eat. What little kids liked almonds, avocados, and kale?
He followed the two girls through the back door into their kitchen.
It was a warm, friendly space, with hand-picked flowers in the window over the sink, candid photos and the girls' drawings pinned to the fridge. A bowl of fruit sat on the center of the round kitchen table. He could almost smell cookies baking, but he knew the oven wasn't on. No one was home.
"So, do you girls have homework?" The cozy, happy-family vibe of the kitchen didn't fit with the idea of a woman who would forget her children at the bus stop. But then again, maybe this happened all the time, and that was the reason Sophie was so comfortable going off with a near-stranger.
"No, silly. It's Friday." Sophie laughed and dragged a chair over to the pantry. She stood on it to help herself to a snack.
Cooper glanced at Olivia. He had a feeling she'd call her sister on any unauthorized snack choices.
Turned out the girl grabbed the kind of snack he'd choose for himself — a jar of organic peanut butter and whole grain bread. She carried them over to the counter and pulled a butter knife out of the drawer.
"Do you need any help?" Cooper offered. He felt like he should be doing something. Here he was in Annabelle Jones' kitchen, supervising snack time for her daughters. He wondered if she had a phone book, but even if she did, chances were she wouldn't have put her own cell number in it.
"Nope." She opened a drawer at the bottom of the cabinets and pulled out two pink plastic plates and matching cups. She gave her sister a look and Olivia grabbed a gallon of organic milk out of the refrigerator.
The cordless phone on the counter rang. Caller ID showed Jones, Annabelle. He picked up, hoping Annabelle wouldn't be too freaked out that a man answered instead of one of her daughters.
"This is Officer Garcia with the California Highway Patrol." A concerned male voice came on the line. "Am I speaking to Mr. Jones?"
"No. Miss Jones is not married." At least, her husband wasn't living with her. And he'd heard she'd filed for divorce. Cooper felt his stomach knot. He instinctively turned away from the girls.
"Is there someone in her immediate family I can speak to?"
Cooper took the phone out to the back porch. He kept an eye on the twins but didn't want them to overhear what was obviously bad news.
"Her immediate family members are minors. I'm caring for her young children." He called up the kind of steady nerves he'd needed coming into a game with the bases loaded and nobody out. "Tell me what I need to know."
"Miss Jones has been involved in a traffic accident. She's being transported by ambulance to University Trauma Center."
Cooper sank against the porch railing as the officer relayed the address of the hospital. He pulled out his own phone and searched for the phone number.
After hanging up with the CHP officer, he checked in on the girls and saw they were happily chatting as they ate their peanut butter sandwiches and washed them down with cold glasses of milk.
Taking a deep breath, he dialed the hospital. Claiming to be Annabelle's brother, he was able to find out the extent of her injuries. He hung up after discovering she'd been brought in with lacerations to the face, bruised ribs, and a concussion. They would release her if she had someone who could stay with her to observe for any post-concussion complications.
With a heavy heart, he walked back into the sunny kitchen.
Two innocent faces looked up at him. They trusted him. They needed him.
"Your mom has been in a car accident." He used the gentlest voice he could find. He didn't want them to worry. He was doing enough of that for all of them. "She's going to be okay, but we'll need to pick her up from the hospital."
Sophie blinked back tears but held her head high.
Olivia slid off the chair and threw herself at him. She clutched his legs, holding on with everything she had.
"It's going to be okay." He patted her back, hoping to God he was telling the truth.
* * *
Annabelle hurt. Everywhere. Her ribs, her back, her neck, and her left shoulder throbbed in pain. But most of all her head hurt, the worst headache she'd ever had. She tried to open her eyes, but could only see out of her right eye. Her other one was covered. Trying to focus with just one eye made her dizzy. Trying to sit up made her dizzy. Even lying still made her dizzy.
Where was she? She looked around slowly, hoping the nausea would pass, or at least not get any worse. There was a heavy industrial-type curtain dividing the room in half. Along one wall stood a sink with foot pedals below and hand sanitizer above. An uncomfortable-looking couch stood against the other wall. The bed she was lying in had railings and a remote attached to the side. She could raise or lower the foot and head of the bed and call for assistance. A tube coming out of her arm was hooked up to a bag of some kind of fluid. Machines beeped softly behind her.
She'd been in a place like this before. She just couldn't remember why.
Babies. There were babies before, one for each arm. Her babies.
Was she still in the hospital with the twins? No. She could picture them, much bigger. Walking. Dancing. Starting school. They were definitely old enough to go to school.
Was she having another baby? She looked down at her flat belly. No. That wasn't why she was in this place. This ... Oh, why couldn't she remember what it was called? Why couldn't she remember anything?
A man stepped into the room. He was a tall man. A strong man. An oh-my-God very good-looking man. His long-sleeved gray T-shirt hugged broad, well-sculpted shoulders. Black athletic shorts hung low on his hips, almost clinging to muscular thighs. His dark brown hair was a little longer than she preferred, but she couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to run her fingers through it. His lips were thick, sensuous, and framed by dark whiskers — thicker than stubble, but not quite a full beard. His green-gold eyes swept over her with concern and something else. What was it called? That feeling of wanting ... or needing ... something?
Annabelle swallowed. Her throat was dry, too dry to speak. She reached for a glass of water from the bedside table. Even with one eye, she liked what she saw. But she couldn't remember who he was. He wasn't a stranger, she knew that much. Could feel that much.
"Come in." Her voice sounded raspy and harsh. But maybe that was the way it always sounded.
He hesitated before entering, turning back to the hallway, he ushered two little blond girls into the room. Her daughters. Thank God. She recognized them. Olivia. And Sophie. The two bright lights of her life. The reason she fought through ... What had happened to her? She closed her eyes, trying to recall the details.
There was screeching, crunching of metal, shattering glass, and blood. So much blood.
She remembered the blood.
Her daughters crept carefully into the room, eyes wide as they took in her appearance. She must be a real mess. Sophie clutched the man's hand. No. It was Olivia. Sophie never wore pink. Or did she?
"Mommy, you look like a mummy." Sophie skipped over to the side of the bed. The child's energy bounced off her in waves. "Maybe I'll call you Mummy from now on. Like I'm British."
Her daughter's laughter filled Annabelle with joy, taking the edge off her pain and confusion.
Olivia scooted closer to the man. He must be someone close to them. Olivia was slow to warm to people. She wouldn't just reach out for someone if he wasn't special.
Excerpted from Making A Comeback by Kristina Mathews. Copyright © 2015 Kristina Mathews. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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