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Authors: Cheryl Douglas

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BOOK: Strike Out
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Rennie sank down in a chair, tears falling down her cheeks as she bowed her head to pray for understanding and forgiveness. She prayed that her baby wouldn’t stop loving her when he found out what she’d done.

Marian sighed and stroked her daughter’s back gently. “I don’t know why you did what you did all those years ago, honey. All I know is that it isn’t right. No matter what Zach did, it couldn’t have been bad enough for you to decide he didn’t deserve to be a father to his son.”

“He didn’t want Tyler. He said so himself,” she said, sobbing. “I was just trying to protect my baby. I didn’t want him to grow up trying to earn his father’s love or feeling as though his dad resented him. I had to think about what was best for Tyler.”

Marian ran her daughter’s long blond ponytail through her hand. “You told Zach you were pregnant, and he said he didn’t want the baby? That doesn’t sound like him.”

“No, I overheard a conversation he and Kevin had.” Rennie reached for a paper napkin in a ceramic holder on the table. “It was the night before the wedding.”

“I see.” Marian claimed the chair next to her daughter. “That’s why you ran away.”

“I didn’t think I had a choice. I was angry with Zach at first. Maybe a part of me left because I wanted to hurt him.” She brushed away her tears with the napkin and toyed with the edges to avoid looking at her mother. “Eventually, I had to let go of the anger because I saw so much of him in our son. I knew I couldn’t love our son as much as I did and hate his father.”

“Yet you didn’t tell Zach, not even after Nathan died. Why?”

She knew Zach would ask that question, so she decided to practice her response on her mother. Maybe if she could make her mother believe that her heart had been in the right place, she could make Zach believe it too. “Tyler was such a happy baby. He was so well-adjusted, and he and Nathan developed this wonderful bond.” Rennie knew she couldn’t share that part with Zach. “Zach wasn’t ready for a family, so I thought I was doing what was best for everyone by raising Tyler with Nathan. My husband got the child he’d always wanted, I had the love and support I needed, my son had a father who adored him, and Zach was free to live his life without raising a child he didn’t want.”

“Oh, honey,” Marian said, reaching for her daughter’s hand. “I can understand why you did what you did, but you had to know the truth would come out eventually. Especially when you came home. Richland Hills is a small town. It was only a matter of time before Zach’s parents ran into Tyler somewhere and put the pieces together.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the whole story before.” Rennie felt a little better after coming clean with her mother.

“It’s not me you should be apologizing to,” Marian said, patting her hand. “Zach and his parents have missed out on the first ten years of that little boy’s life. I can’t imagine how they’re going to feel.”

“Neither can I,” Rennie whispered. “Neither can I.”

 

***

 

Zach managed to get all of his teammates to sign a jersey and ball for Tyler before he left the stadium. He knew that’s exactly what a baseball fan his age would want, but he was still nervous when he walked into the Baldwins’ large backyard. He’d spent half his life there, but everything was different. He felt like an outsider intruding on Rennie’s family’s party.

Chuck spotted him right away and made his way toward him with a cold beer. “Hey, your parents said you were stopping by.” He pressed the bottle into Zach’s hand. “Too bad you guys weren’t able to score a win today. You pitched a hell of a game.”

“Thanks.” Zach tipped the bottle back, enjoying the refreshment after a hot day in the sun. He had to fly out later for a game the next day. He would have to stop at one beer, so he intended to savor it. “But weren’t you supposed to be supervising your grandson’s birthday party?”

Chuck laughed and slapped Zach’s back. “Don’t tell my wife, but I snuck inside every few minutes so I could see what was happening.”

“I won’t tell.” Zach grinned until he spotted a little boy with dark-blond hair playing with a man in the pool. He couldn’t see the kid’s face, but they reminded him that some other man had stolen his life with Rennie. Coming there was a bad idea…

“There you are,” his mother, Lenora, said, coming up behind him. She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Nice game today.”

“Thanks.” Zach smiled when she slipped her arm through his. He and his parents had always been close, which was why he was happy he’d gotten traded to the Rangers. He hoped to finish out his career at home.

“I have to run back inside and grab some more burgers,” Chuck said. “It looks like this party isn’t winding down anytime soon.” He winked at his old friend. “We’re getting too old for this, aren’t we?”

