Pitcher Dylan Dennings has his future all mapped out: make the minors straight out of high school, work his way up the farm system, and get called up to the majors by the time he
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Dylan Dennings wiped sweat from his forehead, listening to the chain link fence at the back of the ball field bang in a stiff westerly wind. Dust kicked up from the infield as he considered his opponent. He'd need to compensate for the wind, just a little. Calculate where he wanted the ball to go.
"Dude, for God's sake, throw it already!" Tristan Murrell called, waving his bat in annoyance. "I want to wrap this up before I'm too old to kiss my girl!"
His girl. Alyssa was Tristan's, no denying that. Dylan was happy for them, but it still stung to be riding the bench when it came to a girl he'd had a major crush on. On the other hand, he probably dodged a bullet. If he wanted to make it to the minors in twelve months, he couldn't waste energy on anything else.
He had to stick to The Plan.
Dylan eyed Tristan. His hitting had improved a ton, thanks to his girlfriend's coaching, and he'd become nearly impossible to strike out. Worse, since they'd been playing together for years, Tristan knew all of Dylan's pitches.
He'd been working on splitters with his coach, and he wanted to try it on someone. Tristan would do. Dylan wound up, letting the ball settle in his left hand, then with one fluid motion, flung the ball hard with the tiniest downward flick. Hopefully the ball would drop, just a bit, right as it crossed the plate.
And drop it did. Tristan swung with all his might, and why not? He thought he was seeing a nice, fat fastball. But Tristan's bat whooshed over the ball, sending him stumbling off-balance. Awesome.
"When the hell did you learn to throw a splitter?" Tristan flashed him an astonished smile. "That's big league crap."
"I spent a few weeks with Coach Myers." Dylan shrugged. "The more I can do, the better I look to scouts."
"You're the only guy I know who'd spend the first month of summer vacation, after winning the state championship, working out a new pitch." Tristan shook his head. "You ever think you might be a little too intense for your own good? Seriously, you need some time off."
No such thing as too intense, not when your future was on the line. "I'll take time off once the Rangers or the 'Stros take a good hard look at me for their farm system. I want to be triple-A by the time I'm twenty. If I can do that, I should be called up before I'm twenty-three."
Tristan walked out to the mound, carrying his bat with him. "I get it, and making it as a pitcher is even harder, but you're missing out on the fun stuff. Come to the lake with Alyssa and me tonight."
Dylan's heart sank, just a bit. Yeah, because being a third wheel is so great. Not. "Camp starts day after tomorrow." He waved a hand at the Suttonville High baseball field. "I told Coach I'd make sure everything was set."
Tristan sighed. "It is set. We've been working on this for days. It's two weeks with a bunch of fourth and fifth graders ... there's not much else to do here. Come with us. Live a little."
"I'd be a third wheel, and you know it." Dylan gave his friend a tight smile. "Besides, my mom wants us to go out to dinner tonight 'as a family' so I can't bail."
"Doesn't that sound like fun?" Tristan turned to go, but stopped. "I really wish you'd come with."
"I'm fine, seriously. Go on." Dylan waved him off. "I'll see you at eight tomorrow. Don't forget."
Tristan disappeared through the locker room door, and Dylan let himself relax. Going out with Tristan and Alyssa wasn't bad, but Alyssa always wanted to fix him up with someone, maybe as a consolation.
"With that blond hair and blue eyes, you look like a surf board commercial," she would say. "There are two dozen girls who'd hit that. Let me introduce you. Please. There's this one girl who was in Algebra II with me last year who —"
And Dylan would always tell her no. He'd felt so out of control during the playoffs, and he couldn't afford that again. No distractions, no drama, no girls. Nothing but focus, avoiding blisters, and hard, hard work. That was what his senior year would have to look like: clean living and discipline.
He could have fun after he made the majors. Hell, by then girls would be falling into his lap at every turn. A star pitcher for the majors would have his pick.
Dylan finished tidying up the dugout, checked the foul lines for any smudged chalk, and made sure the water coolers were clean. By the time he was done, Coach had walked into the locker room, eyebrow raised. "Dennings, you should be long gone by now. Is there a problem?"
"No, sir. I'm just double checking everything and making sure it's perfect. We want these kids to stick with the sport and win you another championship, right?"
Coach grunted, but Dylan could tell he was pleased. "I appreciate it. Now go home and get some rest. Three hours a day with those kids will wear you out quicker than sprint drills."
"I hear you, sir. See you Monday."
Dylan went to the parking lot, feet dragging. It's not that he didn't want to go home — home was fine. He just felt like there was more to do here. There was always more to do. Still, protecting his arm had to be a priority, and pulling his shoulder dragging equipment around would suck. So much was riding on this clinic, though. Being able to teach and coach would prove he had what it took. So what if his fastball was ninety miles per hour?
He needed confidence.
