Authors: Jennifer Bernard
For my wonderful husband Scott, whose
love and support mean everything.
HANKS ARE DUE
to Kristy, Steph and Lizbeth for helping this story grow. To my brilliant editor, Tessa Woodward, I can never send enough gratitude, though I’ll keep trying. Without Alexandra Machinist, I might not be writing these words. Thanks for your constant support. The Avon team—Tom, Pam, Kaitlyn, Elle, Jessie, Shawn, Dana, and so many more—continues to amaze me. Thanks to one and all. Lastly, thank you to Wendy and the Hot Readers for making this writing gig so much fun.
T’S A RARE
baseball game that ends with the star slugger being chased with a BB gun. But no one who knew Trevor Stark would have been surprised by the news. The Kilby Catfish left fielder had a certain way about him, a way that made women lose their minds and men lose their cool. It had been that way his whole life. One of these days, people often said, Trevor Stark was going to run into trouble he couldn’t get out of.
If that day had come, on a Saturday in July, Trevor had no inkling of it when he stepped onto the field at Catfish Stadium. The banks of lights aimed at the diamond lent a haze of lavender to the early evening sky. A friendly sort of roar drifted from the bleachers, a mixture of lazy chatter and cracking peanut shells. The sound system was playing some country song Trevor didn’t recognize, and the heady scent of dust and grass and leather made something inside him settle into place. He loved baseball. Loved every second on the field, and merely endured the seconds off it.
On the mound, the pitcher was warming up, the
of his fastballs drilling into the catcher’s mitt. Heading for his spot in left field, Trevor deliberately
stepped on the chalk line between foul territory and the infield. Touching the line was known to be bad luck—unless you were one of those players who believed the opposite. Trevor believed in facing bad luck head-on, armed with cleats and a cup.
“Hey Trev.” Bieberman, on his way to his spot at shortstop, popped up next to him. Bieberman, whose real name was Jim Leiberman, looked enough like Justin Bieber to allow his teammates to torment him with that nickname. “Did you hear the news about Crush?”
Crush Taylor, former pitching legend, owned the Catfish and had been riding Trevor’s ass since last season.
“You lost me at ‘Crush.’ I break out in smallpox when I hear his name.”
“Smallpox was eradicated in 1980,” chirped Bieberman, a former med student who had all kinds of random facts at his disposal.
“I’m bringin’ it back.”
Dwight Conner, the center fielder, jogged past. Dwight was his closest friend on the team. Trevor still didn’t know how that had happened; normally he avoided friendships, along with relationships in general. “Bringing what back? Forget that, did you hear about Crush?”
Bieberman answered quickly. “I was just saying that he went on TV and promised to win the Triple A championship. He said if we don’t, he’ll sell the team to the jackass Wade family. His words.”
Trevor glanced at the owner’s box, where Crush Taylor spent most games drinking from his ubiquitous silver flask and flirting with his lady-of-the-moment.
“By the time that happens, I’m going to be outta the Catfish into the Friars,” said Dwight with a grin. “Fried Catfish, that’s me.”
As usual, the mention of the San Diego Friars, the major league team that held his contract, made Trevor’s gut roil. Most players lived for “the Call,” but not Trevor. If he had his way, he’d never get permanently called up to the Friars. He’d stay right here, where no one knew him. He wanted one thing—to keep his sister Nina safe and anonymous, which would
happen if he played in the majors.
But he couldn’t let anyone in baseball know his true situation, so he continued with his usual act. The legend of Trevor Stark, selfish, arrogant bastard. “Why should I care who buys the team?” he said to Dwight. “I care about Trevor Stark only. Trevor Stark should not be stuck here in Limbo, Texas. Hell, I don’t even like barbecue. And I can hit these Triple A pitchers with my eyes closed.”
“Hey, Gossip Girls,” yelled Duke, the manager. “Shut up and get your butts on the field.”
With a gesture of apology, Trevor sped up to a jog, parting ways with Dwight, now headed toward center field.
“Buy me a Lone Star after the game and I won’t bust you on the barbecue thing,” Dwight called as he settled into position. “That could get you shot around here.”
“You’re on.” Trevor faced the infield, where the first Albuquerque Isotope batter was just leaving the on-deck circle. He adjusted his cap to shield his eyes from the glare of the lights, and that’s when he caught sight of the homemade sign in the stands. Kilby fans were known for their expressiveness at the ballpark.