Lenora slipped her sunglasses up on her head, securing her artfully highlighted blond hair. “Speak for yourself, old-timer. I’ve never felt younger.”

Chuck was still laughing when he walked away, making Zach smile. They were his people in the place he’d always felt he belonged. He hadn’t even realized how much he’d missed it until he walked through the back gate. His mind flooded with memories of some of the best years of his life.

“Have you met Tyler, Zach?” Lenora watched the children taking turns diving off the diving board.

“No. Why?”

Her grip on his bicep tightened. “Do you know how old he is?”

“He must be turning nine, right?”

Lenora glanced at a buffet table where a half-eaten birthday cake rested. The beer bottle nearly slipped from his hand when he zeroed in on the rainbow-colored candle in the shape of a number ten.
What the hell?
“He’s ten?” Zach could barely breathe as reality closed in on him.

“You know what this means, don’t you?”

“You don’t think…” He could barely say the words. “Do you think Rennie cheated on me?” The fierce pain in his stomach told him he knew better than to question her fidelity, but surely she wouldn’t have left town if she’d been carrying his baby.

Lenora’s eyes filled with tears. “No, honey. I just met Tyler. There’s no question he’s your son.”

“But how do you know for sure…” He saw a little boy jump out of the pool and make a beeline for him while Jackie yelled at him to stop running near the pool. One look at Tyler answered his question. Zach hadn’t seen it in the picture on Rennie’s desk because the little boy’s eyes and hair had been hidden by a baseball cap. Looking into his eyes…
He was his son.
“Oh my God.”

“I know,” his mother whispered. “He looks just like you did at that age.”

Zach stared at the little boy running toward him, and he saw himself reflected in those dark eyes. Dropping to one knee, he knew onlookers would think he was meeting the child at his level, but in reality, his legs couldn’t have supported his weight if his life depended on it.

“You made it!” Tyler cried, halting mere inches from Zach.

The pull was magnetic, and Zach knew Tyler felt it too. The boy couldn’t possibly understand what he was feeling. The urge to swoop Tyler up and hug him was almost impossible to ignore, but he didn’t want to scare him or set off a series of questions he couldn’t answer. Zach said, “Of course I came. I promised I would, didn’t I?” As long as he lived, he would never break a promise to the kid.

“Yeah, but my mom is always telling me how busy you are,” he said, shrugging. He looked down at his bare feet. “She’s gonna be real mad that I called you.”

Zach had never been so furious and hurt. How could Rennie have done that? What possible reason could she have had for keeping him from his child? He knew he needed to cool down before he faced his son’s mother. He couldn’t trust himself not to make a scene, and he didn’t want to ruin Tyler’s tenth birthday party.
Ten
. His son was ten, and Zach had to come to terms with the fact that he’d missed out on so much… because another man was raising
his
son. There was so much he wanted to say, so much he needed to tell his son, but he couldn’t. They would have to break it to him gently, but a part of Zach resented waiting another minute to let Tyler know he was his. “I’ll handle your mama. Are you having a good party so far?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great,” Tyler said, a wide smile spreading across his face. “Especially now that you’re here. I told my friends you were coming, but they didn’t believe me.”

Zach saw a group of a dozen boys, who looked as though they ranged in age from ten to twelve, huddled together, whispering and pointing at Zach. He lifted a hand to acknowledge the kids. He would have to greet them later, but the only kid he was interested in spending time with was his own. “Listen, I have a present for you in the car. Why don’t we go and grab it?”

“Zach,” Lenora said, placing her hand on her son’s shoulder, “don’t you think you should check with his mother first?”

He didn’t think he could stand to look at Rennie, much less ask her permission to spend a few minutes alone with the son she’d made it her life’s mission to keep from him. “If she asks, tell her we’ll be right back.” Zach stood up, realizing his mother was probably as anxious to make Tyler’s acquaintance as he had been. “Hey, buddy, this is my mama.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Foster,” Tyler said shyly.