Most pitchers had a diva complex — he'd heard that from everyone, including Tristan — but did they have soul-crushing doubt before games? Probably not. He liked to win, and he didn't like quitting, but it was so hard to power through sometimes. Teaching the little guys, showing them how to throw, seemed like a great way to prove to himself that he knew what he was doing and to stop freaking out over every minute detail.
Hopefully it worked.
And if it didn't? If it didn't ... he couldn't think about that. Not yet. He couldn't think about his parents, knowing they secretly hoped he'd go on to college. He wouldn't think about blowing it in front of scouts next season.
His breath hitched and his pulse sped up. A bead of sweat ran down his temple. Dylan started his car — a Porsche crossover handed down from his mom — and turned on the A/C. Calm down, asshole. You're fine.
But the little voice in his head kept telling him he wasn't good enough ... and he had no idea how to shut it off.
"Who made this?" The girl in the front of the shop sounded impressed. "Come look!"
"A corset? With ...what are those? Clockwork bats?" The other girl sounded less impressed. "Seriously, those are bats."
"I want it," the first girl said. "It's so ... so ... me."
The second girl laughed. "Well, that's kind of true."
As their footsteps approached, Lucy looked up from the needlepoint version of Harley Quinn's baseball bat she was doing for a customer who was really into cosplay. It was going onto a satin jacket and the work was super detailed.
The girls stood at the counter. They went to Suttonville ... probably ... but Lucy didn't know them. The petite girl holding the purple corset with the bats had an almost matching purple streak in her hair.
"Oh," Lucy said, appreciative. "That's perfect for you."
The tiny girl stood taller and her friend — a slim, blond cheerleader type — rolled her eyes. "Don't encourage her."
"Why not?" Lucy beamed at the tiny girl. "Something tells me you enjoy a little mayhem, yes?"
The tiny girl's eyes widened. "Why yes, I do."
Lucy nodded. "Thought so. Pair that corset with a black tutu and ripped tights, and you'll slay Halloween."
"I'll take it." The girl handed her a credit card.
"You didn't ask how much." Lucy frowned. The corset was a hundred and twenty-five dollars.
The tiny girl waved a hand. "No price is too much for a slayed Halloween. I'm having a party, and I want everything to be epic." She pointed at her friend. "Epic, I say."
I do like customers with money. Customers with sass and money are even better. "Your wish is my command. I always have unique pieces, in case you need something else. I'm Lucy. Just ask for me when you come in."
The tiny girl nodded toward her friend. "How about something for her?"
The cheerleader girl shot her friend an affectionate, if annoyed, glance. "Speaking of tutus, how much is the pink one, with the ballet shoes on it."
"My little sis will love it." She forked over a credit card, too. Lucy grinned. Mom would freak when she heard that Lucy had sold two pieces before noon. She did a steady trade, especially through an online specialty shop, but selling two big pieces at the store was unheard of. She charged the girls' cards, then wrapped their buys. "You two come back sometime."
"You have talent," the cheerleader said in admiration. "I've never seen embroidery like this before. Where did you learn to do it?"
"My grandma was big into needlepoint. She taught me when I was little, mostly to keep me busy and out of trouble. I added my own spin later." Lucy shrugged, hiding the pride fluttering in her chest. "It's a fun hobby."
The tiny girl shook her head. "Not hobby. Art."
"Thanks, I appreciate that." Lucy waved as they left the shop, then danced around behind the counter for a full minute. It had taken a year to convince her mom to show some of her pieces in the store. "It's for older ladies who like to quilt, hon. Your work is ... a little too avant-garde for my regulars." Now, though, people who never would've come by stopped in to look at the crazy needlepoint designs. Most of them even bought something.
Lucy went to the workroom in the back of the shop and settled into her chair. The bright lamp she used when doing detail work shown hot onto the satin jacket as she picked up her needle and continued to stitch the "d" in "Good Night". The diamond patterns had turned out great, and if she could finish the lettering by today, she could move onto the clockwork storks on the baby blanket commission she'd received yesterday, along with the other three projects still waiting.
This was going to be a busy summer.
The bell above the front door dinged, and her mom's voice floated back to the workroom. "I know it starts Monday. I didn't forget. It's just that I have that quilting seminar starting. Let's ask Lucy. I'm sure she can drive you."
"But she always gets lost!" Otis protested. "Always. She got lost taking me home from school, and she went there!"
"Hey!" Lucy called. "I haven't been at Bluebonnet for six years. Cut me some slack."
Her nine-year-old brother stepped into the doorway, scowling. "It's two blocks from home."
"I missed one turn, doofus." Lucy laughed. "But what are y'all talking about?"
Mom stopped by Lucy's worktable, nodding appreciatively at the jacket. "That's turning out nice. Not sure why a grown woman wants a cartoon baseball bat on a two-hundred-dollar jacket, but you've done well with it."
Lucy flushed. Mom's praise was a rare thing — it had to be earned. "Thanks. But where am I taking Otis?"