, it read, but the
had been crossed off and replaced with
That seemed like a stretch, even though Trevor knew he wasn’t a popular player like Dwight. Everyone loved Dwight; Trevor tended to inspire the op
posite emotion. Let Dwight be the charmer. Let Bieberman be the cute and cuddly one. Trevor Stark was all about mental toughness, mystery, and intimidation.
Block it out
. The guy was probably an Isotope fan trying to rattle the competition.
With two outs, someone finally made contact. A sharp
carried across the field, accompanied by a rising roar from the crowd. A fly ball was heading toward the outfield.
“It’s all you, baby,” called Dwight.
Trevor loped left, then slowed to a gentle drift, tracking the ball on its spinning descent. He jogged back, back, back, until he knew the outfield wall was just behind him. The ball was taking forever up there, as if it had caught a wind current headed to the Gulf of Mexico. As it finally headed for the ground, he leaped into the air and got a glove on it. It bounced off, and he had to lunge in a kind of split-leg pirouette to snatch it back into the webbing. The crowd roared.
He held up his glove with the ball nestled inside.
“Trevor, Trevor!” In the stands, a teenage kid selling peanuts waved to him. Trevor ignored him. He knew Brian pretty well from the Boys and Girls Club. Good kid trying to bring in some extra cash for the family. But when he’d gotten Brian the job here, he warned him that was the extent of his help. What was the kid doing grinning at him like that?
Instead he tossed the ball to a little boy jumping up and down next to a pretty blond woman. “Come find me after the game and I’ll sign it,” he called to the boy—and his hot mother—as he and Dwight jogged off the field. On the way to the dugout, he caught sight of another homemade sign.
Trevor Skank. You suck
Trevor shook his head.
Bring it on, hecklers
. That sort of thing just fueled his drive.
In the dugout, he left his glove on the bench and pulled on his batting gloves, since he was batting third. Duke, the manager, called over to him. “Message from Crush. He says stop flirting with the ladies in the stands and get your pretty face on base.”
Trevor gritted his teeth. “Crush can kiss my ass. Times three. Triple into right field, coming up.”
The other Catfish jeered and scoffed, which made sense because this wasn’t pool, this was baseball.
But now that he’d made that statement, he had to do his best to make it happen. The “legend of Trevor Stark” constantly needed more material. He was a big guy, with lots of power in his arms and shoulders, but his biggest weapon was his ice-cold manner at the plate, the way he refused to be intimidated, the way nothing rattled him. Nothing on a baseball field fazed him because off the field he’d faced the worst already.
When it was his turn at bat, he carefully worked the count. On the ninth pitch, the pitcher threw way inside, so close that he felt the movement of air milliseconds from his face. An attempted brushback. He stepped closer to the plate, defending it like a barbarian with a spiked mace. Will versus will. Stamina versus stamina.
Pitch number ten was a too-slow curveball, weighed down by the pitcher’s disheartened fatigue.
Trevor drilled it into right field. Stand-up triple.
In the dugout, Dwight flipped him the bird, while the rest of his teammates jumped up and cheered. Truth was, he’d gotten lucky, but hell if he’d tell anyone that. Mystery and intimidation. Name of the game.
The game ended in a win for the Catfish. On the way to the clubhouse, he paused to sign the baseball
he’d tossed to the kid. The boy’s sexy mother mouthed something to him, but he just gave her a wave and continued into the clubhouse. Honestly, some nights he preferred quiet and a good book.
After his shower, he’d barely gotten his shirt on before Sean Richards, a reporter from the local cable station, stuck a microphone in his face.
“Trevor Stark, you’re the Friars top prospect, but you’ve only played two games in San Diego. They spent a record amount on your contract, you broke two hitting records back in Double A, but once again you’re back in Kilby. What’s the reason for that, in your opinion?”
Trevor hated this line of questioning. Each year, he made it impossible for the Friars to call him up. A well-timed scandal, a DUI arrest, an injury. But that information was locked in the vault.
“You know what?” he said. “I don’t think about that kind of thing. When I’m on that field, I’m there to do my best and help my team. Right now my team is the Catfish, and I think we have a good shot at the Triple A championship this year.”
Richards, a lanky kid right out of college with a soul patch and gauged ears, brightened. “So you support Crush Taylor’s mission?”
Trevor suppressed a grin. Distraction accomplished. “Of course I support it. Just like the Catfish fans support us. We want to bring it on home for the fine people of Kilby.”