Zach’s heart swelled with pride. Even though he’d had nothing to do with instilling those impeccable manners in Tyler, he couldn’t help himself. He was his son.
His son
. And Zach wanted the whole world to know. He caught Jackie watching them, and that’s when he realized they’d all been in on Rennie’s secret. For years, he’d treated those people like family, even after Rennie left, because he loved and trusted them. He had to face facts—they’d executed the ultimate betrayal.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Tyler,” Lenora said with a watery smile as she bent to slip her hand into his. “Happy birthday, by the way. I heard you like golf, so we bought you a gift certificate for golf camp and private lessons with one of our pros this summer.”

“Seriously?” Tyler’s dark eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “That’d be awesome!”

“So you like sports, huh, kid?” Zach ruffled Tyler’s hair. His hair was the exact same color as Zach’s—dark-blond with brown and lighter blond streaks.

“Are you kidding? Sports are pretty much my life.” He grinned. “I wanna be a professional pitcher just like you when I grow up, Zach.”

Zach.
He couldn’t wait for the day when Tyler would call him Dad. “Good thing you’re getting started young then. It’s hard work, but with the right combination of talent and luck, it could happen.” The chances of the average kid becoming a professional athlete with akin to their parents winning the lottery, but he would die before he’d quash his son’s dreams. If his parents hadn’t believed in him and taught him to believe in himself, he wouldn’t be where he was.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” Tyler said, lifting his chin.

Zach’s lips quirked. “You know, the right coaching could go a long way to helping you.”

“My dad used to coach my teams.” His eyes fell to a butterfly flitting around a nearby bush.

The last thing Zach wanted to talk about was the man who had taken his place. He put his arm around Tyler’s shoulder and said, “Why don’t we head out to the car and get your present? I have a feeling you’re going to like it.”

Tyler looked at the patio door. “I think my mom’s in there talking to my nana. Maybe I should tell her I’ll be right back.”

“That’s okay.” Zach exchanged a look with his mother. “You don’t mind telling Rennie if you see her, do you?”

“No problem,” Lenora said, smiling at Tyler. “You boys go on ahead. Have fun.”

Zach was angry that his parents had been robbed of the opportunity to see their grandson grow up. They’d been incredible parents, loving and supportive, and they were already wonderful grandparents to Kevin’s son, but he wanted to see them with his son. He wanted Tyler to know who they were, to develop a relationship with them and learn to love them as much as he did.

“It was really cool of you to come,” Tyler said, looking up at him. “I’m sure you had better things to do than come to some ten-year-old kid’s birthday party.”

How could Zach tell him there was nowhere he would rather be and no one he would rather be with? “Thanks for inviting me. I think we’re gonna have a blast. In fact, this was exactly what I needed after the game we had. I was feeling pretty down.”

“Yeah, I heard you guys lost,” Tyler muttered, kicking a stone. “Too bad.”

Zach smiled. Suddenly, the loss that had seemed to define him only a couple of hours ago really didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was getting to know his son… and figuring out why the hell Rennie had tried to keep Tyler from him. “Yeah, but you win some and lose some, right? It’s part of the game.”

“Oh wow,” Tyler said, his brown eyes widening when he spotted Zach’s yellow Ferrari. “Is that your car?”

“It sure is.” A sports car was the first thing he had purchased when he got his first big contract, much to Rennie’s irritation. She told him it was dangerous. He promised he would be careful because she gave him a reason to come home every night. God, he’d loved that woman. Even now, when he felt something akin to hatred for her, he couldn’t quash his elation that they shared a son. Whether Rennie liked it or not, he would be a part of her life forever.

“Can you take me for a ride?” Tyler asked, walking slowly around the car.

“We’d have to ask your mom first, kid.” Rennie would panic if she found out he’d taken Tyler without permission. They had a lot of lost time to make up for, but unlike her, he would never try to keep his child from his parent.

“Can we go ask her now?”

Zach chuckled. “It’s not cool to bail on your own birthday party. Maybe some other time.”

“Promise?” Tyler asked, looking hopeful.

“I promise.” He knew Tyler would be spending a lot of time in his car. In fact, every chance Zach got. If Rennie didn’t like it, she could take it up with his lawyer. Zach reached into the car to retrieve the gift bag he’d picked up on the way. “I hope you like it.”

Tyler pulled out the shirt first and held it up after he set the bag on the ground. “Oh wow. Seriously? This is amazing.”

BOOK: Strike Out
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