"Oh! He starts that half-day baseball camp at the high school on Monday. I have a new quilting class at the exact same time for the next two weeks, so I need you to drive him."
Otis let his forehead fall against the wall. "We'll get loosssst."
Lucy rolled her eyes. "I know where Suttonville High is. I've gone there for three years, remember? We won't get lost."
"Of course you won't," Mom said, trying not to laugh. "And Lucy has GPS on her phone if you're that worried."
"Doesn't matter." Otis sounded so despondent that Lucy laughed.
"You are one dramatic nine-year-old." She went back to stitching the jacket. She could totally drive to school, and the athletic fields had to be behind the main campus somewhere. "It'll be fine. I promise."
"Okay." He clomped by on his way to the tiny room Mom had set up as a playroom when Lucy was little and she'd had to bring her to work. When Otis inherited it, he'd taken out the dolls and installed a PlayStation. "We have to be there at eight-thirty to register, and the camp starts at nine. The Sentinels won state, and their best pitcher will be my coach, so we can't be late."
"I swear I'll have you there by eight-thirty." Because why wouldn't she be up at such an ungodly hour on a Monday during summer? And who would want to spend three hours hitting balls with sticks? Still, she'd do anything for Otis. He'd wrapped her around his little finger the first time she'd laid eyes on the chubby newborn at the hospital. And he knew it. "Mom, Serena and I want to go out tomorrow night."
"Where are you going? When will you be home?"
"Why always two questions at once? Why so suspicious?" Lucy grinned at her mother's pursed mouth. "Okay, okay. We're going to the lake. Serena's dad is letting us take the boat out for a few hours."
Mom's eyes narrowed. "Is that all?"
Lucy held up her hands. "What else could there be?"
"I still remember receiving a call saying you and Serena stole a dog from down the street."
Lucy scowled. "The owner was abusing the poor thing."
"And what about the time you spray painted 'Down with Fascists' on a placard outside city hall?"
At least she hadn't sprayed it on the wall ... and she'd done four hours of community service for it, too. "They're voting to stop allowing livestock inside town lines. Serena's dad is worried they won't let him keep his free-range farm!"
Mom crossed her arms. "And the time you were out until one chasing shooting stars?"
Lucy squirmed. "That was two years ago."
"Honey, I have no problem with you hanging out with Serena. Just ... try to temper the passion a little, huh?" She patted Lucy's back and went to the front to work on receipts.
Lucy flopped into her chair. Curb her passions? It wasn't enough that she was working her butt off on her needlepoint, but she'd been helping in the store and watching Otis, too. With Dad stationed overseas, she'd really reined it in to help her mom, but a girl needed a little mischief from time to time. She wasn't hurting anyone, and she never would. All her "incidents" came from a helpful place. So what if she was kind of a mess — life was messy, and she fully intended to live it.
Dylan was in the dugout, preparing the equipment, by seven-thirty Monday morning. When Tristan stumbled in at eight, looking like he needed a giant cup of coffee, he groaned. "Dylan, man, this is excessive. They're little leaguers."
"It's recruiting." He threw a couple more balls into the pitchers' box. "We're teachers. We need to be on top of stuff."
Tristan grumbled but came to help drag everything out onto the field. Water jugs were set up on tables outside the foul lines on third and first, the grass was freshly mowed, and the infield dirt was pristine. If that didn't impress the parents who shelled out three hundred bucks for this camp, Dylan didn't know what would. This would be the best camp the Sentinels ever put on — that was the mission.
The first campers started showing up for registration around eight-twenty. A few underclassmen were working the sign-in table, sending kids to Dylan if they were pitchers, and to Tristan if they were outfielders. Nate Rodriquez had the infielders. He was an upcoming junior and a wicked shortstop. They made a good set of captains.
The first kid through the gate ran straight at Tristan. "I'm Corey and you're Tristan Murrell."
"Hi, Corey." He shot Dylan an amused look over Corey's head. "You play centerfield?"
"Just like you!" The kid prattled on as Tristan directed him farther out into the field.
Nate watched, laughing. "Remember being that age and thinking the high school guys were heroes?"
Dylan nodded. "That's why I want this to be perfect. These kids don't know we're human."
"Aw, c'mon. We are human. I'm a Mexican-Irish kid who hates tamales and shepherd's pie. If that's not human, I don't know what is."
"I'd eat both of those things." Dylan watched as more cars rolled up and kids climbed out. "I don't mean act untouchable ... I meant we have to preserve the illusion. It's like at Disney World — you have to be at least sixteen to do the 'Behind the Magic' tour. They want to save the magic for the kids. They look up to us, you know?"
"Hey!" Jeremy Ledecky, their new right fielder, came jogging over. "Two campers forgot their gloves. Think Coach will care if I pull some from the equipment room?"
Excerpted from "The Perfectly Imperfect Match"
Copyright © 2017 Kendra C. Highley.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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