Across the clubhouse, Sonny Barnes was making the universal sign for blowjob, and Dwight Conner was doing the “slow clap.”
Trevor shot them a below-camera-level finger while continuing to gaze earnestly at the reporter. “Us Catfish, we play our hearts out every single game, and hopefully it shows.”
“Heart? That’s not usually a word associated with Trevor Stark. People say you’re made of ice out there. You never get rattled, never show emotion.”
“Well, Sean, I have a heart. I just try not to let it affect me on the field.” He paused. “Or off.” He winked at the kid and clapped him on the shoulder.
Sean grinned and lowered his camera. “Thanks, Trevor. Good game tonight.”
ll in all, Trevor was feeling pretty good about things as he shouldered his gym bag and ambled down the tunnel that led to the exit.
Stepping outside Catfish Stadium, he drew in a long breath of warm, exhaust-scented air. The parking lot was nearly empty; he’d taken his time getting dressed, putting off the moment when he had to leave the ballpark. In the far corner of the lot, Ramirez was wrapped so tightly around his wife that the two of them could barely walk. Trevor wondered briefly what that kind of intimacy might feel like, then dismissed the thought, since he didn’t expect to ever find out.
As he reached the edge of the parking lot, a man stepped from the shadows, his hand in the pocket of his bulky military jacket.
A cold rush of adrenaline flooded his system. This was it. His past coming back to stalk him. He’d feared this day since he got out of juvie. Being hunted, found, punished.
He dove behind the nearest car, using it as a shield.
“You’d better run, Trevor Fucking Stark, ’cuz I got a BB gun and I’m going to hurt you!” The man spoke in a high, whiny voice, like he’d had a few six-packs too many.
The death grip of fear around Trevor’s lungs loosened. This wasn’t anyone from Detroit. If those guys came after him, they’d have real firepower, and they wouldn’t be wasted. They’d mean business. Crazy local dudes, on the other hand, he could handle.
Trevor scanned the parking lot. He’d parked his Escalade in the usual spot, but there was no way he could reach it without giving the guy a clear shot at him. Behind him lay the shadowed corner where kids sometimes snuck under the chain-link fence. If he could crawl backward without the guy seeing him . . .
He glanced at the players’ exit. He needed a distraction. But the shadowed double doors offered no help. If only he could grab his bag, with his cell phone and a couple of baseballs. But it was just out of reach, where it had fallen when he dove for cover.
The man was striding toward the car, a Jetta which he was pretty sure belonged to Terry, the physical therapist. If he hurt her car, he’d never hear the end of it.
Talk to the guy. Talk him down.
“Look, sir, can we talk about this before you get yourself in trouble?” Trevor called. “There’s gotta be a way we can work this out.”
“Did you bother to talk to me before you screwed my girl?” the man shouted.
“If I did that, I apologize. I would never screw someone else’s girl. If you know me at all, you know it’s true.”
Silence. Trevor peered under the car. The dim outline of cowboy boots a few yards away reassured him that at least the man wasn’t right on top of him.
“Listen, man. I know my reputation, and there’s a few things in my past I’m not proud of, but I think there’s a chance this might be a misunderstanding. I’m not sure I know who we’re talking about here.”
Wrong move. “I guess she just slipped your mind, then, dickbrain.” The cowboy boots moved forward. “Aisle six at the Walgreens? She gave you a neck massage. Now she says you’re her soulmate. Fucking asshole.”
What the . . . ?
Trevor remembered his headache, and the shy girl in a baggy denim dress who’d told him about her acupressure classes. “Nothing happened, man. Of course I remember her, but we didn’t do anything more than talk.”
“That ain’t what she says. She says you
“Well, sure, maybe on a friendly level. She’s a sweet girl. You’re a very lucky man to have a good woman like her. Do you think it’s going to impress her if you get arrested? It won’t, I guarantee.”
In answer, a spray of BBs glanced off the trunk of the car with light metallic pings.
Holy fuck, this guy is serious.
Ironic that he was going to get shot over a completely innocent encounter at a Walgreen’s, when he’d done so many worse things in the past.
Well, maybe he deserved it. It wouldn’t exactly be a big loss to the world if Trevor Stark wound up dead in the parking lot of a nowheresville Triple A stadium. Duke would be pissed. Dwight would miss him in the outfield. A large number of women would be sad for a moment, then decide he probably had it coming.